February 2, 2014 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I've always wondered how cartoonist create their strips. But I've started to notice that many of them choose simple body shapes and repeat expressions or only use a few settings or locations. Where can I read a straightforward explanation about the how and why of the creative process for making cartoons?
posted by CollectiveMind to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

I came to recommend the same book as michaelh. :-)
posted by jrobin276 at 10:16 PM on February 2, 2014

There's a lot about history and panel usage, and just a lot of enjoyable stuff in Scott McLoud's "Understanding Comics".
posted by umberto at 10:41 PM on February 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

For the most part you're describing "gag" cartoon strips - with a short sequence of panels, printed small. But the history of newspaper comics is incredibly varied. Check out this review of a book called Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 to get a small taste of the origins of the strip. When I was a kid first loving comic strips, in the 1970s and 1980s they were shrinking ever more. "OOF!" The Comics are Shrinking by Mike Talley appears to be from about 2002 talking about this history of shrinking:
In effect, cartoonists are forced to draw simple, static, easy-to-see characters in tiny panels. Lettering must be large and brief for the comic to be legible.
And check out the "Size" portion of the wikipedia article for Comic Strip. I will 2nd "Understanding Comics" as a good primer for comic books and sequential art, and to some extent newspaper strips as well. The Comics Journal is a decades old magazine that takes a serious look at comics and comics history, and has had interviews with many prominent newspaper strip creators over the years. And of course the decline of printed newspapers and rise of online comics changes the game even further.

Is your intent trying to distill the experience of creators to something common? Or a desire to get started cartooning yourself? Or something else?
posted by artlung at 11:03 PM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should check out Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice by Ivan Brunetti. It's directed at people who want to make cartoons and it really distills the why of cartooning as well as the how.
posted by smartyboots at 11:38 PM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Probably more aimed at comic book art than strip art, but Wally Wood's Panels That Always Work is invaluable.
posted by zombiedance at 11:54 PM on February 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

The book was recommended for my Design Languages class i.e. its a graduate school textbook,

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics wiki link
posted by infini at 12:47 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Famous Artists School cartooning course was directed at those wanting to become professional cartoonists, but it will give you a great look into how comic strips were created in the Golden Age.

I've started to notice that many of them choose simple body shapes and repeat expressions or only use a few settings or locations

I just finished writing/drawing a comic book that was drawn in an old-timey-comic-strip style, so I can give you at least my thoughts on this:

Comic strips usually don't take up very much space (at least not since the early 1900s). That means that composition (the organization of the visual elements) has to be very simple and clear. There's an old expression, "If it reads as a postage stamp, it'll read as a billboard." People skim comic strips and if you don't make it instantaneously clear what is happening in the panel, it's unlikely that your reader will have the patience to try and figure it out.

Cartoonists have developed strategies to simplify the visual communication of their ideas. Characters become more stylized, and props become symbolic/iconic instead of lifelike. Backgrounds become less detailed except for big "establishing shot" panels. All you need is the suggestion of the setting, and adding more than that can distract the reader from the story.

There's also the simple fact of efficiency. You've got to draw and draw and redraw and draw some more, so you don't want to add unnecessary "line mileage" to your characters. If the character has three hairs sticking up out of his head instead of five, you've saved yourself two lines -- multiply that by a thousand strips, and you get the idea.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:54 AM on February 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I first read Understanding Comics in an undergrad 100-level literature class, so don't let that "grad school" tag sound too scary. It's a solid, approachable book. (I also referenced it in a journal article, FWIW).
posted by Alterscape at 8:19 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions and I will be buying or checking these books out at the library. Thank you.
posted by CollectiveMind at 10:08 AM on February 3, 2014

You might be interested in a new documentary called Stripped which is specifically about newspaper cartooning. More info.
posted by artlung at 4:56 PM on February 26, 2014

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