Drawing Words and Writing Pictures

Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

First Second

An Eisner Award Nominee

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is a course on comic creation—for the classroom or for independent study—that centers on storytelling and concludes with making a finished comic. With chapters on lettering, story structure, and panel layout, the fifteen lessons offered—each complete with homework, extra credit activities and supplementary reading suggestions—provide a solid introduction for people interested in making their own comics.

Additional resources, lessons, and after-class help are available on the accompanying website, www.dw-wp.com.

A Message for Educators from Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

The medium of comics—by which we mean graphic novels, Japanese manga, webcomics, and traditional pamphlets and strips—has taken many departments by storm in recent years, showing up on not only English syllabi, but in subjects from physics to medical ethics to political science. But many teachers, sensing that there’s more there than merely an illustrated story, struggle with how to frame classroom discussion around this sophisticated medium.

We designed Drawing Words & Writing Pictures as a friendly but sophisticated textbook that covers all the fundamentals of making comics but which also functions as a multi-faceted resource for all kinds of teachers.

With 15 chapters to mirror 15 semester weeks, we break up the process of first understanding, and then creating, graphic narratives on any subject. We cover technical issues such as layout and inking, but also subtle conceptual ideas such as pictorial composition and the uses and powers of juxtaposition (between words and images or between one image and another). It’s an essential tool for anyone teaching comics in an art department. What might surprise you is what other uses to which it can be put.

DWWP can help you get a handle on how comics work and what makes it such an effective storytelling tool. Read the first four chapters of DWWP and do a few low-drawing quotient activities in class (such as “Sum of Its Parts,” where you juxtapose a found image with three separate words) and you will prepare students to  decode comics, understanding the complex interaction of words, images, and design that make comics such a compelling and rich medium. For more ideas, visit our website: http://www.dw-wp.com.

Table of Contents
The tsunami of comics: coming to a town near you
Comics education: the time is now
Enter Drawing Words & Writing Pictures
A note on the title

Who is this book for?
    Sidebar: Forming a Nomad group
Organization of the book
Special features
Companion website for students and instructors
1. BUILDING BLOCKS—A working definition of comics, with an introduction to the most frequently used comics terms.

1.1 Know 'em when you see 'em
Defining "comics"
    Will Eisner
    Scott McCloud
    David Kunzle
    What we talk about when we talk about comics
Sidebar: What's in a name?

1.2 Comics terminology
Frequently used terms
Sidebar: Emanata
Sidebar: Can't Draw?  Read this
Activity: Drawing time

Homework: Drawing in action
Extra credit: Directed jam comic

2. EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY—A look at the single-panel comic and how it works.

2.1 Word and image
The juxtaposition of word and image
The single-panel comic
A closer look: Cartoons and beyond
Activity: Gag reflex
Sidebar: Putting pen to paper

Homework: Gag me
Extra credit: Sum of its parts

3. THE STRIP CLUB—A discussion of how multi-panel strips work to tell simple stories, plus an overview of thumbnails.

3.1 A comic a day
Creating a comic strip
Variations in rhythm and pacing
A closer look: Three strips in action
    Bud Fisher's Mud and Jeff
    Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs
    Tony Millionaire's Maakies
Activity: The wrong planet

3.2 Thumbnails
Writing pictures
Creating thumbnails

Homework: Strip it down
Extra Credit: How to read Nancy

4. BRIDGING THE GAP—An introduction to what goes on between comics panels—in other words, panel transitions.

4.1 Reading between the lines
Transitions and closure
Seven types of panel transitions
Activity: Comic Jumble

Homework: Closure Comics
Extra credit: Five-card Nancy

5. PENCILING—An investigation of the pitfalls and strategies of penciling comics, plus a brief look at the basics of drawing the human figure.

5.1 Penciling comics
Ladies and gentlemen, sharpen your pencils!
Penciling pitfalls
Penciling strategies
    Blue Pencil
    Colored pencil
    Map it
    Photocopying or scanning up thumbs
    Drawing outside the box
    Preparatory drawings
Sidebar: Penciling toolbox
Sidebar: A master cartoonist's penciling method
Activity: Pencil one panel three different ways

5.2 Figuring out the figure 1: sticking to the basics
Using "figurettes"

Homework: Penciling
Extra credit: Practice drawing figurettes
Extra credit: Drawing figurettes by tracing photos

6. GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE—An examination of one-page comics and composition at the page level, plus a tutorial in laying out pages, tiers, and panels.

6.1 Elbow room
The one-pager
A closer look: Two masters of the Sunday page
    Segar: The page as story
    Herriman: The page as design
Elements of page design
    The grind
    More approaches to page design
    Reading order
    Title design

6.2 Laying out pages, tiers, and panels
Laying out a page
    Live area
    Inside the live area
    Original art size
    Page ratio
Activity: Lay out your live area

Homework: "A month of Sundays" thumbnails
Extra credit: Comic book book report: Sunday page

7. LETTERING—A focus on lettering, both as an art form and as a technical skill, plus a lesson on using the photocopier effectively.

7.1 Hand lettering
Drawing words
    Lettering is not handwriting
What's with the antique technology?
    A case for upper- and lower-case lettering
    Lettering styles
    Other lettering concerns
Welcome to Ames
Activity: Make lettering guidelines and practice lettering
Sidebar: Making word balloons
Activity: A comic with no pictures

7.2 The photocopier
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Sidebar: Ruling a straight line: some tools that will help

Homework: "A month of Sundays" penciling and lettering
Extra credit: Lettering that speaks for itself

8. INKING THE DEAL—A look at inking with a nib pen, and making corrections to final artwork.

8.1 Inking with a nib pen
What is inking for?
What's a nib pen?
Why nib pens?
Selecting a nib
    Two basic kinds of nibs
    Bowl-pointed nibs
    The thumbnail test
    Nib characteristics
    Buying nib sets
Handling a nib pen
Drawing with a nib pen
Troubleshooting nibs
Sidebar: Inking tools
Sidebar: A word on posture
Activity: Ink your own drawings with a nib

8.2 Making corrections
Basic corrections
Major corrections: Tracing and pasting
Sidebar: Making your corrections stick

Homework: "A month of Sundays" inking
Sidebar: More nib examples in this book
Extra credit: Line for line

9. STRUCTURING STORY—An introduction to the narrative arc, the most fundamental type of story structure.

9.1 The narrative arc
Uncovering story structure: Jessica's tale
The narrative arc
    Why so traditional?
    Why conflict?
Other narrative structures

9.2 The elements of a narrative arc
The five essential ingredients
    1. The protagonist
    2. The spark
    3. The escalation
    4. The climax
    5. The denouement
The narrative arc: constructing a story worth the telling
The five ingredients in action: Cinderella
Activity: Analyze this
Activity: TV writer make believe

Homework: Thumbnails for a six-page story with a narrative arc
Extra credit: Thumbnail a three-page Chip and the Cookie Jar comic

10. GETTING INTO CHARACTER—A discussion of character types and motivations.

10.1 Developing your character
Which comes first—the character or the story?
What is a character?
Character types
    Archetypal characters
    Naturalistic characters
    Intermediate characters
Character motivation
Sidebar: Using drawing to help develop characters
    The antagonist
Show, don't tell
Activity: Play your cards right

Homework: Character pin-ups for your short story
Homework: Finish your short story thumbs
Extra credit: Character mash-up

11. SETTING THE STAGE—A discussion of some of the many aspects of composition at the panel level, and a tutorial on title design.

11.1 Panel design
Building a better panel
Panel problem solving: Four basic considerations
60 panels that just might work
    A few notes on the panels
Sidebar: Film terminology and comics
Panel composition
    Tonal balance
    Reading path
    Internal framing
    Visual rhythm
    Negative space
    Depth of field
Activity: Rethinking composition

11.2 Titles
The importance of title design
Planning your title design
Laying out and inking your title design
    Placement and composition
    Letter measurement and drawing guidelines
    Inking straight letters
    Inking curved letters
    Touch-ups and corrections
Sidebar: Type terminology
Activity: Plan, lay out, and ink a title design for your six-page comic

Homework: Revise your six-page story thumbs and start penciling
Extra credit: Draw a folk tale

12. CONSTRUCTING A WORLD—A focus on creating a believable comics world, plus a brief look at drawing heads and hands.

12.1 Creating a sense of place
The importance of backgrounds
Approaches to world-building
    Drawing from life
Sidebar: Drawing specifics
    Using photo reference
Sidebar: Things to keep in mind when drawing from photos
    Researching the real world
    Inventing realities
    Using your imagination
Activity: No time like the present

12.2 Figuring out the figure 2: heads and hands
Heads and hands
    Facial measurements
    Notes on drawing heads and facial expressions
    Drawing hands
    Heads and hands in action
Activity: The head's in your hands

Homework: Continue penciling your six-page story
Extra credit: On-location comics

13. BLACK GOLD—A lesson in inking with the brush, including techniques for softening blacks.

13.1 The liquid line
Introduction to inking with a brush
Basic brush handling
    Charging your brush
    Holding your brush
    Checking your ink
    Checking your brush quality
    Practicing your technique
Don't "pencil" with ink
Sidebar: Know your brushes
Sidebar: Buying, protecting, and cleaning a brush

13.2 Softening the black
Techniques for softening blacks
    Using dry brush
Inking a panel from start to finish
    Finish inking

13.3 Notes on using a brush
Lines, spotting blacks, and other techniques
Sidebar: More examples of brush inking
Activity: Ink a panel in brush

Homework: Finish pencils of your six-page story and begin inking
Extra credit: Line for line II

14. COMICS IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION—An introduction to reproducing comics using a scanner and sizing artwork using a proportion wheel.

14.1 Producing reproductions
Scanning your art
    Step 1: Plan ahead
    Step 2: Scan
    Step 3: Save
    Step 4: Combine segments
    Step 5: Size image
    Step 6: Adjust the threshold level
    Step 7: Make Photoshop® corrections
Sidebar: What is anti-aliasing?
    Step 8: Convert to bitmap
Sidebar: Print history: film and "non-photo blue"

14.2 Olde-styley tools again
Using the proportion wheel
Sizing down and sizing up
    Sizing down
    Sizing up
Activity: Try the proportion wheel
Homework: Finish inking, make corrections, and reproduce your six-page comic
Extra credit: "It was an accident"

15. 24-HOUR COMIC—A final fun challenge to wrap up the book using all of the skills you've learned.

15.1 Marathon cartooning
The 24-hour comic
Activity: 24-hour comic (or 3-hour comic)

15.2 Onward and upward
The end (but also the beginning)

A: Supplies
B: Homework critiques
C: Story cards
D: Comic book book report
E: Making minicomics



Praise for Drawing Words and Writing Pictures


The passion for comics is surging worldwide, what with the popularity of manga and graphic novels and memoirs. Abel, whose graphic novels include La Perdida (2006) and Life Sucks (2008), and Madden, creator of the unusual 99 Ways to Tell a Story (2005), make learning the art of comics fun and exciting in this exceptionally well designed and friendly how-to. Present on the page as comic figures, Abel and Madden present expertly configured sequences of skill-building exercises and assignments, and encourage both novices whose drawing skills may be minimal but whose story ideas are compelling, and those adept at visual art but shaky on narrative. Numerous examples of comics rendered in a broad spectrum of styles and perspectives, and exploring a wide array of subjects and genres, accompany and reinforce detailed instructions. Lively, sophisticated, and comprehensive, Abel and Madden’s course in visual storytelling covers every narrative and graphic element, from drawing figures and character development to panel transitions, composition, lettering, depicting action, and penciling and inking techniques. Technically precise, zippy, and inspiring, this is an outstanding teaching book. — Donna Seaman

Review in Kirkus

Smartly designed and easy to understand, Abel and Madden’s text is an edifying course in creating comics. Comprised of 15 comprehensive lessons, readers are taught the basic elements necessary to conceptualize and produce their own comics. Assuming an audience range from individuals to a group, this pedagogical survey is written to serve a wide array of learners. The authors suggest everything from preferred brands of supplies to types of stretches to alleviate strain. Extensive backmatter, including helpful appendices on such topics as homework critiques, and a considerable bibliography round out the volume. This erudite study should leave its readers with a greater understanding and appreciation of the command one must possess to create graphic media. A valuable resource for all interested in the field and a natural companion to Scott McCloud’s quintessential texts Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. (appendices, index, bibliography) (Nonfiction. YA & adult)

Recommended Review in BCCB

Comics are increasingly appreciated as complex, sophisticated blends of illustration and text, and this volume is a timely, in-depth examination of the format.  This exhaustively comprehensive guide to creating comics features fifteen individual lessons that take readers from concept to finished product.  A landscape-formatted paperback chock-full of diagrammatic examples, the book looks every bit the sophisticated how-to, and the tone is encouraging, highlighting comic strips that have rudimentary artwork or simple concepts and encouraging readers to explore everything from formal, paneled comics to wildly imaginative freeform interpretations.  The authors offer guidelines on how the book can be used by individuals, by groups, and by classes; regardless of whether one goes it solo or uses the volume with a course, the accessible and highly detailed lessons on everything from penciling to structuring a story to selecting a title will engage and inform readers.  The first fourteen chapters include background information, activities, sidebars with related but not directly relevant information, a homework assignment, and an extra credit activity, with the final chapter being a challenge to create a full comic in one day.  Extensive end matter presents almost as much information as the guide itself: appendices offer hints about necessary supplies, book reports that can be done on comics, and the making of minicomics, and an extensive bibliography suggests both graphic novels or comics that emphasize points in the lessons as well as drawing handbooks.  Serious readers seeking information will be drawn by the witty, informal tone and casual narrative voice as much as the impeccably designed and accessible lessons. 

Voya: 4Q 2P

Abel and Madden write a concise textbook for people wanting to learn how to create coherent and marketable comics.  Lessons focus on panel design and comic layout with detailed illustrations demonstrating each concept.  In comics, writing is as important as images and the artist needs to make sure each component is conveying the correct meaning so as not to confuse or bore the reader with irrelevant dialogue.  Comics require a storyline not unlike a novel where the protagonist keeps the action moving until a situation or conflict is resolved.  How to create that story and design it into a comic format is outlined through fifteen chapters and several appendixes, from the formation of thumbnail sketches and character development to the production of the final comic copy through photocopying or scanning in Adobe Photoshop.  For those unfamiliar with Photoshop, simple step-by-step directions are given to assist in creating the final masterpiece.

The text, designed for classroom use by teachers or as an individual tutorial, comes with further reading suggestions, homework assignments, and extra credit projects at the end of each lesson.  The assignments are well formulated to reinforce the techniques taught in each section; however, students looking for drawing instruction on creating characters and backgrounds will be sorely disappointed.  This book is not designed to teach would-be artists how to draw but how to write and give dimension to drawings through penciling strategies, lettering techniques, and inking with pens or brushes.  Students looking to create their own mini comics for publication will welcome the design pointers.  – Laura Panter

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

  • Drawing Words and Writing Pictures was created by comics superstars Jessica Abel and Matt Madden and based on their classes at the School of Visual Arts.  Editors of the Best American Comics series and creators of a number of groundbreaking graphic novels including 99 Ways to Tell a Story (by Matt Madden) and La Perdida (by Jessica Abel), Abel and Madden are always at the forefront of the comics industry.    

  • Jessica Abel
    Jessica Abel
  • Matt Madden
    Matt Madden


Available Formats and Book Details

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures

Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

Publisher's Weekly Comics Week Best Comic of the Year, BCCB Recommended Title
  • Trade Paperback




First Second