Book Review: Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master by by Heidi MacDonald, Phillip Dana Yeh


This book purports to be the teachings of a comic book master; an artist’s teachings for other artists. Specifically those who like to paint and draw. And there’s a lot of good advice in here if that’s what you want to do. But the thing I really like about this book, and about Alfredo Alcala, is that this applies to any kind of art – not just drawing.

The thing about this book is it’s a real insight into the external world – things that we all deal with from day to day; but also real insight to the internal world – looking at ourselves and what makes us tick.

The author says something interesting about Alfredo when they began this book:

“When we began this project, Alfredo was going through a period of his life when he wasn’t doing a lot of comic book work. The majority of the new batch of editors have short memories and little respect for age and wisdom (are they any different from the rest of youth-obsessed America?).”

The reason this is so interesting is that I’m experiencing it at my own job (20 years after this book was published! It’s as if everyone is saying, “Let’s get rid of these old, experienced people who we have to pay more money, and replace them with young, inexperienced people because they’ll be cheap.” How is that good business? (See what I mean about this book being about insights into the real world?)

The author suggests 10 secret teachings gained from studying Alcala:

1. Look inside yourself to find the artist. Not the craftsman who can merely do the work, but the artist who sees the world in a fresh, new way, and creates something beautiful.

2. Don’t do what’s popular at the moment. Create honest art. Don’t follow the crowd. Create from your heart.

3. Seek knowledge from an older person who has real wisdom. The hard part here is finding that person.

4. Sit down and work and you will finish the job. This one seems obvious. But it’s really not; and, as any artist knows, it’s not always easy to do.

5. Travel light and always carry your art supplies. Well, as a writer, this means always having something to write on. Since that’s my phone, I can keep that with me, and concentrate on the traveling light!

6. Learn to observe everything around you. It may save your life some day. Interesting, and maybe important, advice.

7. If you really want to be smart, READ on your own. I’m amazed at how many people don’t get this. It’s why I’m reading this very book.

8. When reading or watching a film, learn to think like the director or author. The creative process is so fascinating, sometimes it’s hard not to think about the creative process that came about for a film or book I’m experiencing.

9. Learn to draw and talk at the same time. Hmmmm…this is the first one that is difficult to apply. Maybe, “Learn to multitask”?

10. Don’t get into the arts for the money. Yeah. The only problem with this, is if you get a job first, it’s hard to get back.

Alfredo is a fascinating character. While famous for his inking, he could create a comic from beginning to end – writing, layouts, pencils, inks, lettering, publishing – and has done it. He would hardly ever sleep – and when he did, it was often at his drawing table.

One of the things he suggests is to have a reference library for pictures of things you might have to draw. One of the resources he left out that some modern artists use is porn. Ha! (I’m sorry – if you have no idea what I’m talking about, Google “Greg Land” or read this article – not really NSFW, but the link does contain the word “porn”.)

And there’s some great stuff on composition. He walks through a comic describing how he laid it out – this would be great info for any artist – or any movie director.

Although it seems like the publisher just got the rights to this book written 20 years ago and republished it, I might be tempted to get a hardcopy of my own.

Thanks to NetGalley and Dover Publishing for a copy in return for an honest review.


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