But until the late 1970s, there was little theoretical discussion of comic books – what the medium was, and why it was special. As comics matured, works appeared which began to answer these questions. These evolved into meta-comics, or comics about comics.
Toward the Meta-Comic – The Marvel Way!
The first step came with How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way (1978), written by Stan Lee, creator of many of Marvel's superheroes, such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, and illustrated by John Buscema. Using examples from real Marvel comics, Lee and Buscema provided a basic primer and laid out the terminology and techniques of superhero comics.
There are now countless books about how to draw comic books, cartoons, and manga. But Lee and Buscema's cheerful volume remains one of the best of the genre, thanks to its style and judicious use of the Marvel pantheon.
The Return of Will Eisner
As How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way appeared in bookstores, Will Eisner, creator of the 1940s strip The Spirit, returned to comics with A Contract With God, one of the first graphic novels. By the 1980s, Eisner was ideally suited to set down not just how to write and draw comics, but the principles behind the comic book medium.
Many pages from Eisner's old Spirit comics were also reprinted in the book, as they demonstrate a vast number of effects unique to the medium. Sometimes called the Citizen Kane of comics, The Spirit was as revolutionary as Welles' film, using nearly every artistic technique available.
Alan Moore Contemplates Writing for Comics
Meanwhile, Alan Moore – writer of Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and The Watchmen – was submitting essays to Fantasy Adviser, an obscure British fanzine. In them, Moore tackled the unique qualities of comics from a writer's perspective.
Moore also dealt with pacing and layout, visual aspects of the craft also affected by writing. Like Eisner, he discussed examples of his own work, including an analysis of "For The Man Who Has Everything", which Moore wrote for 1985's Superman Annual #11 (and was collected in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told).
Moore's essay was republished by Avatar Press in 2003 as Writing For Comics, with illustrations by Jacen Burrows and a new afterword by Moore.
Scott McCloud's Meta-Comics Trilogy
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993), by Scott McCloud, marked the appearance of the true meta-comic. Building on Eisner's work, McCloud took the next logical step: he presented his arguments as a comic book, employing the very comics “grammar” that he was systematizing and deconstructing.
Understanding Comics has become a classic text, sampling from a variety of visual sources while being unmistakeably in McCloud's engaging and disarming style. McCloud followed it with a controversial sequel, Reinventing Comics (2000), which speculated about the future of comics as an industry and art form.
McCloud's most recent meta-comic, Making Comics (2006), is an expansive, contemporary how-to for comics artists and writers – complete with examples and exercises. With it, the history of meta-comics, started by Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and Alan Moore, had come full circle.