Understanding Comics started a revolution in the medium that’s still being worked through. Scott McCloud created this book to analyze how comics work and what the medium is capable of. He did it in a clever and unexpected way; instead of writing text, he drew it as a comic book. A friendly version of himself is the main character, the narrator, leading us through his thoughts on the history of the medium, its strengths and weaknesses, the definition of art, and the effects of common techniques of the craft.
He begins the book with a simple, key statement: “comic books were usually crude, poorly drawn, semiliterate, cheap disposable kiddie fare — but they don’t HAVE to be.” The rest of the book is him exploring what they have been and what they could be. Personally, I find the attempt to redefine artifacts of historical importance, like the Bayeux Tapestry, as comics a bit of a reach, but the point is to cause us to reexamine our assumptions about sequential art and begin a debate, not serve as the final answer.
Whether or not you agree with his ideas about more simplified art allowing for better reader identification, or about the need for closure and the various kinds of panel transitions, he performed a huge service in providing a starting point for discussion. He introduced several comic-specific terms when most comic analysis just borrows from film structure (such as using “camera angle” to talk about panel point of view). He also placed great emphasis on how things were done in Japanese comics for comparison and contrast, at a time when the manga invasion of bookstores was yet to begin.
It’s a huge benefit to have the book itself be done in illustrated form, because it’s so much easier to show what the narrator is describing… and occasionally play tricks on the reader. In the chapter on cartooning and icons, for example, McCloud’s self-referential narrator takes off his glasses to reveal a blank space underneath (a gag I also recall the Muppets indulging in at times).
Comics have immense power to communicate any kind of concept, but often the form is confused with the content (which in America, too often means superheroes). McCloud clarifies that the medium of comics has no restriction on subject matter, art styles, or even methods of creation (they needn’t be print, for example, which hints at McCloud’s later fascination with webcomics). McCloud goes on to suggest that comics’ unique potential to communicate directly from author to audience is too often squandered. The unique voice of the creator is less impacted by other people than in any other medium, and the reader’s imagination is essential to complete the page.
Without this book, the modern graphic novel revolution wouldn’t have happened. It took a work like this one to convince gatekeepers — journalists, bookstore managers, academicians — to take another look at a piece of popular culture that previously was thought to be for kids and the mentally deficient. McCloud makes the case for comics to take its place with any other medium, including prose, film, or art, as a vehicle for communicating ideas and connecting with its audience.
Because of the clarity of its ideas, its approachability, and its unique presentation, the book has found a much greater audience than just comic fans and students. It’s been recommended for anyone working with blends of visuals and text, including web designers, and those interested in language, popular media, and communication. It’s a modern classic, an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the medium of comics.