*Understanding Comics — Recommended

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.

Understanding Comics cover
Understanding Comics
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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.

He followed this book with Reinventing Comics and Making Comics.

12 Responses to “*Understanding Comics — Recommended”

  1. Jason Says:

    Unfortunately, McCloud has always struck me as a bit too caught up in himself and his ideas and that makes him a little less approchable to me than, say, Will Eisner and his “Comics and Sequential Art”. It’s still whorthwhile reading and better than his two follow-ups.

  2. Johanna Says:

    I agree that it’s the best of the three, but I still think the other two are worth reading. I plan to reread Eisner’s two craft books for review, but from memory, I found them disjointed, as though an instructor had published incomplete class notes. Lesson: what works for you might not work for me and vice versa. :)

  3. cognitive dissident Says:

    Great review!

    I loved this book, which I also think is the best of his trilogy. (I’ve been meaning to pick up the Eisner books for *ages*, and the new editions will be out next week…I guess I’m running out of excuses.)

    Has anyone read Steranko’s “Visual Storytelling” book? I always loved his page design.

  4. Rivkah Says:

    This is a wonderful book and my favorite of the three, with “Reinventing” second and “Making” last. I think that, unfortunately, the last book (“Making”) became too complex for the graphic novel format (ironically, I think I would have been able to read through more if it had been in written format with examples interspersed throughout), but the first and second were simple, straightforward, and got right to the point with each chapter containing strong, well structured themes. While the last book covers more material, it almost covers too much (perhaps because of all the examples), giving instead a sense of the lost wanderer. The first two were more cohesive, coherent, and solid, sticking to their paths.

    When it comes to comic theory, Scott McCloud is the visionary of our times. I deeply respect his work, and I feel that those first two books gave me an incredible tool towards creating better comics. To this day, I still go back and revisit them and wonder. :)

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  6. Johanna Says:

    I didn’t know there was a Steranko book. Interesting. Do you mean this one, also by Tony Caputo and Harlan Ellison? Looks like it’s out of print but available used. Caputo hasn’t got a very good rep, so I’d be leery.

  7. cognitive dissident Says:

    Yep, that’s the one…I wasn’t trying to slight Ellison and Caputo, but Steranko’s name was the one I remembered. (I picked up a copy a while ago, but it hasn’t yet made it to the top of my to-be-read pile…)

  8. Alan Coil Says:

    Ellison merely wrote the introduction about Steranko.

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