Understanding Comics

When you think of comics, do you imagine stories about men in tights and women in bustiers fighting crime? Do you picture garish art about trivial themes? If so, Scott McCloud wants you to know that your definition of comics is much too limited. His book, Understanding Comics explores the dramatic and artistic potential of the comic form, and it demonstrates that potential by being a comic itself.

McCloud begins by explaining that he used to perceive comics as childish stories about guys in tights, until he started reading them and saw that they could be so much more. The comic form is a medium that can contain any kind of message.  McCloud defines a comic as simply “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” This form can contain any kind of story, as the recent popularity of graphic memoirs, and even the existence of McCloud’s book, a nonfiction comic, can attest.

Once the definition is in place, McCloud goes on to explain how comics work. He discusses the power of icons over realistic images and shows that many artists choose non-realistic and simple images of people to help the readers relate to the characters. Instead of seeing a specific person, readers see themselves in comics characters. Such styles also require readers to use their imaginations to fill in gaps, which engages them more deeply in the story.

This same technique also applies to the passage of time. The comic writer cannot depict every moment in a story, so he or she chooses key bits of visual information and language, and the reader does the rest.  The reader is therefore the comic artist’s “silent accomplice” and “an equal partner in crime.”

I’ve heard people say that they’re not sure how to “read” a graphic novel or comic. I’ve never had that problem, although I’ve wondered whether I’m missing key aspects of the art behind the stories. What McCloud showed me in this book is that the grammar of comics is designed to be invisible. Choices involving space between panels or panel size are deliberate and convey particular ideas, but I need not be conscious of what the artist is doing to pick up on what the artist is saying. For example, when I see a wide panel with a single image in it in the middle of a sequence, I’m likely to intuitively read a long pause in the narrative, even if I don’t consciously take note of the size of the panel.

McCloud also shows how some conventions of comic art have developed over time, with artists expanding on others’ choices until they become embedded in the language of comics. The depiction of motion is a good example of this. Artists began by showing multiple images in sequence, but eventually motion lines became the norm, and those lines evolved and became more stylized and dramatic, especially among American artists. In Japan, on the other hand, artists used subjective motion t0 put readers on the moving object as the surroundings whiz by. This technique later became common in America as well. The contrast between Japanese and American comic styles came up several times, and it was interesting to see the differences, as well as to see how easy it was to “read” the images in both styles (with a few exceptions for Japanese symbols, such as a bubble coming out of a character’s nose to signify sleep).

One of the last chapters discusses the comic artists’ path, which McCloud says can apply to any kind of medium. I could easily see how it applies to novels. The path consists of six steps: (1) idea/purpose, (2) form, (3) idiom, (4) structure, (5) craft, (6) surface. McCloud calls these steps, but I find it more helpful to think of them as aspects of a work, especially because in McCloud’s explanation, he shows artists progressing from the last step to the first, which makes the concept kind of confusing.

The more helpful image McCloud employs is that of an apple, with the surface on the outside and the idea at the core. The greatest works and artists will be strong in all six aspects, but not all artists accomplish this. You might have an artist who is an excellent enough at the craft to be a successful assistant in a studio but who doesn’t create her own original work. Another artist could get beyond that to understand the structure of stories and create his own work, but his work isn’t original and unique enough to break new ground. To do that, an artist would need to create her own idiom of telling stories. At the highest echelons, artists might choose to focus on becoming pioneers at ideas or form, but not necessarily both. It’s easy to see how this might apply to other arts. Among novelists, you might have someone who tells by-the-numbers stories with workmanlike prose. They’re fine for what they are, but not likely to change the world. Other writers try new techniques and look for new ways of telling stories.

McCloud’s book may not enable me to understand the stories comics tell better than I already do, but I think reading this book will help me see a little of what’s going on behind the scenes. Being aware of artists’ choices doesn’t necessarily make a comic more understandable, but it gives me more to appreciate when I read one.

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14 Responses to Understanding Comics

  1. Jeane says:

    This sounds like a very interesting read to me, as I’ve just started getting into the world of graphic novels (and mostly enjoying it very much). Being an artist myself, I always like reading about how other artists work and what makes them tick, as well.

  2. I LOVE this book and reviewed it last year on the blog. I actually have read it a couple of times, but I used sections of it to introduce Persepolis to the Comp class I was teaching at the time. It’s such a great primer, and he discusses his theories in such clear ways. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. boardinginmyforties says:

    Sounds like an interesting read. I’ve just started reading graphic novels in the past two years. I was completely naive when I picked my first one up and it blew me away! I thought it was all about superheroes and the like and I was SO WRONG!

    • Teresa says:

      I only started reading them maybe five years ago, and I’ve read some terrific ones, even one (Watchmen) involving superheroes. There’s a lot more variety in the form than a lot of people realize. One of McCloud’s analogies is that the comic form is like a pitcher that can contain anything. Some “drinks” that could go in the pitcher may not be to your taste, but others will be.

  4. Jenny says:

    To his mind, is there any difference between “comic” and “graphic novel” etc? Is that a genre term in any way? I mean, there are “comic strips” and then there’s “webcomics,” which can be humorous or serious or long story arcs or whatever, and then there’s like “DC Comics,” which is definitely a storytelling genre, and then there are all the different directions this has been taken — novels, memoirs, Sandman, whatever. When I see “understanding comics” I don’t necessarily think of Fun Home, but that is probably my ignorance.

    • Teresa says:

      He uses the term comic as an all-inclusive term, to include graphic novels, memoirs, comic strips, any kind of sequential art in any genre. I believe that’s become the norm among scholars of the form. Although, from what I remember, McCloud doesn’t discuss the term “graphic novels” directly, I think some people are leery of the term because it’s used to disassociate what some perceive as worthy from the supposedly childish stuff, so Persepolis, which isn’t even a novel, gets included. I edited an article all about this years ago, but I don’t know if it’s still available online.

  5. Jenny says:

    I thought this book was so good. I loved seeing how Scott McCloud articulated all the different techniques that comics artists and writers use — it was a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have thought of on my own, but it definitely made reading comics more interesting.

  6. I wrote my masters thesis over comics (Fables series), and this was a great book. It gave me a wonderfully full vocabulary and conceptual framework to discuss some of the ways the Fables series set itself apart from others. Fun stuff!

    • Teresa says:

      You wrote your masters thesis on the Fables? That’s so cool. I love that series! (I fell behind after volume 12 or 13 and need to catch up.)

  7. ithinkisawsomething says:

    If you haven’t seen it (it’s based here in the UK) The Phoenix Comic current showcases the very best of British comic artists and writers. It’s funny, exciting and bills itself as “the weekly story comic” – would highly recommend for children aged 6 to 13, although my 4 year old loves it. It absolutely shows how comics can be wonderful storytellers and is non-patronising and there is absolutely no gender bias at all. One feature is a weekly page where a comic character tells kids how to create their own stories and comics and has summarised the basic plots of all stories in one page more successfully than many tomes I’ve read about what makes a good story and how as a writer you need x, y and z. Check it out at http://www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk

    • Teresa says:

      That sounds like a great site. Thanks for sharing! I was amazed at how well McCloud in this book could explain good storytelling in just a few words and panels. It’s a great form for conveying certain kinds of information.

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