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.