Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, comic books were HOT! Mainstream comics (Marvel & DC) were doing well, collectors’ prices were up, and the classic characters were on everyone’s mind. Tim Burton’s Batman film (from 1989) smashed box-office records and stayed in the local theater here in our small town for about a YEAR. Comic shops seemed to be on every corner---and there were about a million INDIE comics companies (Comico, Eclipse, Blackthorne, Caliber, First, Jademan, Fantagraphics, Renegade, Vortex, Kitchen Sink, Dark Horse…some are still going) putting out exciting books left and right. But for most comics readers---for almost EVERYONE---“comics” meant one of two things: either superheroes OR funny animals. Along comes Scott McCloud, and he says, DEFINITIVELY, no…
Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)
According to McCloud, comics is not just men in colorful tights or mice throwing bricks at cats (see my George Herriman review for more on this topic.) Comics are a unique visual communications medium. The conceptual and abstract world of writing is added to the perceived and immediate world of visual imagery, but in a way that involves the reader on a deeper level than just watching a film or viewing a static, single panel cartoon or painting. With comics, the reader has to make the MOVEMENT from panel to panel happen in their own mind.
McCloud uses the following example: a cartoon panel shows a maniac chasing his intended victim with a wild, vicious look on his face and raised ax, poised to strike. The next panel is a shot of some rooftops, and a sound effect drawn above the buildings of someone screaming in pain. According to McCloud, when we as readers make that connection, from the panel with the maniac and his ax to the panel with the screaming sound effect, WE THE READERS are complicit in committing that murder. We connect the dots. We let the ax fall! Unlike in films, such as Saw or Friday the 13th, where we actually SEE movement, see the ax hit the head or the skin split open, with comics---THERE IS NO MOVEMENT unless we connect the action from panel to panel. Each individual panel just sits there, doing nothing, already all draw out from beginning to end, and we as readers have to understand the concept that one panel leads to the next and have to move our eyes from panel to panel, connecting each separate image in our heads, building the story as we go. Comics won’t do it for us, unlike a song on the radio or a television show, which keep going whether you’re paying attention or not.
Reading forces us to move from point to point and connect the images to make sense of what we are seeing, but words are COMPLETELY abstract, with no immediate image to anchor us (or unhinge us) like comics have. The experience of reading a comic requires effort on the part of the reader, but also gives the reader a visual starting point, a MOOD or SETTING in which the concepts can unfold. McCloud is one of the few people who have bothered to try and figure out how comics work---and how WE work so that comics can work.
The other important point that McCloud makes in this book is that comics are NOT just for superheroes. Comics are a medium with almost unlimited possibilities for expression or information exchange. From “How to Change a Tire on a Car” to the history of the Roman Empire, there are really no restrictions on the TOPICS that can be covered in comics. And, again, those indie publishers have often shown us just how interesting and free comics can be.
Hopefully I haven’t made this book sound too dry, because it’s not. The narrator, a simplified cartoon of Scott McCloud, is very funny, and the art is a brilliant mesh of various styles and examples from the worlds of art, psychedelia, optical illusions, and classic comics from throughout the lifespan of the medium---and did I mention that McCloud actually pulls all of this off in comic book form? That’s right, it’s a comic book about comic books!
Understanding Comics is a great book. I’ve read it at least five or six times, and each time through I feel like I’ve picked up something new. It’s funny and fascinating and worth your time, whether you’re a big fan of comic books or not. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in design or visual storytelling or art production, as much of what McCloud discusses is how humans perceive the world and what we find tantalizing. This book might also be of interest for people interested in psychology and human cognition. AND, it should go without saying that if you are a FAN of comics, you NEED to read this book! Even though it’s over 20 years old, it’s still as relevant today as it was when it first came out!
---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)