Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Understanding Comics is a classic and, although sometimes implicitly or explicitly dismissed as insufficiently academic, it is considered by many – myself included – as a good starting point for the critical study of comics.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993.
When cartoonist Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics in 1993, his ideas were novel. There had not been much published on the formal aspects of comics and it is arguably the case that the book remains a seminal work in the field of comics studies, even after two decades in print. Adding to its novelty, McCloud’s book is produced in the medium it discusses; it is comics as comics theory. McCloud’s is not a disembodied voice speaking to the reader through words on paper, but a cartoon of the theorist guiding us through the experience, adding entertainment to education (as pictured below).
Building on Will Eisner’s concept of “sequential art” (introduced in his 1985 textbook Comics and Sequential Art), McCloud offers a “dictionary-style” definition of comics in the first chapter:
com·ics (kom’iks)n. plural in form, used with a singular verb. 1. Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.
From this broad and widely applicable definition, McCloud goes on to treat the language of comics, discussing how cartooning promotes reader identification and how different artists and writers work along a continuum ranging from the realistic to the abstract. Following that, the book has chapters on closure, the process of “mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience” that lies at the center of comics, most commonly in the reader’s filling in what occurs between panels, in the space called the “gutter”; on the ways comics can depict time, action, and motion; on the representation of emotion and inner states through line work and stylization; and on the interplay between words and picture in comics.
The final chapters of the book take a little turn. First, chapter seven concerns the meaning of art and how it is produced, presented in pedagogical form through six steps. Chapter eight deals with the history of color comics, arguably situating color in a negative light because four-color printing, in McCloud’s opinion, reduces reader participation by objectifying their subjects; they emphasize the shape of the depicted. Finally, McCloud sums up his arguments and presents his views about why comics, a form of communication that allows for more direct exchange of ideas than many others, is an important medium to understand.
Understanding Comics provides helpful starting points and tools for anyone wanting to begin the work of formal comics analysis, or just for gaining a better understanding of how creators tell us their stories and how we read them. McCloud’s critical vocabulary is widely used in contemporary comics studies, and rightly so: the types of panel-to-panel transitions that he elaborates on, for example, or the word-image relationships that he sketches can assist greatly in elucidating the prefered reading of a given comic.
Nonetheless, there is some merit to the occasional criticism that the book is insufficiently academic. It is not without flaws and indeed should not be used without supplementary works from the disciplines closest to the type of study performed (literary criticism, art criticism, film criticism, semiotics etc.) or from emergent and developing comics studies, but, in my view, it remains an indispensable work. Even those who side with its critics should read it; due to its historical and formative importance to the field, it simply cannot be ignored.