Understanding Comics: Read It!

Before I begin this review, I’d like to quote from a favorite cartoon of mine: “Pictures without words: Art!; Words without pictures: Literature!; Words and pictures together: pieces of worthless crap!” This sums up the mainstream attitude towards comics; at least, until now. The problem with comics is that unlike other media, there has been no critical examination of the form. That is a gap that the new book from Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, fills admirably.

The book is basically comics’ first textbook (and isn’t that what college students want, another textbook?). Unlike most textbooks, it is done entirely in the standard comics style, which is absolutely appropriate. It begins with an attempt to nail down a definition of what exactly comics are. McCloud starts with the definition by comics legend Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) of comics as sequential art (two or more connected panels of art). McCloud expands this definition to “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (and if you think that’s complex, check out the dictionary definitions for art or literature).

When did comics begin? A good question. Most books about comics start around 1896 with the first comic strip, but McCloud ventures a bit farther back. He examines an Egyptian tomb painting from 1300 BC and finds that it meets his requirements to be considered comics. On the way back to the present he stops in the 16th century to examine a pre-Columbian manuscript and looks at the first interdependent combination of words and pictures in the mid 19th century.

McCloud next explains the attraction comics have via their depiction of life not being quite realistic. His theory is that a realistic view is the way we see others, but the image we have of ourselves is more cartoony, so we are able to identify more with the characters in comics. The level of reality used can affect how one views the work, and a combination of realistic and cartoony styles can result in a totally different style, such as Japanese comics (referred to as manga), where the humans and animals are done in a cartoony, but the environment they inhabit is extremely realistic.

However, the most abstract a picture, say a face, can get is not “:-|” but rather “FACE”. McCloud believes that “words are the ultimate abstraction” and that most comics have emphasized the difference between words and pictures. Writing and drawing are often seen as completely separate disciplines, even though the best comics are those in which the words and pictures seamlessly flow together. What is needed is the formation of a vocabulary for comics consisting of words and pictures. There’s a problem in the combining of the two, though. Pictures are received information, instantly transmitted and received, while words are perceived information, requiring time and knowledge to understand. In their simplest forms, the most abstract picture and the simplest word, they are close to another, which is desired to build a vocabulary, but which is often at odds with the desire for sophistication. McCloud envisions a classification for comics based on the triangle, which has three points: reality/nature, meaning/ideas, and pictures/art, into which all comics can be placed.

McCloud next introduces a concept that is extremely crucial to comics, closure, where we observe parts but perceive a whole. This has applications to everyday life, when we assume that the GMU Student Senate exists, even though most of us will never see it. Also closure is evident when we look at a photograph in a newspaper (actually just a series of dots) or watch a movie (24 pictures a second, which we interpret as action). In comics, a static medium, closure is used to simulate both time and motion. He introduces several specific types of closure, such as moment-to-moment (eye blinking) and action-to-action (ball approaching, batter hitting it) and looks at some statistics of uses of different types. He discovers that American comics almost exclusively show things happening, while manga often uses closure to set a mood. He believes that these differences are cultural, in that we are more goal oriented and the Japanese have a tradition that emphasizes “being there over getting there”. The power of closure is seen between panels when the reader is asked to see what isn’t there. With two panels of an eye open and closed, the reader will supply the motion of the eye closing, an act unique to comics.

Time is expressed mainly through panels and closure. The panel is comics’ most important symbol. A stretched panel in company with several narrower panels can denote a longer period of time. Motion is often shown with the help of a motion line (like a circle around a batter as he swings). Emotions can be shown in several different ways; with symbols (teardrops for sadness, crosshatching on the face for embarrassment) or with lines (harsh lines for anger, gentle for affection). Sound is conveyed through the word balloon, which can change in shape or typeface of the words to simulate different sounds.

McCloud looks at early cave paintings to show that when we first tried to communicate, it was through words and pictures (or show and tell). We drifted away from that until at one point words and pictures were totally separate. They slowly drifted back together around 1900, when comics as a popular medium first started. McCloud focuses on several types of combinations of words and pictures, ones which depend more on one, ones where they are seemingly unconnected, and the most important, interdependent, where together they “convey an idea that neither could convey alone”. He then provides several interpretations of a short story using these styles.

Next, McCloud answers the question: “Is comics art?”. Of course it is, especially since his definition of art is “any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction”(I guess this means Expulsion is art; frame it). He covers 6 basic steps to creation of any work of art and explains the different approaches one might take to be a groundbreaker or storyteller. He briefly mentions color, that it has been limited by money and technology, and may assume more importance in the future.

McCloud closes by mentioning that comics are unique as being a communication media where the artistic vision stands the best chance of making it to the reader. This is due both to the limited number of people usually involved and the art form itself. He encourages discussion of his book, and there has been response. In particular, one reader objected to the exclusion of single panel comics strips from the definition and argues that there is closure between the strip and the caption.

The book has already gone into its second printing and is available now in your favorite comics shop. My opinion? I agree with Neil Gaiman, award winning writer, who said of the book, “If you read, write, teach, or draw comics; if you want to; or if you simply want to watch a master explainer at work, you must read this book”.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]