Review: Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

As a fairly recent comic book fan and general casual reader of comics, I’ve been struggling a bit with articulating my responses to them. It’s the same problem I was having with film at the beginning of the year; I simply don’t have the tools to properly critique and analyze the form, being a child of literature. But there’s a simple solution. For film, I was lucky enough to be able to take a class—for comics, the general consensus is to read Scott McCloud. After reading The Influencing Machine, I made a vow (…well, an off-hand comment) to read Understanding Comics before taking on any more of the medium, and so here we are.

Understanding Comics is a comic book that explains how the medium operates—its distinction from art and literature, the use of the art form, and the delicate balance of words and pictures that form this unique language called “comics”. You’ll never feel bad for reading comics ever again.

As a woman of letters coming to the world of comics, I found my initial readings focused too much on the writing. I’d gloss over the art except when forced to pay attention by panels lacking dialogue. After reading Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, wherein Patton Oswalt compares comic book panels to storyboards, I began to try and think of them as film storyboards, which helped some. But it took reading Understanding Comics to begin to understand it as an art form separate from literature, art, and film (although I think contrasting and comparing comics and film is very rewarding indeed). Throughout the book, McCloud explains various aspects of the form in order to discuss it as a whole at the end, which is where you’ll find a discussion on the techniques of mixing writing and art. One method—and the most common one—is the interdependent method, where the art and the dialogue don’t create the same effect without each other. I’ve started reading comics by occasionally covering up the dialogue or the art to remind myself of this fact, and it’s been working brilliantly.

But the entire book does this—make you think, and often deeply, about the characteristics that are wholly unique to this art form. For instance, I was particularly struck by McCloud’s thoughts on why we prefer stylized characters to photorealistic ones. (I’m reminded of some behind-the-scenes footage from Shrek, where the animators had managed to make Fiona look alarmingly photorealistic, but the style was rejected because it was just too much.) We think of ourselves as stylized, specifically our faces. When you talk to someone else, you see their face in intimate detail; but your own face is just an abstract, stylized image in your head. Hence our identification with stylized, abstract faces. And that’s just one of many; here, McCloud explains why the gutter—the spaces between panels—is one of the most important and creative parts of comics, and how the medium asks quite a lot of its reader. One concept I think everyone should know but is diabolical to articulate is the Big Triangle, which McCloud has thoughtfully put on his website.

And McCloud explains it all without breaking a (visible) sweat. In fact, the easy, casual, but highly informed tone of the book reminded me strongly of The Influencing Machine. It’s just downright pleasant to read. He covers Western comics, Eastern comics, and the differences of technique and style therein, which I found illuminating, and uses direct and clear examples to explain himself. I will admit to laughing my head off when he referenced Rob Liefeld, a gentleman notorious for his incredibly strange anatomy, but that’s a product of the times rather than anything else. I was also pleased to see McCloud discuss the privileging of the term “graphic novel” briefly, which was the reason for my own taxonomic crisis at the end of October, which I think I’ve solved with a decent compromise.

Bottom line: A breezy, casual, and highly informed explanation of comics as a medium. Required reading for anyone interested in reading comics.

I rented this book from my school library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Understanding Comics

  1. I bought Reading Comics a while ago for the same reason you bought this one, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I may have to get this one too since it sounds so good.

  2. I read this years ago and I’m thinking, now that I’ve read your review, that I was too harsh at the time in my assessment of McCloud’s work. I found his explanation of comics pretty workmanlike, but looking back on it – he may have provided me with more of a “map” to reading comics than I realized at the time. You’ve reminded me of a few things I love about comics, in how the text and graphics interact, in the way gutter space can be used, and it makes me want to go back to Understanding Comics and see if McCloud might have influenced my reading more than I thought.

    Speaking of gutter space – check out Joe Sacco for this. It’s in “The Fixer”, I think, that he makes absolutely stunning use of blank space. If I had “The Fixer” on me right now, I think I could form an argument on why that single page of comics should be enough to convince anyone of the unique merits of the form.

    Great review, and thanks for this push to reread McCloud!

  3. Pingback: Review: Mouse Guard Fall 1152 | The Literary Omnivore

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