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Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics

January 8, 2010

155. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud (1993)

Length: 216 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; Graphic Novel

Started: 28 December 2009
Finished: 28 December 2009

Where did it come from? Borrowed from my father.
Why do I have it? I first remember hearing about this from Kim, and then I spied it next to my dad’s computer, and he said how great it was, so…

A comic comic
about comics and art. What
a great way to learn!

Summary: Understanding Comics is a comic… about comics. It sets out first to define comics, and then to explore some of their history. From there, it gets into the language of comic books – the power of the symbols they use, how paneling is used in conveying a message, the relationship (or lack thereof) between the words and pictures, how they use a purely visual medium to convey information to all of the senses, and how they use a static medium to convey motion and time. Throughout, McCloud treats comics as an art form, and argues for their potential as communication devices that create a detailed interplay between the imaginations of the author and of the reader.

Review: I am not a huge comics aficionado, but I feel like I’ve got a reasonable grounding in the genre. Enough so that while I didn’t recognize every one (or even most) of the examples that McCloud used, I was certainly familiar with many of the concepts. Or, rather, once he presented them, I was able to go “oh, yes, I’ve seen instances of that before,” even though I lack any kind of background in art theory. Where McCloud succeeds is in formalizing the language of comics and placing it into that kind of theoretical framework… and where he *really* succeeds is in making it readily accessible to novice readers. I’ll admit that there were a few places that got kind of dense, and a few ideas that probably went over my head. But, for the most part, ideas are presented in a clear and straightforward way, starting with the familiar and building it up to the more abstract, all while making excellent use of the visual nature of his medium, and injecting more than a little humor throughout.

The thing is, now I want to go back and re-read every graphic novel I’ve ever read to look for the concepts that McCloud talks about. How does the paneling in Sandman create a sense of time? What is it about the art in Fables that I find so appealing? How does the interplay between words and dialogue in Watchmen affect what the panels can show? How much of the action in Buffy is actually on the page, and how much am I filling in? From here on out, not only will I have the vocabulary to describe these things, I suspect I will also be much more aware of them. No more just reading the words and glancing at the pretty pictures for me! And, I suspect, by better understanding how comics authors and artists can use the medium, I will be better able to appreciate when it’s done well – that is, I will be better able to appreciate the comics as an art form, which seems to me to be the outcome that Mr. McCloud was aiming for. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Strongly recommended for comic book (or graphic novel, if you’d rather) fans, of course. I don’t know how good it would be for someone who’s brand-spanking new to the genre – it does assume that the reader is at least passingly familiar with the style. But, on the other hand, while McCloud focuses on comics, a lot of what he has to say is relevant to anyone interested in art, art theory, or art history, so I think even non-comics fans should open their minds – and their definitions – a bit, and take a chance and read it.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Scott McCloud’s website

Other Reviews: 1330V, Jenny’s Books, Rebecca Reads, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Stacked Blog, Things Mean a Lot
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: My old pal Matt Feazell called the other day.

Cover Thoughts: I like it. It feels nice and accessible and friendly, and the panels in the background all have to do with important points made throughout the book. I do have a little bit of a hard time reading “understanding” against the yellow background, though.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2010 2:05 am

    I am finding that, while I’m really digging the manga books (especially the ones I read with Maggie… maybe I like them because she likes them), I’m not that big of a fan of the graphic novels. That surprises me, because I would’ve thought they’d be interchangeable. One’s Japanese, and the other’s American. But I didn’t really get into Sandman or the Buffy book I had.

    Maybe this book would help me.

    • January 10, 2010 9:10 pm

      thekoolaidmom – Hmm. Have you tried Fables? I was dubious, but Fables got me hooked.

  2. January 8, 2010 9:49 am

    Interesting. I haven’t read many graphic novels, but have enjoyed those that I have read. My nephew loves them, though, so I bet he’d really appreciate this book.

    • January 10, 2010 9:11 pm

      bermudaonion – I think it might be interesting for both of you to read it… you’d have two very different perspectives, but I think you would both probably learn something cool. :)

  3. January 9, 2010 1:37 pm

    The last time i read a comic was a few years ago! I really enjoyed it, even though I cannot remember witch one it was. :) This one sounds nice. :) Thanks for the review of it.

    • January 10, 2010 9:12 pm

      Nina – I didn’t start reading graphic novels until a year or so ago, but now I”m hooked. :P

  4. January 9, 2010 4:44 pm

    I read this in 2009, too, but never did review it. It was interesting, though.

    • January 10, 2010 9:12 pm

      Kailana – I’m curious, how much of it has stuck with you?

  5. January 10, 2010 1:04 pm

    I want to get a copy of this and his third book, Making Comics – so many good things to think about, especially as comics are growing so amazingly.

    • January 10, 2010 9:13 pm

      Jenny – I got my dad a copy of the second book for his birthday… now I just need to go visit my parents so I can borrow it! :)

  6. January 10, 2010 7:56 pm

    I’m more into manga. I’m at a total lost state with comics. Its a past.

    • January 10, 2010 9:14 pm

      fyrebyrd – I’m exactly the opposite: I don’t get along so well with manga. Although McCloud doesn’t really differentiate the two.

  7. January 10, 2010 8:12 pm

    Great review! This is one I really want to read at some point soon. I like how you mentioned wanting to take a closer look at comics to see the various techniques.

    • January 10, 2010 9:16 pm

      Joanne – That was all big talk, but I started a new graphic novel today, and I got so caught up in the story that I didn’t consciously pay any attention to anything that I mentioned in this review. :-D

  8. January 11, 2010 3:02 pm

    Thanks for linking to my review of the book.

    I think for people new to comics/graphic novels, it’s important to remember that they are the same as any books in that there are a million genres out there and that it’s important not to just lump them all together. Someone into romance novels might never find the appeal in Sci-Fi.

    With comics you have detective stories, the superheros, fariy tales, and even relationship based books.

    The suggestion of Fables as a beginner Graphic Novel is great because most avid book readers are familiar with fairytale characters and the big ACTION! a la superheros is minimal.

    Johnny Hiro is another great one for someone who normally reads something like Emily Giffin’s “Something Blue” type books – sure there’s sureal nods to geek culture, but it’s more about a late 20-something realizing he needs to grow-up and the steadiness of his relationship with his girlfriend.

    I would suggest that someone new to comics should go to their local (small) comic book shop and talk with the staff about their usual reading preferences.

    McCloud’s book, as I mentioned in my review, is more art theory and analysis about the umbrella term of comics, it’s great for understanding how word and visual come together, but it’s not going to help someone find their own particular genre nitch.

    • January 14, 2010 10:43 am

      Christina – I need to branch out in my graphic novel reading. Everything I’ve read so far has been spec fic, which is all well and good, but I’m definitely interested in broadening my horizons.

  9. January 11, 2010 4:25 pm

    We love graphic novels at our house. I’ve seen this title referenced numerous times by comics people over the years, but I’ve yet to hunt it down. I need to do so – thanks for the reminder!

  10. January 14, 2010 8:56 am

    I can’t believe I’ve never read this! My library must have it, so I’m going to try to get it for the Graphic Novels Challenge.

    • January 14, 2010 10:44 am

      Memory – I’ll admit, I was a little surprised not to see it in your library. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

  11. January 14, 2010 5:03 pm

    I felt exactly the same way after i read this book — I wanted to look at every comic I’ve ever read and think about all the new things I learned. This is such an interesting book!

    • January 20, 2010 1:05 pm

      Kim – I appreciate the recommendation, since I probably would never have looked at it twice, otherwise. Have you read his other books?

      • January 21, 2010 11:47 am

        I haven’t read any of his other books, but I’m always on the lookout for them when I’m out and about at bookstores. I don’t think my local library has any of them :(


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