Dec 28, 2008

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

The simplest way to summarize Understanding Comics is perhaps to say it’s a comic book about comic books. But that probably doesn’t even begin to give you an idea of what to expect from this book. Written in an informal and accessible style, Understanding Comics looks at the history of the medium, at its vocabulary, at common misconceptions about it, at what makes it works, and at its potential.

I loved this book so much that I don’t even know how to start explaining why. It was so smart, funny, stimulating and unpretentious. And before you ask, no, you don’t need to be obsessed with comics or anything remotely similar to enjoy it. I think that anyone interested in art history or art in general would get something out of this book. Because even though it looks at an art form in specific, Understanding Comics also makes all sorts of interesting points about how art in general works, how our brains process it, how we respond to it and why we create it.

Scott McCloud begins by attempting to define comics. Contrary to popular belief, the word “comics” doesn’t refer exclusively to superhero stories. Rather, it refers to the art of juxtaposing static images in a deliberate sequence to convey information, to tell a story, or to communicate something. It is not the content that defines whether something is comics or not.

He also points out that comics are a medium, not a genre. Seeing comics being referred to as a genre is actually something I really don’t like. The word “genre” implies certain thematic similarities (though I could say a thing or two about genre labelling in general, but I’ll leave that for another occasion), and comics are not any more similar among themselves than, say, movies or novels or plays.

As he puts it,
If people failed to understand comics, it was because they defined what comics could be too narrowly. A proper definition, if we could find one, might give lie to the stereotypes, and how that the potential of comics is limitless and exciting.
(And yes, I realize that there's some sad irony in the fact that I’m divorcing the words from the images in the quotes I’m posting, but I really wanted to share certain bits and couldn’t find any pictures of the panels online. I did find this one, though:)

He also says:
Some of the most inspired and innovative comics of our century have never received recognition as comics, not so much in spite of their superior qualities as because of them. For much of this century, the word “comics” has had such negative connotations that many of comics’ devoted practitioners have preferred to be known as “illustrators”, “commercial artists” or, at best, “cartoonists!”
…and in our day, “graphic novelists”. Sixteen years later, this is still so true. Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen, The Sandman, you name it. The idea that if they are any good, it’s because they’re not comics but "graphic novels" is so widepread. And I tend to agree with McCloud that giving them a new label, one that sets them apart and makes them sound more “respectable”, helps perpetuate stereotypes and negative attitudes about the medium in general. I don't have anything against the term "graphic novels" as long as a qualitative distinction between it and comics is not made. But even though both are terms that refer to the same medium, very often it is.

I’m going on and on about the status of comics and the way they’re perceived socially because this is something I particularly care about. But really, that’s only a small part of what Understanding Comics is all about. Like I said before, much of it is about art in general. And also about how this particular art form works.

Scott McCloud points out so many things I hadn’t thought about before. For example, how time works in comics, how it is conveyed. It isn’t really true that each panel corresponds to a static moment. It corresponds to a time interval, and there are several ways the reader can be told about the length of that interval. He also explains about different types of panel transitions and how they are used in the West and in the East (the things he says about Manga made me even more curious about it), and about how the type of line used can convey certain moods. And these are just a few examples.

Understanding Comics is such an informative and enriching book. It’s also often very funny, and such a joy to read as. I highly recommend it both to comics aficionados and to those who are just starting to explore the medium. Whatever category you fit in, this is a book that is likely to make you look at comics in a new way.

A few more particularly good bits:
As I write this, in 1992, American audiences are just beginning to realize that a simple style doesn’t necessarily mean a simple story [insert panel with the cover of Maus here]. The platonic ideal of the cartoon may seem to omit much of the ambiguity and complex characterization which are the hallmarks of modern literature, leaving them suitable only for children. But simple elements can combine in complex ways, as atoms become molecules and molecules become life.
The comics creator asks us to join in a silent dance of the seen and the unseen. The visible and the invisible. This dance is unique to comics. No other art form gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well. This is why I think it’s a mistake to see comics as a mere hybrid of the graphic arts and prose fiction. What happens between these panels is kind of magic only comics can create.

Each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors. Many early movies were like filmed stage plays, much early television was like radio with pictures or reduced movies. Far too many comics creators have no higher goal than to match the achievements of other media, and view any chance to work in other media as a set up. And again, as long as we view comics as a genre of writing or a style of graphic art this attitude may never disappear.
Other Opinions:
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Jenny's Books
Rebecca Reads

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

And remember:


  1. Nymeth
    My secret Santa partner has not posted a wrap up post yet. I mailed it on December 8. Should I be worried that it got lost in the mail. It did not have that far to go in the States.
    Thank you

  2. Thanks for letting me know, Brittanie. I'll e-mail them and check.

  3. Oo! This sounds interesting. Thanks for the review, Nymeth. I think this is something both my husband and I would enjoy.

  4. LOVE this book! I used it endlessly when I was writing my thesis and in teaching graphic narrative in my college courses. In fact, I'll probably be using some bits for my college students in the spring when we discuss illustration and American Born Chinese in particular. He's just so darn good at explaining the way we perceive and process images! Really an enlightening book. His others are great, too.

  5. This looks brilliant! I wish there were more in-depth genre and literary studdies done with such style and aplomb.

  6. Interesting! One of the papers I'm planning to write for school is about graphic novels, so I'm going to look for this :D

  7. You always read the most interesting graphic novels! :p Thanks for joining my challenge Nymeth-it's great to have bloggers I'm close with joining me. :D

  8. Thanks for posting those images from the book, I was having trouble picturing what this book would look like. It sounds like a really interesting read!

  9. This is interesting, Nymeth! Thanks for the great review! I thought the illustrations are cute, especially the first one. ;)

  10. Nymeth, I'm so glad you like this book! It's one of my favorite reads this year! What are some of your favorite graphic novels?

  11. Oh my goodness, you have read this one too! It's one of my favourite books! Thanks for the great review! I'm soooo excited...

  12. This books is for me. I have never read a comic novel before. I am a little skeptical. I guess this book is a good place to start?

  13. Literary Feline: From what you said about your husband's taste before, I think he'll like it indeed. And you too, of course.

    Andi: How cool that you'll use it in class! And yes, he really explains things very well. Also, I'm glad to hear his others are good too! I have my eye on Reinventing Comics now.

    Loren Eaton: I do too. Unfortunately analytic books tend to read like they're MEANT to be obscure. But not this!

    Naida, thanks!

    Marineko: I bet you'll find it very useful!

    Eva: Thank YOU for hosting! It's great to have blogging friends host challenges that promise to be lets of fun :D

    Kim: It really is very interesting. And visually it's very appealing too. I don't think it'd have worked as anything but a comic, really. His explanations are so easy to understand exactly because he's showing us things as he explains them.

    Melody: I like the last one myself :P He has a great sense of humour.

    Vasilly: My absolute favourite is The Sandman. And also the two Death spin-offs Neil Gaiman did - they're coming out in a single volume called The Absolute Death next year and everyone should get it :P Actually, I listed some of my favourites here when Dewey first announced the challenge last year. Another one I think you'll like is Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner. It's also a comic about comics, and as you might remember McCloud cites it as an inspiration. It's a really great book!

    Alice: It just goes to show that you have awesome taste :D

    Violetcrush: I think so! If this doesn't convince you of the medium's potential, nothing will :P Would you mind me asking how come you're skeptical?

  14. I agree with the whole graphic novels vs. comics idea. In essence they are the same thing except for, in the industry, they are a way to differentiate the single issue from the collection. I the term 'graphic novel' or something else is necessary for that reason but it is unfortunate that the negative consequence of this is the idea that people seem to want to use that term rather than 'comics' to somehow legitimize the art form. I for one am not ashamed at all of my love for comics. It seems only natural that if a person likes illustration and likes reading that they would like the combination of the two. It has been decades upon decades since comics were written for kids. Actually it could be successfully argued that they were never for kids and only the 'comics code' put them in that mold. Glad you read this. I have it but still have not gotten around to doing so.

  15. On one hand, the comics versus graphic novel thing never bothered me so much as the people who say that comics and graphic novels and manga aren't reading. That gets me every time! I see red.

    This book has been on display at my local B&N store for months. I've been curious about it and debated reading it before I started in on the medium, but uhhh I blame One Piece for making me lose my focus. I've suggested it to my library, so maybe I'll get a chance soon!

  16. Carl: I've seen it used to distinguish individual comics from the ones published as books too, and like you said it makes sense in that context. But so often it becomes a statement of "worthiness" or whatever. You know, I think this kind of attitude is beginning to disappear, but it will take a while for it to be completely gone. It kind of reminds me of the whole 18th/19th century novels-are-trash-poetry-is-the-only-true-art debate, or more recently of arguments about whether or not jazz or rock music or anything other than classic music were "worthy" or not.

    Renay: I've come across the "that's not even reading" attitude a few times, and it drives me mad too. I hope your library does get this book! I had to look up One Piece... I've been looking for Manga recommendations and I really like the sound of it!

  17. I've had fights over the "comics aren't reading" claim, fights TO THE DEATH, so much so I uhhh avoid book bloggers who I know hold that opinion. Possibly this is mean but it feels like stomping on the medium. Alas.

    One Piece is super fun. I absolutely recommend it, even though it's very long. In Japan there's 52 collected volumes, around 500 chapters. I believe only 19 volumes have been published in the US (and they take FOR-FREAKING-EVER to come out), but I read via scanlation most of the time (mmm legality) so I'm not sure about other places to get them in English.

  18. Renay, I don't think it's mean. A place where I see that attitude a lot is at my university, and it really makes me want to run away. I know that if I start arguing about it I'll be saying the same things again and again and nobody will be listening anyway.

    52 collected volumes! That's what I worry about with manga. The last thing I need is to get addicted to even more long series of books. But then again there's no such thing as a stand alone manga, is there? I should probably pick a short-ish series or two and stick with those for now.

  19. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I definitely hope I can find this one. I'm obviously still really a neophyte when it comes to comics, but I most definitely have learned in the last year how much I love them.

    Okay, I probably shouldn't admit this, but since Eva was once brave enough to admit that she used to think graphic novels were erotica, I guess I can admit that I used to wonder if the term "comic" (as opposed to graphic novel) meant they were humorous, as opposed to serious. Yeah, I'm an idiot. :) And I really do want to read this book!

  20. I've seen so many graphic novels get great reviews, but somehow I just haven't been able to see myself reading and enjoying them. So this sounds like a book I ought to read! To gain some appreciation for the medium and change my stereotypes about it.

  21. Debi: I hope you can too! I think you'd enjoy it. And nothing to be ashamed of! You are definitely not an idiot. I think the origin of the term has to do with the fact that early comics and comic strips in newspapers were in fact mostly funny.

    Jeane: I think this book would be good for that, yes. Or just take the plunge! Pick up, say, American Born Chinese and give it a try. Maybe you won't like it, but even if so then you'll know for sure that it's not just because of preconceptions or anything.

  22. Thanks for this, I will tell Alex about it as well. It's a shame that comics still get a bad rap and ignored by many due to stereotypes. I got my mum Persepolis for her birthday in September and she loved it. I then got her Maus (and her first Manga Shakespeare!) for Christmas which I hope she will enjoy as well.

  23. Just finishing up my post about this and finding other reviews (it will go up tomorrow). I said so many of the same things like "comic book about comics." I really wasn't trying to copy you, I promise. :) But I guess when it's a good book it's easy to say "it's great!!"


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