Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

12th April 2011

Spring. I love it for so many reasons including the really great texts my students and I explore. This week, we are reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, but many of my students have never before read a graphic novel. In fact, last week one of them opened up the book, held it up, and asked: “Is it really supposed to be a comic book?” So, I thought it was essential to introduce them to the medium and made some copies of excerpts from Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud.

If you haven’t ventured far into comics/graphic novels and want a primer or even just a great, fun reference book, you could do much worse. McCloud uses the medium itself to define and explore the complex world of images and comics.

In an accessible manner, McCloud starts with the basics, using one of Magritte’s paintings and then explaining that the image you are viewing is not a pipe, or a painting of a pipe or a drawing of a pipe. Instead, it’s (in our case) a web page view of a printed page of a drawing of a painting of a pipe. Now that that’s clear as mud, take a look at the page (click to enlarge):

Why does any of that matter? Well, McCloud wants us to be able to break down images the way a cartoonist might, and he discusses icons and how icons and symbols are different from one another:

Thus, as a number or letter simply represents the corresponding number or letter (3=3; M=m), the icons above are indicative of an idea, though not the ideas themselves. McCloud argues that comics operate in icons and demand reader participation. Let me explain: he says photos only allow us to see what the photographer views. However, comics break down images to less complex levels, inviting the reader/viewer to better identify with the story.

This particular panel is an excellent experiment. From left to right, the images decrease in detail, leaving us with a simplistic drawing of a face. McCloud says we are more likely to see ourselves in the image on the right as opposed to the image on the left. In fact, McCloud says we are eager to see ourselves everywhere:

And it’s so true. Don’t you see faces in the images below? Fascinating. The rest of the book discusses panel choice, color, story, etcetera, and it’s really a great, fairly-quick read. If you’re at all interested in comic books and graphic novels, I think you’ll absolutely love this book.

If you’re interested, you can buy a copy here.

Well? Have you read Understanding Comics? Until I discovered graphic novels, I was always a fan of Archie. Are you a fan of comic books or graphic novels? What are some of your favorites?
jenn aka the picky girl

  • I’m not the biggest fan of McCloud – I remember reading this book and it boring me so much I almost never wanted to read a comic again. That passed pretty quickly, though.

    I love Lynda Barry, Ailene Kominsky-Crumb & R. Crumb, the Hernandez bros, Joe Sacco, Charles Burns, Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Phoebe Gloeckner. Who are you into? I’d love to compare comics reading lists so I can add some titles to my to-read list. I’ve been able to get a lot of great novels here – free classics, kindle buys, random finds in the peace corps office – but it’s been over a year and a half since I’ve read a comic and I’m dying.

    • pickygirl

      Really? It bored you? I thought it was really fascinating and loved the way he breaks down why comics are important.

      I’ve read most of the ones you list – love Lynda Barry. This week, though, I am teaching Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Have you checked her out? I really want to track down Embroideries as well. I read and reviewed Stitches by David Small and thought it was pretty amazing. The Watchmen was the first really long one I tackled (and the first comic I had read in years, actually), and I wasn’t sure going into it but ended up really enjoying it.

      I’m always surprised that more of my students don’t read comics, but they don’t. However, most have commented on how much they’ve enjoyed the reading experience with Persepolis.

  • asvbds

    What a boring book. It picked my brain out.