If you’ve ever read a graphic novel or comic book and wondered why some stories seem to work better than others, or if you’ve wondered how a medium so simple can house such compelling vision, I highly suggest having a read through Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. This book is meant more for the lay-person, interested enough in comics and graphic novel storytelling but looking for a deeper, analytical grasp on how the medium truly works.
A good friend of mine handed this book to me when we were in college. I read it from cover to cover while I was working on figuring out how to get started with comics, and many of the topics and ideas presented within shaped the way I’ve decided to present my work. I will warn you, at times the book feels preachy and extremist – but taken at face value, Understanding Comics provides the reader with a reinforcement of what sequential art is truly all about.
The first thing you will notice is the format of the book. McCloud figures that the best way to present the ideas about the mechanics of comics and their role in society is by doing so as a comic book. Inside, the nine chapters explore the different aspects of comics / sequential art, and break them down into specific concepts. Definition, vocabulary, transitions, time, emotion and expression, imagery and narrative, thought process and idea development, the use of color and the complete process cycle are all described in full detail with some examples from art history and the current age.
McCloud uses his experience and research with the support of visual references from his peers to formulate a position that effectively states the case for comics as a suitable medium for creative expression and social commentary. Simply stated, he wants comics to gain the same type of respect that every other media has received, such as television and film, magazines, journals and periodicals. For years, comics have been classified as material for children and dreamers, but have proven to be a powerful form of visual communication which have not received the mainstream acclaim as other popular media.
I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for an entertaining read on what makes comics work, and the steps necessary on making a comic more than a bunch of pictures with some narrative. It explains the ideas of depth and personality and meaning. If you can make it through the philosophical aspects and the hammer smashing of points, you’ll appreciate the information in Understanding Comics. You will probably need to re-read it due to the barrage of concepts that are presented, but once you have fully absorbed them, you may experience a brief epiphany in some parts (it happened to me.) There may also be a number of times when you will already know what McCloud is explaining ad nauseum, but there will be more instances when you’ll have to pause and really think about what he’s truly getting at. When you’ve made the correlations, it is actually pretty enlightening.
- Great book for learning about the subtleties of comics
- A decent manual for developing your own thought process and attitudes towards comics
- Visually interesting (it is a comic book after all) and entertaining
- Good manual for forming lesson on sequential art
- Sections often tend to over-analyze aspects of comics
- Some of McCloud’s points delivered can be confusing to absorb
- Repetition of concepts in certain sections become monotonous
- Some concepts can be questioned or debated
In short, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is an interesting read for those who know little about the medium, or for reference material for those who have an understanding of the art form and are looking for some validation. I find myself re-reading it to recall some of the concepts again when I’m having difficulty keeping ideas direct, and also when I need some methods to communicate better visually. Not only did Understanding Comics enhance my creative capabilities as a comic book artist, but it also helped me at work as a Creative Director – finding ways to visually convey and communicate ideas effectively. I highly suggest picking up a copy for your personal library – many artists swear by McCloud’s teachings, and rightly so. The wisdom of his writings will help you mold your own perception of comics and the processes involved.