Understanding Comics

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Explaining how he came to write detective novels, a popular form of fiction that critics disparaged or condescended to, Ross Macdonald observed that a genuinely democratic society needs a vital popular literature written in a language accessible to all its members: “A book which can be read by everyone, a convention which is widely used and understood in all its variations, holds a civilization together as nothing else can.” Something of the same passionate idealism informs Scott McCloud’s loving study of another popular art form. Ranging from Mayan glyphs to Japanese comics, from William Hogarth and Max Ernst to Jack Kirby and Art Speigelman, McCloud explores the conventions that make the language of comics accessible to millions. In the process, he argues persuasively for recognition of the depth and richness of this “invisible art.”

McCloud shows how the failure to give comics their due reflects a centuries-old split between words and pictures. Children are expected to progress from books that consist mostly of pictures to books that combine words and pictures to books that are nothing but text. The unexamined assumption is that serious artists can work with words or pictures in isolation (as in a novel or a painting) but not with the two mixed together (as in comics)—an assumption that McCloud wittily demolishes. Like the brilliant film criticism of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut in the 1950’s, UNDERSTANDING COMICS is also an artist’s manifesto that will inspire others (some perhaps just beginning) to take the art of comics in new directions.