Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2219
AUTHOR: McCloud, Scott
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ARTIST: Scott McCloud (illustrator); Bob Lappan (letterer)
PUBLISHER: Tundra Publishing; HarperCollins
FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: 1993
Often considered to be comics theorist Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art was first published by Tundra Publishing in 1993. HarperCollins later reprinted the work. The book has been translated into a number of languages, including Spanish, German, and Korean.
Prior to the publication of Understanding Comics, McCloud was best known as the creator of the superhero series Zot! (1984-1990), published by Eclipse Comics. After gaining recognition for his work as a comics theorist, he went on to write additional works about comics and the comics industry. Reinventing Comics (2000) focuses on the comic book industry and digital comics, while Making Comics (2006) explores the storytelling techniques used in comics, graphic novels, and manga.
Chapter 1 of Understanding Comics, “Setting the Record Straight,” begins with a brief introduction by the narrator and then immediately delves into the problems of categorizing and defining comics. McCloud stresses that comics do not have to fit into the mold of immature reading material for children. Building on comics creator Will Eisner’s definition of comics as “sequential art,” McCloud considers how best to define the medium. The definition he ultimately settles on and repeats throughout the book is one that many scholars accept, or at least acknowledge, as one of the official definitions of comics. McCloud then begins to contextualize different forms of art and writing that, according to his definition, could fall under the heading of comics. Examples include a pre-Columbian picture manuscript and the Bayeux Tapestry. Hieroglyphics are quickly disregarded as comics, but Egyptian paintings certainly fit the bill. Modern comics originate with Rodolphe Töpffer, a French artist who essentially invented the panel, and other artists whose works can be considered as comics, even though they are rarely regarded as such. In fact, just about any work with a series of illustrations can technically be considered a comic, depending on one’s standards, and McCloud encourages the reader to continue working out exactly what those standards should be.
Chapter 2, “The Vocabulary of Comics,” begins with an example of how a representation of something does not equal the actual item or idea. Icons bring about meaning without the actual form; the icon itself can be an abstract depiction of its meaning or an almost realistic depiction of it. McCloud then goes on to address cartooning, describing it as “amplification through simplification,” in that the lack of details makes the image more accessible and recognizable. The simplest icon to identify is that of the face, which the mind tends to project onto just about any visible surface or pattern. It is this simplicity and lack of detail that allow the average person to identify easily with the cartoon and the icon. The distinction between the most basic depiction of a concept and an almost photo-realistic representation of it is that they relay different forms of information, and this distinction becomes even more complex once language is defined as the abstract model of ideas. McCloud describes the concept using the image of a pyramid, which serves as both a chart and a map for comics. The three corners of the pyramid represent reality, the pictorial plane, and meaning. McCloud then arranges more than a hundred comics within the pyramid, ordering them based on how close they are to each corner and in relation to the others.
Chapter 3, “Blood in the Gutter,” deals directly with how the mind completes that which goes beyond normal perception, which McCloud calls closure. Closure occurs almost automatically with just about everything the reader sees, and it is necessary for comics to function. It occurs between panels in a place called the gutter, where the different images come together to show changes in time and space. McCloud even argues that closure is an active choice, a leap taken voluntarily by the reader with his or her imagination to reach an intended meaning. He describes what he considers to be the six most basic (and self-defined) types of transition between panels—moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect, and non sequitur—and places them in a graph to see how American, European, and Japanese comics compare in terms of panel transitions. McCloud then discusses the number of panels necessary to tell a story and the importance of obtaining the right balance between too much and too little information with closure.
Chapter 4, “Time Frames,” focuses on the element of time, especially within a single panel. Time is not uniform within a defined space, since even one panel depicts actions and not just a single moment. There is no way of knowing how much time actually elapses in comics; the direction of the panels gives a good sense of time, but how a reader observes those panels is not strictly defined. The linear progression of time and the impression of movement are represented differently in comics than in other forms of media, and cartoonists tend to play on readers’ preconceptions to create meaning. Lines within a single panel of a still image can represent motion, while a stationary figure against a blurry background may have the same effect. The duration of time within a panel and the reader’s perception of it are affected by a number of different factors.
Chapter 5, “Living in Line,” deals with how the use of lines can evoke different meanings. This chapter includes a quick overview of different classical artists who used lines in their own ways to show something more. Cartoonists also follow a particular style to portray something unique. In comics, lines can be used to depict things that normally cannot be represented in a visual-only medium; for example, wavy lines often represent heat or a bad smell. Fonts and word balloons provide yet another way to depict meaning within comics.
Chapter 6, “Show and Tell,” begins by asserting that over time, language becomes more abstract and pictures become more symbolic, with the two continuing to grow farther apart. Comics tend to join them together in varied ways, as McCloud shows with the previously mentioned pyramid chart. The standards of art and writing have also changed, and these extend to comics as well. McCloud argues that comics should not be judged by the standards of previous forms, in part because comics are still growing in the way they can tell stories. He then provides different categories of ways in which words and pictures work together: word-specific, picture-specific, duo-specific, additive, parallel, montage, and interdependent. Separately, words and pictures can each tell a different story, but together they can achieve much more.
Chapter 7, “The Six Steps,” starts by directly stating that comics are art, especially given a broad enough definition. McCloud defines art as anything that is not directly related to survival and reproduction. He ties art to a certain path that has six steps: idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface. Many artists only vary the final parts of the path, and some do not even use any of the previous steps. With enough practice and study, artists can dedicate themselves to altering each of the steps until they change art itself. The goal of an artist need not be to transform art, but those artists who do allow for others to continue changing the path of art itself.
Chapter 8, “A Word About Color,” consists of just eight pages and is the only chapter in the book to use color. McCloud gives a quick history lesson on how color first made its way into the print medium. Effectively, the early high costs of color and relatively low level of technology meant that only the standard primary colors were available. Comic book heroes were depicted in bright primary colors that came to represent them; Superman’s blue, red, and yellow costume immediately comes to mind. While American comics were limited in their use of colors, McCloud notes that European comics had more colors available and strove to balance them all on the page. Other comics used completely different styles of palettes. Still, McCloud argues that black-and-white comics can evoke feelings just as well as full-color comics and should not be considered obsolete just because better technologies are available.
Chapter 9, “Putting It All Together,” goes into the basics of communication, asserting that because the transmission of ideas is limited by medium, people must master their medium in order to communicate effectively. It is for this reason, McCloud claims, that it is important to understand comics, in order to use them better. Ignorance and preconceived notions about comics severely limit the message that can be conveyed via this medium. The medium of comics is still growing, and comics have the potential to communicate so much, if only given the chance to do so.
Scott McCloud is the author’s avatar and the narrator throughout the entirety of the book. He wears large, round glasses and a Zot! T-shirt. McCloud is technically the only character within the book, although other familiar faces from the comic book world appear sporadically. He communicates directly with readers in order to help them achieve the titular goal of the book. However, for all of McCloud’s knowledge, he rarely if ever appears to be arrogant or overly intellectual. Instead, he recognizes the limits of his own understanding and invites readers to join and engage in the debate about the nature of comics.
The art in the book is fairly consistent, with McCloud’s avatar being drawn in a simple manner against a blank background or different settings. However, examples of different panel layouts, the styles of other artists, and other aspects of drawing are presented in order to illustrate the differences between each, and sometimes the narrator’s rendering shifts in order to match his surroundings. At first glance, the minimalist drawings might suggest to the average, casual reader that the book is a children’s comic book featuring a man who talks too much; it is only upon careful reading that one comes to understand McCloud’s exposition. The apparently simple artistic style helps both demystify the different aspects of comics and present them with an air of seriousness.
The book’s typical layout, featuring McCloud’s avatar addressing the audience via speech balloons for about twelve panels per page, makes Understanding Comics feel like a lively conversation rather than a boring lecture, manifesto, or treatise on the complexity of comics. From the iconic smiley face to a nearly photo-realistic portrait, McCloud draws and replicates many distinct styles, depicting ancient cave paintings, famous works of art, and several familiar faces from the world of American, European, and Japanese comics to illustrate how varied comics, and even traditional art, can truly be. While the panel layouts and overall information can be dense throughout the majority of the book, there are no large sections of text that might thwart reader engagement or understanding.
McCloud expands on what Eisner first considered to be sequential art. Much of the book analyzes this art form and defends it as such, using various examples that range from ancient Egyptian art to the Bayeux Tapestry to contemporary diagrams. Distinctions are made as to what kinds of works do and do not qualify as comics, at least according to McCloud. The book serves as a pedagogical guide to the promised understanding of comics. If one were to classify the book, it would likely fall under the category of art criticism or even art history, though it is most likely to be found in the graphic novels section of the bookstore. While it can certainly serve as a textbook, the book’s discourse is not preachy or overly authoritative; instead, McCloud presents his views on comics based on his personal experiences within the comic book industry and his own extensive research, expressing his ideas not as solutions but rather as considerations in the great debate on art and comics. If anything, Understanding Comics is highly democratic and inviting for all to participate. The last lines of the book sum up the purpose of the work: “This book is meant to stimulate debate, not settle it. I’ve had my say. Now it’s your turn.”
Understanding Comics became one of the most recognized and influential books about comics, winning several awards and prompting McCloud to write a number of other works on the subject. McCloud’s definition of comics is rarely absent from any academic text on the subject, even those that disagree with his statements. The book has become one of the building blocks of the academic field of comics studies and has been used as a textbook in many academic programs. Ultimately, Understanding Comics goes beyond comic books and graphic novels, defining how images and text can be placed together to do something more than they can individually and redefining art along the way.
- Dardess, George. “Review: Bringing Comic Books to Class.” College English 57, no. 2 (1995): 213-222.
- Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
- Wolfe, Gary K. “On Some Recent Scholarship.” Review of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Science Fiction Studies 21, no. 3 (1994): 438-439.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: History, Theme, and Technique Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press