Review: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art
Scott McCloud
Harper Paperback
1994 (originally published 1993)

A couple of weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter. I’ve been getting into comics/graphic novels, and I wanted a reference book that would give me an introduction to the history and important authors/artists of the format. Someone tweeted back, “Aside from Understanding Comics, you mean?” Well, no, friend, I didn’t mean that  (I’m a little behind the times in the world of what I now know to call sequential art), but I think that counts as a recommendation. When we were at Borders last week, I picked up a copy, and I’m so glad I did! Understanding Comics turned out to be not exactly  what I was looking for, but it was a fascinating and informative read.

Understanding Comics contains a little of this history I was looking for, but it’s really more of a philosophical/theoretical exploration of what comics are and how they work. McCloud does an amazing job, in just 240, of introducing readers to a host of topics that are important for appreciating comics. He discusses the  historical relationship between pictorial images and text and advances a fascinating theory of iconography that examines the effect of art along a continuum from representational to symbolic. His discussion of the gutter – the white space between panels – explains how gutters not only imply movement through time and space but require a high degree of involvement from the reader, who is required to fill the white space with her own imagination. His discussion of how the text, images, and layout of comics come together to create sequential art was my favorite part. Many of the ideas translate well to thinking about picture books, too (the gutter = the page turn, in my mind), so as a picture book fan that was an added bonus.

As wonderful and informative as it is, Understanding Comics is not without its weaknesses. My biggest issue is the lack of in-text citations. This is a common gripe for me with popular non-fiction: you’re reading along, the author makes some interesting but rather grandiose/controversial/sweeping claim, and you want to find out just what he’s using to back that up. Well, in Understanding Comics, you’re out of luck. There is a small “selected bibliography” at the end, which is great, but I’d love to know which of McCloud’s ideas are his own, and which he borrowed from other writers (to be fair, he frequently references other writers, including art theorists and sequential artists, so it’s not like he’s trying to plagiarize – it’s just frustrating to follow up on an idea and have no clue where to start).

Still, gripping about citations (and the very occasionally self-important tone) aside, Understanding Comics is a must-read for anyone who’s at all interested in the format, or anyone who likes art theory. Highly recommended.

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