Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Understanding Comics

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 11, 2001

Today, comics is one of the very few forms of mass communication in which individual voices still have a chance to be heard.

Scott McCloud deconstructs and reconstructs the comics medium, the “invisible art” that requires as much authorship on the part of the reader as it does on the writer.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorScott McCloud
Length215 pages
Book Rating5

A lot of what McCloud talks about has to do with “closure”, or the mind’s ability—practically the inability not to—“finish off” incomplete images. These incomplete images can be outside of a single comics panel, or they can be “between” two panels.

I’ve never seen the Earth from space firsthand, yet I trust that the Earth is round. I’ve never been in the house across the street, yet I assume it has an interior, that it isn’t just some big movie set! In this panel you can’t even see my legs, yet you assume that they’re there.

Even though they’re not!

The two pages that use Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” covers this in an even more entertaining fashion. The “closure” of images in a comic book include both sight and sound. You see more than the artist draws, and you hear the words on the page as much as read them. You see the narrator drawn in a panel, and even though the artist didn’t draw the person’s legs below the panel, you “see” that he has them. But the more interesting closure in comic books, to McCloud, is that between panels.

See that space between the panels? That’s what comics aficionados have named “The Gutter!” And despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics!

Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.

As someone who once read comics avidly, and who still reads them as much as I read any other form of book, one of the fascinating things to me about comics is how often I remember something happening that never really happened. Something that was implied between two panels, but was never drawn—and I always remember them in the style of the artist drawing that book.

I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I’m not the one who let it dropThat was your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style. To kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths.

Understanding Comics” investigates both the art and the craft of comics in its search for a theory of comics. He compares the United States and European styles and sees striking similarities; he compares those with Japanese comics and shows distinct differences.

Length may be one of the factors at work here. Most Japanese comics first appear in enormous anthology titles where the pressure isn’t as great on any one installment to show a lot “happening.” When individual features are collected, they may run for thousands of pages. As such, dozens of panels can be devoted to portraying slow cinematic movement or to setting a mood.

And he then goes on to discuss some perhaps more fundamental differences between Western and Eastern art.

His general theory of art contrasts things done for survival or reproduction, with things done for no reason.

The “fine artist”—the pure artist—says to the world: “I didn’t do this for money! I didn’t do this to match the color of your couches! I didn’t do this to get laid! I didn’t do this for fame or power or greed! I did this for art!

In other words: “My art has no practical value whatsoever!”

“But it’s important!”

And then he breaks the creation of art into a life path consisting of six steps: idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface. People naturally start at the surface, doing things like other people, and as they get “better”, move down, until finally they ask “why am I doing this?” (Which, I suspect, is the question that he asked himself that resulted in spending over a year on this book.)

Throughout “Understanding Comics,” McCloud talks about the “vocabulary” of comics, the gutter, time in comics, and the very different ways of showing motion. The effects of line styles on the emotional content of images, a fascinating chapter that shows how comic book artists have taken the ideas of the expressionists and expanded on them (or independently discovered them) to show all forms of emotion in cartoon images.

The next set of chapters is where he goes into further detail on theories of art and how they apply to comics—mostly his own theories, which is what this book is really about. First, he talks about the divorce of pictures from images, how as the written word became more elaborate and abstract, pictorial art pretty much did the same thing in the opposite direction: more representational, until the nineteenth and twentieth century and expressionism, surrealism, dada. And of course contrasts this with the marriage of word and picture in the modern comic. Then, we have our six steps of comics, and, finally, a return to more technical issues in “A Word About Color”.

About a year after “Understanding Comics” first came out, I was working with a first-time comics illustrator. His first sample page was horrible. He was a good artist, but had no idea how to use the comics form to tell a story.I loaned him my copy of “Understanding Comics” and “Comics and Sequential Art”, and two weeks later he came back with a first page that was so incredibly better I nearly couldn’t believe it.

Web designers will also find the information here, about marrying pictures and text, useful. (Although it doesn’t begin to approach my favorite web design book, “Ogilvy on Advertising”.)

Will Eisner says about this book, “Every schoolteacher should have one”. Everyone who is interested in comics as an artform or as a medium of information exchange should read this book. And it’s told as a good story as well. You’ll have fun just leafing through it reading the various chapters. It’s an incredible read, and what’s most amazing about it is that McCloud uses the comics form very deftly to play with and on our emotions as we read it. It reads as much as a story as a discussion of theory and technique. This is a far cry from your standard textbook and well worth a place on your bookshelf.

Understanding Comics

Scott McCloud

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

If you enjoyed Understanding Comics…

If you enjoy comics history, you might also be interested in Alec: How to be an artist and An Unlikely Prophet.