Comics : Understanding Comics

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Industry Books

This review was first published on: 2004.


In the 80's, pioneer comic artist Will Eisner produced his landmark work "Sequential Art", which for the first time in the history of the medium performed an analysis of how comics, graphic novels, and other forms of sequential art actually operated. It formed the basis of academic courses on comic writing, and became the cornerstone of future investigation into the nature of comics.

"Sequential Art" documented the "How" of sequential art. It analysed and explained the fundamental tools of the trade. I read "Sequential Art" only recently, after 20+ years of collecting and reading comics. I was shocked to realise how ignorant I had been about the medium I had adopted as my hobby.

Hungry for more, I purchased a copy of Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics", which was often spoken of in the same breath as Eisner's text. McCloud's book dates from 1994, and benefits from ten years of study within the brave new world which Eisner founded.

In Detail...

Understanding Comics
Apr 1994 : Review (No SM)
Find ISBN 006097625X
Publisher:  Kitchen Sink Press
Writer:  Scott McCloud
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"Sequential Art" and "Understanding Comics" are, with very little argument, the two most important works to date in the study of the comics medium. The urge to compare the two books is almost irresistible, and I won't fight that temptation. The easy way to summarise the two is to say that Eisner is the self-taught master, and McCloud is the promising young student. That is certainly true, but it covers only a fraction of the key differences.

The most visible difference is of course that "Understanding Comics" is, itself, a comic book - illustrated by McCloud himself. While in hindsight this may seem to be an obvious approach to take, it is also a stroke of genius. It is impossible to underestimate the increased effectiveness of the comic-book format in the entire discussion. It is also an irrefutable kick-in-the-nuts to anybody who might suggest that the comic-book medium is not a perfect vehicle for "grown-up" subject matter and academic debate.

With that said, let's look closer at the less obvious differences. Will Eisner was a comic creator, and his work seems to me to be primarily written as a "How To" book for those who also seek to write comics. McCloud is also an immensely talented comic creator, but "Understanding Comics" is much larger in both scope and audience than "Sequential Art". McCloud covers not only the "how", but he also thoroughly covers the "what, who, and when", and also grapples with the "why".

McCloud's book benefits from the clearer and wider understanding of the genre which was gained in the intervening decade, and is noticably better structured than its predecessor. Where "Sequential Art" covered Comics As A Form Of Reading, Imagery, Timing, The Frame, Expressive Anatomy, Writing & Sequential Art, Application, Print & Computer Media, by comparison McCloud's sections are Setting the Record Straight, The Vocabulary of Comics, Blood in the Gutter, Time Frames, Living in Line, Show and Tell, The Six Steps, A Word About Color, and Putting it All Together.

As an example of the differences in scope, let's consider the relative discussions that Eisner and McCloud perform regarding panels and framing. Eisner talks about "The Panel as a Medium of Control", the different uses of full, medium or close-up shots. He discusses the panel as a container, the use of different recognised panel shapes, and about using the panel as a narrative device. He also discusses using the frame as structural support, e.g. using frames to give the sense of space or constriction, and about using panel colors and shapes to provide emotions.

By comparison, McCloud's discussion of the panel strikes much more at the heart of the panel, and digs at the more fundamental question of what a panel does. McCloud makes us think about what happens between panels... in the gutter between two frames. What does happen between panels? Well, whatever the reader decides will happen. And this also illustrates a key difference... McCloud is very much concerned with the role of the comic reader, in a far deeper and more philosophical sense than Eisner's more practical approach.

Of course, the two books overlap a great deal in subject matter - but in nearly all cases, McCloud digs deeper and more widely into the very heart of sequential art than does Eisner. That's not to say that one book is better than the other. The goals of the two works are very different. Eisner presented for the first time ever a serious text describing the hitherto undocumented techniques and theories used in the domain which at the time was literally the "state of the art".

McCloud, by comparison, investigates the history of comics, going back much further than "The Yellow Kid", back to Ancient Egypt and Medieval France. He examines the entire spectrum of art styles, and probes at the different psychological effects of different styles of art. He examines the full scale of icons and imagery from realism to pictorialism to written text, and he develops tools for analysing comics from different eras and cultures. McCloud's breadth of subject matter is truly breathtaking. With deft skill and uncanny insight, he grapples with everything from "the nature of the perceived flow of time within and between panels", to the perennial question of "what is art".

In another's hands, the sheer range of topics covered might have resulted in the research being spread so thin as to become trite and superficial. "Understanding Comics" suffers no such fate. McCloud spent many years analysing these very questions, and he spent 15 months writing this book. For every subject he approaches, he has a valuable and well-considered point of view to offer his reader - a point of view which is always expressed in clear and thought-provoking terms.

In General...

I formerly recommended "Sequential Art" as essential reading for anyone intending to create a sequential art story, or who wanted further insight into the techniques of creating comics and graphic novels.

By contrast, I would recommend "Understanding Comics" to anybody who has any interest in comics whatsoever, and also to anybody who has any interest in art, film, or literature. McCloud's book took the new-found respect and understanding which I had gained from reading "Sequential Art", and promptly multiplied it five-fold.

Where "Sequential Art" gave me respect for comics, "Understanding Comics" elevated that respect to the point where I believe that the comic book form is in every way the equal of it's peers - Fine Art, and Literature.

Overall Rating...

This book is a brilliant, insightful, thought-provoking, humbling, staggering, world-changing work of unmitigated genius. Five Hundred Webs.