Suzanna Anderson: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud is a great resource for comic readers and creators alike. McCloud covers the definition and history of comics, the vocabulary, the power of assuming that there is a world beyond the panel, the space between panels (aka gutters), how time works, the effectiveness of lines, the connection between language and art, the steps of creation, using color, and combining this knowledge to create a comic. The other two books that McCloud wrote about comics are Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form and Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels.

The style for this book is in comic book form. McCloud introduces himself directly to the reader. He decided as a kid that he wanted to become a comic artist. He started practicing his drawing skills. But the definition of comics was too narrow. McCloud uses the simple lines to illustrate himself. This creates an intimate experience for me, where I feel like McCloud is only talking to me. It would be difficult to explain comics without using them as illustrations and examples, but the choice to explain comics with the comics form is very effective. I get to see the techniques at work. I get to experience the combination of words and pictures.

McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (20). He works with the reader to explain how he arrived at such a definition. McCloud starts with separating form and content, quality and subject matter. He begins with Eisner’s definition of “sequential art.”

The panel-to-panel transitions inspired me to stop reading and go create something. I’ve noticed the six transitions in my own reading material.

  1. Moment-to-moment
  2. Action-to-action
  3. Subject-to-subject
  4. Scene-to-scene
  5. Aspect-to-aspect
  6. Non-sequitur

Then McCloud examines the percentage of transitions that comic artists use. The most common transition is action-to-action. But what is fascinating to me is that American artists mostly use transitions 2, 3, and 4, with some 5. But European artists also use 2, 3, and 4, but use 1 and 4 more often. Then Osamu Tezuka, from Japan, uses 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

McCloud defines art as “…any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction!” (164). He goes on to say, “It’s a happy fact of human existence that we simply can’t spend our every waking hour eating and having sex! No matter how frantically we pursue our goals, there will inevitably be times when we just don’t have a thing to do!” (165). The boring times tend to lead to creativity. McCloud explains that there is a natural path of six steps for creativity.

  1. Idea/purpose
  2. Form
  3. Idiom
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

The idea/purpose is the spark for the work’s content. The form is the choice of medium, like a book, drawing, a song, etc. The idiom is the vocabulary and style of that form. Structure is what to include or leave out, how to arrange the work. Craft is the artist’s skill set and applicable knowledge, problem-solving, and invention. Surface is the appearance of the final work (170-171). But the steps are a cycle. Artists begin as readers, working on the skills and going through the steps. Mature artists can return to earlier steps and learn deeper. Or go back and invent new ways of approaching the form with innovation. McCloud says there is one simple question artists face, “Why am I doing this?” (177). And, “…it’s still amazing how much time and effort is spent by comics creators trying to get what they want out of comics before they even know what they want!” (181). McCloud says, “…the learning process for most artists is a slow and steady journey from end to beginning, from surface to core” (183).

As a newbie in the comic and graphic novel world, I enjoyed being a beginner with McCloud as he went through the basics. It amazed me how applicable the process for comics is for writing stories and poems. This is a must-read for fans of comics and those who wish to pursue creating their own.