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082200: PROFILE REVIEW: UNDERSTANDING COMICS
The book that brough serious critical analysis of the medium to the masses.

Creator: Scott McCloud
224 Pages, Black and White
Published by Kitchen Sink Press/HarperPerennial 1994
$22.50

Reviewed by Alasdair Watson

For a medium as complex as comics, there are very few books on the technical elements of the artform. There are hundreds of books of art theory, plenty of places to read about photography, books about typography, design for any one of a number of mediums, and bookshelves full of literary criticism and theory works. Comics, however, apparently only rate 2 major textbooks, of which Will Eisner's COMICS AND THE SEQUENTIAL ARTFORM is one... and UNDERSTANDING COMICS is the other. This is perhaps the more scholarly of the two, Eisner's being made up chiefly of a series of short essays on different aspects of the medium drawn from the back of various comics that he created, back-up strips, as it were.

But despite being the more scholarly, UNDERSTANDING COMICS is probably easier going for the casual reader, written as it is in the form of a comic. This is perhaps the capstone of the 80s deconstructionist movement in comics; a comic that doesn't stop at deconstructing the archetypes and great classic works of the medium, but takes the logical final step and pulls them apart at the root level, that of the ink on the page.

Reading this book, it becomes apparent just how much thought must go into a good comic, the level of detail there is to consider. All those things that the reader takes for granted in reading the finished product - from the little devices like spacing between panels (guttering), to the bigger and more obvious elements such as page layout and typography - have to be considered by someone, be it the artist or writer, at some stage of the process. Or at least they will if the comic is one of the really good ones. One of the things that this book will make the reader see is how subtle a medium comics can be; sometimes it is the little, unnoticed things like the guttering's width that can really change the way we react to a work. It is the details that make the comic.

McCloud has clearly done his research for this book; he moves easily between discussion of the carvings of ancient Mexican civilizations to the Bayeux tapestry to the work of turn-of-the-century political cartoonists. From there he moves on to more modern works that we would more readily identify as comics. McCloud presents us with a thorough spread of examples from a very wide variety of different creators and styles in order to illustrate his points. All of this presents us with a comprehensive overview of the medium, intelligently examined.

There are a couple of blind spots in the work, which is very much focused on the pictures of the comics - the art of lettering is passed over in just one panel, and very little discussion space is given to the way in which people read the text within the comics, the rhythm and layout of the words.

This book will not teach you how to write comics. But it should be required reading for anyone who aspires to write comics, especially those who aren't artists themselves. It will teach the vocabulary of comics, bestow a knowledge of the tricks and devices of the medium, and make it clear that there's more to storytelling in comics than the tools of the American Superhero idiom. This book, in conjunction with Eisner's COMICS AND THE SEQUENTIAL ARTFORM (which contains more discussion of some of the elements McCloud glosses over or neglects) will provide and excellent foundation for anyone interested in becoming a comics writer.

Further, when reading this book, it is important to remember that this is not the be-all and end-all of comics. The book, as McCloud himself says, is intended to "stimulate debate, not settle it." Just because he's done a lot of research does not mean he's right. The reader is encouraged to think for themselves.

But all that said, this book is not for those with no interest in the craft of writing comics. They will probably find it a little dry, despite McCloud's highly engaging style.

Recommended (with reservations: not for those with no interest in the technical elements of the medium)


Alasdair Watson is a founding member of PopImage, and is currently preparing for the launch of NINTHART.COM. This Review originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of PopImage.


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