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
by Alasdair Watson
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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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