Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Understanding Comics

This book is a pleasure to read and it contains valuable insights. It is a book about comics written and drawn in comic book form. The principles of comics are related to story telling. After all, they both are stories. McCloud defines comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an esthetic response in the viewer." The difference between comics and an animated movie is that "each successive frame of a movie is projected on exactly the same space - while each frame of comics must occupy different space. Space does for comics what time does for film."

McCloud demonstrates without a doubt the power and validity of comics to tell a story and to explain extremely complex ideas. My interpretation of McLuhan's idea of the post literate age leads me to believe that comics will be a growing form of communication.

Chapter 1 traces the history of comics from early cave art to the present. In Chapter 2 he develops a rather complete model for human written/drawn communication. In doing so, he considers the four dimensions of:

1. Complex - Simple
2. Realistic - Iconic
3. Objective - Subjective
4. Specific - Universal

From this he develops a model that relates reality, abstract and symbolic types of communication in a triangle. He also populates this triangle (which he alter expands into a pyramid) with examples of the many comic artists of history indicating how they relate to one another.

In Chapter 4, the author explains "closure". Closure is the mind's power to complete an image or an idea with incomplete information. Closure can be involuntary or voluntary. With many modern technologies, McCloud points out that closure is involuntary. However, with comics, the reader is a participant in completing the action or thought. He writes that there are six different types of closure employed in comics:

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

He gives examples of each type. In addition he has statistics on which type is used by what artist and the differences between cultures. American and European comics rarely use the aspect to aspect transition, whereas Japanese artists use this type of transition frequently. This may be due to fact that art, like the Japanese garden, changes as you walk through it. With each new aspect, you get a different composition. In the West, the dominant transition is type 2 - action to action.

In a striking example, McCloud shows how different it is to view strips of cartoon, realistic images and abstractions. Closure is easy with cartoon images, very difficult with realistic images (tend to view each image alone), and almost impossible with abstract images (tend to look at the whole strip as a single piece of art).

Chapter 4 discusses time in comics. "Just as pictures and the intervals between them create the illusion of time through closure, words introduce time by representing that which can only exist in time - sound." In comics, it is the panel that is an icon that "acts as a general indicator that time or space is being divided." As a result, the size, shape and arrangements of panels on a page are an integral part of the creative effort for the artist to get the reader involvement he or she wants. The content of a silent panel (without words or action) "offers no clues as to its duration. It can also produce a sense of timelessness." The effects of such a panel can "bleed over" into subsequent panels creating a mood or sense of place. In this chapter he also treats the subject of motion in comics - multiple images, action lines, subjective (putting the reader in the action) and the use of a continuous background.

The techniques of conveying emotion are described in Chapter 5. In comics, emotions are conveyed through the character and spacing of the lines, by icons, the character of the word balloon and of course, the words themselves.

In Chapter 6, McCloud discusses the subject of the combination of words and pictures in comics through time - history and future.

In Chapter 7, he explains the seven steps of creating comics (or any form of art):

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

McCloud discusses the use of color in Chapter 8 and in Chapter 9 ties all the elements together. In the closing chapter he writes about the difficulties of an artist getting the ideas on paper and the viewer getting an approximation of the original idea. This is the dilemma of any artist and comics are no different. He sees a great future for comics, best told in his word and image:

After reading this book, you may want to read his second book, Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form, Harper Perennial, 2000.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Scott McCloud
Harper Perennial, 1993

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