I was sixty pages into this book when I realized it had already earned a spot in my top-ten favorite nonfiction books. Don’t ask me what the other nine are because I had never thought about my top-ten favorite nonfiction books until that moment. I just know that Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is one of them. This is a graphic novel about the theory, history, and art of comic books. What hooked me though was McCloud’s presentation of how the human mind handles images and language, and he does it within the comic format. It is nothing short of genius.
McCloud begins the book trying to answer the question “what is comics?” The definition he comes up with is “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He goes on to examine that definition by looking at how comics have evolved through human history, from the Aztecs to the 1400s to modern day. What we often consider to be a childish form of entertainment today is a form of communication that seems to have been natural to humans since our beginning. And McCloud argues that comics are a legitimate art form that has largely gone unstudied.
It is chapter two that begins to look deeper into how images affect us. I found it fascinating, and like I said, by chapter three I was hooked. McCloud’s theories are not really new. Marshall McLuhan, Will Eisner, Neil Postman, and others have written about how media affects us, but McCloud’s presentation makes all the difference for me. What’s Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying? The medium is the message?
McCloud goes into the theory, the nuts and bolts if you will, of comics making- panel arrangement, the different types of transitions, the style of art, time, line, and color. What keeps all of this accessible to those of us who aren’t artists is the fact that McCloud always brings it back to how the reader is a participant in all of this. A discussion on how time is handled in comics didn’t mean much to me until I saw how I create the time and motion from the ink on the paper.
Another recurring theme is how all of this is a relatively new art form in terms of being examined and pushed to its limits. Novels, poetry, music, art- virtually everything that could be done has been done. McCloud argues that comics still have a lot of unexplored territory. He touches on how some artists and writers have experimented with the aforementioned aspects of comics, like time and color. He encourages new writers and artists to do more.
I would have loved to have used this book when I taught High School English. I’m sure it would have saved the lives of some of the gang members I taught. As an English major, I feel slightly cheated that this wasn’t in the curriculum. It should be required reading in College English classes, but as McCloud states, new art forms are judged by their predecessors. Any study of language, art, and what it means to humans would greatly benefit from Understanding Comics. Am I laying it on too thick? I can’t say enough good things about his book. Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, writes this:
Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple-looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comix while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art, and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comix I’ve seen in a long time.
The Cosmos, people. It doesn’t get any better than that.