Understanding Comics was written and drawn by Scott McCloud and it’s an excellent analysis of the comics medium. At first, Understanding Comics can seem like an unnecessary endeavour. What’s so difficult about comics that warrants a whole book be written on it? Aren’t comics just garishly coloured superhero stories where people wearing long underwear beat each other over the head? Of course not everybody thinks this way but many people still do and McCloud addresses this. More importantly, he also addresses long time comics readers and that’s part of the strength of this comic.
Understanding Comics is very close to universal in its appeal to potential readers because it doesn’t focus on the analysis of specific comics, classic or otherwise (unless it’s to illustrate a point). McCloud opts for an analysis of the form of storytelling that is the comic book. He doesn’t limit himself to genre or specific creators. He doesn’t even limit himself to the geographical belongings of certain works. He uses American comics, European comics and Japanese manga to illustrate many of the different topics his discuses in his book and it results in two different effects. The first is providing a very wide definition of what comics are, thus showing new readers that comic book are not limited to superheroes or other genre stories. The second is providing long time readers of comics many new works to explore. I had a quite a bit of fun spotting references and characters in McCloud’s background or in the charts. I particularly enjoyed seeing Arale from Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump manga, one of the funniest manga (or comics, for that matter) that I’ve ever read.
McCloud’s analysis of the comics medium was both very broad and, at times, very in depth and specific. He clearly had a lot of other ideas in his head since he published a second book, Reinventing Comics, a few years after this one. His subjects of analysis were many and included visual iconography, reader participation (especially in between panels), the structure and effects of combining words and pictures, the visualization of time and movement, the artistic effects of different styles and colouring palettes as well as the creative process of comics. The most interesting parts for me were in the chapter analyzing how words and picture can combine to transfer information more successfully than either words or pictures separately. His understanding of artistic techniques and their effects of the participation of the reader are nothing short of revelatory.
The comic isn’t without its faults, however. McCloud starts off completely on the wrong foot. He wants people to accept comic as the superb art form he believes it to be but he’s unrefined in his arguments and the whole section reeks of desperation. McCloud seems to be arguing with defenders of literary works, high art and cinema while using an “I’m as good as you are” argument. I think it’s more effective to lead the readers to conclude for themselves that comics are as worthy of attention and praise than any other form of storytelling. Bashing the reader over the head with a heavy handed approach will only result in alienating your reader.
Another fault of Understanding Comics isn’t that big a fault at all. This is a work of a young man and a young comics creator. If you look at it from a certain perspective, it actually makes Understanding Comics that much more impressive and McCloud that much more worthy of praise. From time to time, there was a clunky bit of execution or dialogue but despite McCloud’s age at the time, he had big ideas and he had a lot of ambition. Both of those things can easily be found within these pages and close to twenty years after its initial publication, it still has a lot of weight to it. The comic has aged pretty well.
I’ll always be impressed as to how clearly McCloud shared his thoughts and analysis of comics. I didn’t agree with everything he said, and that’s perfectly fine. McCloud was even aware that everything he was saying wasn’t necessarily going to be taken as fact and he even encourages readers not to. He states that his goal with Understanding Comics was to promote discussion of comics in more intelligent circles.
Understanding Comics was clearly and ambitious project for McCloud but he succeeded. It’s ambitious in its subject matter and in its executions but it delivers. That’s what makes it so good and that’s what makes it so enduring as a work of critical analysis.