Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics

I was sixty pages into Understanding Comics 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.  Check out Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art here.

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Ruins by Warren Ellis

I recently read Marvels by Kurt Busiek and was impressed with the originality of the story and the art.  I was asked if I had read Ruins by Warren Ellis, which is evidently the sequel but in an alternate universe.  Ruins is comprised of two books:  “Men On Fire” and “Women In Flight.”  Like Marvels, Ruins follows photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who is again trying to write a book about super heroes.  In this alternate timeline, instead of documenting super heroes being super, he is trying to make sense of a nightmare world.  The book opens:

For every kiss, a bullet in the face.

For every action, a reaction.

For every event, there exists in potential,
A mirror event, an exactly opposite possibility.

If the world you know is one of Marvels,
Where heroic women walk invisibly through horror,
And men of fire ride the upper reaches of the air…

…Then only a misstep or a stopped heartbeat away,
Is a world of Ruins.

Ominous stuff.  And for good reason, I guess. This book is very, very dark.  How things get to this point is not quite clear.  Phil Sheldon has a premonition that something good could have come of all these “paranormal” stories, but instead it has gone terribly wrong.  He is dying and racing against the clock to make sense of it all and finish his book.

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The story is very fragmented and abstract, jumping from place to place as Sheldon visits the surviving heroes and witnesses.  We know there has been a war, that the national guard has killed at least most, if not all, of The Avengers. Professor X has somehow become President (I’m assuming by using his mental powers) and has become evil and reclusive.  A lot of the X-Men are mutilated and imprisoned. the Fantastic Four never survived their trip into space. Ellis systematically goes through the list of heroes and shows their bizarre and horrific fates with little to know explanation.  Things just didn’t work out.  It’s not a nice world.

Cliff and Terese Nielsen handle the art in book one, and Chris Moeller joins them in book 2.  The watercolors are well done and give the books a dreamy feel to compliment the nightmare quality of the story. The images are often shocking and gruesome. It is definitely not one for the kiddies. I guess Moeller takes over about halfway through book two, because the style changes.  I find that a little annoying.   His colors are brighter, which I think changes the feel that has been established up to that point.

There is a strange two page sequence in book two where Phil is all of a sudden beside a lake. It seems like a dream sequence, but again, there is no explanation given.  The grass is green; the colors are bright.  It is a drastic change from the grays and browns that permeate the books.  Phil muses, “These people, these paranormal ruins of men– They were dropped on the world like a stone. Their shockwaves have touched all edges of my world.”  He compares this to dropping a stone in the lake and waves slowly making their way to all the shores to make sure we understand the metaphor and theme.  A little girl walks up and asks if he is lonely and invites him to a picnic.


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That scene sums up the major differences between Ruins and Marvels for me.  Busiek’s story was very structured.  It flowed through different historical periods, illustrating people’s varying responses to the heroes.  The themes were subtly woven throughout narrative.  It stood on its own.  Ruins, like the  previously mentioned scene by the lake,  is very scattered and random.  The structure emulates the confusion and panic Sheldon feels, but without any background or orienting narrative, it can’t stand on its own.  And in order to link it all together with a theme, Ellis has to be heavy-handed (ie- stone thrown in lake metaphor).  It was okay because I had already read Marvels and understood what point Ellis has making, but without that reference I’m not sure it would make much sense.  I felt the writing just wasn’t on par with Marvels.


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Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

My goal was to read 50 books in 2009.  I was about twelve books short in December, so I started to scarf down graphic novels.  I can knock those out in a day or two usually.  I don’t care what anyone says; they count towards my total.  My final for the year was 44 books (about 6 graphic novels).  I’ll do better this year. I promise.

In that last desperate sprint of reading, I read Marvels written by Kurt Busiek and painted by Alex Ross.   I was too cool to be seen reading comics in 1994.  My loss.  This is a phenomenal series, and one of the most original concepts in comics I’ve seen.

The series covers some of Marvels classic stories, but the events are told from the street-level perspective of a common man- photojournalist Phil Sheldon.  It examines how real people might act and feel in a world full of superheroes.  Busiek’s writing captures some pretty interesting themes.  The philosophical and theological implications the series brings up are interesting.  When the masses need saving, they love the marvels like idols.  When the masses are bored, they fall into celebrity worship and consumerism.  When the masses feel small in comparison to the marvels, the masses want them dead.  What’s also interesting is that the marvels continue to “save” the masses, even though they know how fickle the masses’ devotion is.

Alex Ross’s artwork is exceptional.  The series covers the 1940s to the 1970s, and Ross captures each time period perfectly.  His street-level views are cinematic and completely original.   The story combined with the art puts this one near the top of my graphic novels list.

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Maus- Art Spiegelman

After playing the Indiana Jones Legos game on the Wii and seeing the triology box set of the movies, my eldest son has become interested in WWII and the Nazis as bad guys.  That reminded me of the seminal graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman.  Since the Nazis portrayed the Jews as vermin to be exterminated, Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.  This cat and mouse metaphor makes the reader comfortable with the very serious material using seemingly harmless animal comic characters, but it also creates many levels of meaning dealing with racial stereotypes, nationalistic identities, and the commonality of humanity.

Art Spiegelman

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