My very first comic book was an issue of X-Men. I grew up in a town with no comic shop, but one of the larger grocery stores had a healthy magazine rack and included a weekly stock of comics. I was hooked in a way that is difficult to describe. Much to my parents financial chagrin, I accompanied my mom on the weekend grocery shopping excursions faithfully, and I couldn’t wait to get to that store and to the comics. There was always something that I wanted to read.
Now, I think that comics is like any other artistic medium: whether or not you are drawn to it is a matter of taste. In a similar way that film, sculpture, or poetry may or may not be something that particularly engages you, comics sort of is or isn’t. And that’s fine. Inherent in that idea, though, is the supposition that comics is an art form in its own right, a medium deserving of the same respect as any other form of art or literature. And, as with other mediums, even if it isn’t to your taste, learning an appreciation for the art form is culturally important.
I, like many readers at their first exposure, just naturally grasped the way in which the stories and artwork flowed. I was far too young to articulate any sort of theory about usage of line, color, or pacing, but it worked. The stories captivated me, enchanting my imagination with a concept of good vs. evil that would later inform not only my entertainment choices, but my theology and worldview at a very practical level. Comics, especially superheroes, are something about which I’ve been passionate ever since.
That’s why I’m sort of surprised that I didn’t know that this book existed until recently. Understanding Comics was written as I graduated high school. Certainly, there are parts of the book that feel dated now. However, this is an absolutely essential read for putting into serious language why this art form works so well for so many of us. Central to this is that McCloud insists from page 1 that comics is to be taken seriously as an artistic medium. There is no room to conclude otherwise in his thesis, which is as it should be. He argues strongly for comics’ recognition as art, not just as pulp or “the funnies” as some see it, and does a great job of backing his assertions.
The beauty of this book is that it is written in the medium upon which it seeks to expound. That is, it’s essentially a nonfiction graphic novel, which I find to be ingenious for a couple of reasons. First, it immerses the reader into the art form. I don’t know of another art criticism text that does that (perhaps because other mediums can’t do it…?). Secondly, it uses the medium to illustrate the points. The beauty of comics, after all, is that literature and art intertwine, and the author’s choice here is a very practical application of that flexibility.
McCloud begins by defining a vocabulary for comics, and moves into discussions about the use of line, color, and how the artwork interacts with the language. This is a deceptively academic treatment of the subject, as he spends a significant amount of time working through a language development theory, with the written word as an ultimate abstraction of iconography. This works by example to prove the author’s point on legitimacy of the art form, as well: the very language used is painting the picture…quite literally…for us, drawing the reader in to inhabit the points being presented. That’s what makes comics such a powerful medium, in my opinion…and in the author’s…the direct interaction with the reader on so many different levels, an interaction that I would consider unparalleled in any medium other than theatre.
McCloud spends a chapter discussing how line enhances the mood of the story, replete with examples of lines illustrating anger, peace, anxiety. He walks through a fascinating history of how line work has developed through the history of art in general, and specifically in comics from artists in different geographical areas and cultures.
My favorite chapter, I think, is devoted to the gutter. The gutter is unique to comics: the space between panels in the layout of the page. Things happen in the gutter that require the reader to fill in with their imagination. Time passes in the gutter. McCloud argues that the physical space of the gutter is used in the same way as time is used in film. Examples of how panel layouts further stories are presented in fascinating detail.
I think that my one criticism of the book is that McCloud’s definition of art is far too expansive for my taste. He spends time unpacking a theory of what makes art, but backs himself into a trap composed of overly broad brush-strokes. Essentially, anyone doing anything for a purpose of understanding something is doing art. He also defines a process through which art is made that succumbs to the fault of many academic texts on the arts: a rigid definition of process for a creative instinct that defies process almost by definition.
Nobody is perfect.
Recent film successes and a pandemic have drawn new fans to comics. People are discovering the medium in earnest who have never been interested before. Those who are engaging comics for the first time will be curious, and will benefit a great deal from McCloud’s work. Those of who have loved comics for most of our lives will also…I have already found myself drawing greater understanding and appreciation from my weekly pulls having finished his work, and am re-reading some classics through a new lens.
In short, if comics interests you at all, I strongly recommend Understanding Comics as a read that will be well worth your time.