Review: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Book: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Author: Scott McCloud, comics artist/author?
Year: 1993

Summary: An very readable introduction and analysis of the comic book medium, told in the form of a comic book. For designers, it provides a good structure for how to think deeply about any medium, with specific lessons on visual design.

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I’m hard pressed to think of a non-game design book that gets recommended to game designers as often as Understanding Comics, and I’ve seen the book more than one designer’s desk. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a text about comics, but not so much as a text for game designers. Instead I’d say you should approach it as a good book for people who create media, rather than one that has any specific lessons for game developer, but I’ll get into that a bit more at the end of the review.

Understanding Comics is a short book (213 pages) with large pages that packs a lot of information, but it’s presentation of that information – in comic book form – makes this an effortless read. The visuals are wonderful and illustrate the concepts in ways that kept my attention (I read this in a single sitting!) and gave me a better understanding than if it were written in the style of a traditional book. I would love to see more serious nonfiction work explored using the comic book medium.

The purpose of the book is to explain comics by giving it form, structure, a shared vocabulary, and generally enlighten readers about the underlining psychology and history of the medium. McCloud gives readers an illustrated definition of comics, grounds it in history (starting with 3,000 year old Mayan texts), explores the relationship between image and text, and goes over specific elements of comics such as showing motion, the use of lines to create emotion, and differences between western and Japanese comic traditions. There’s more, and each subject has its own chapter dedicated to it – with some leaning on prior chapters while others (such as the chapter on color) able to exist on its own.

A few of these concepts are entirely new to me: the gutter, closure, and the use of the iconic form. The gutter is the term for what happens in the space between panels, and closure refers to how our minds often fill in the blanks based on suggestions. While I was vaguely familiar with both of these before, the terms and way the author breaks down their function was invaluable. Last, there’s an entire chapter on the iconic – it’s role in cartoon style, the relationship between realism, pictorial representations, and text – that I think is worth reading in its own right. All three of these feel more in the realm of art direction more than game design, and I could probably describe the book as a giant master class on visual design that happens to use comics as its medium.

Other chapters might resonate a bit more with game developers or gamers. Comics, like games, suffer from a perception that they’re childish, that “cartoony” means “for kids”, that they’re mindless leisure. Comics, like games, is used to refer to both form (comic) and content (superhero stories) interchangeably, and this has held back the growth of the medium. Comics, like games, have to justify that they are art and often find themselves placed outside of that realm. Comics, like games, struggle in defining itself and determining what makes comics unique from other media. And comics, like games, have a sort of order to the creative process that starts at mastering the surface level and continues in layers into craft, structure, form, and so on as the creator digs deeper into the medium.

I think when Understanding Comics was first published in 1993, these lessons may have been new or understated in the games industry, leading game developers to point at this book as a template for how to look at their own medium. Certainly, as far as templates go I think this is one of the best examples of explaining complex ideas with visual information. But by now I feel most of us (or at least I) already understand that games are art, that the medium of games is a formal structure that does not prescribe any specific style of content (see: art games). We have many books – and an entire academic discipline – devoted to understanding the unique and shared elements of games as a medium. This, I think, is why this book didn’t quite resonate with me the way it seems to for many others. These generalized lessons aren’t new to me and while they are presented in a new way I am not, ultimately, thinking about games differently.

I am, though, thinking about comics, cartoons, and art used to convey information VERY differently. As an exploration of visual design and deconstruction of a medium, this resource is absolutely excellent. I think it’s important for designers to know about other fields which is why my library project focuses on “game design (and related fields)” so I definitely appreciate what Understanding Comics has to offer. If I had to pick a book out to give creative professionals a way to understand comics, it would be this one without a doubt. I don’t think I’ll ever read a comic the same way again.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone, not because it’s an excellent book for game designers but because it’s an excellent book about media. It’s good for anyone from fan to expert, especially if you are interested in visual design and comic structure. I would probably say it’s required reading for anyone making comic-infographic hybrids I see more and more often on the internet. And lastly,¬†I think it’s great for people who may care for games but not quite grasp how meaningful they are by seeing a similar medium normally treated as idle¬†leisure (comics) deconstructed with such care – in that sense, it’s rather inspirational.

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