Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Review -- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art / Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics was first introduced to me a few years ago, by a girlfriend who'd taken a college class about comics and graphic novels. Knowing full well about my obsession with comics, she couldn't believe I hadn't read it, or even heard of it. After just glancing through it, I could see why she'd say that! My only, unworthy defense is that I simply hadn't taken a broad interest in comics, being almost completely interested in the superhero genre at that point in time. If I'd taken any kind of survey on comics as a medium--and I can't remember any such classes having been offered while I was in undergrad--then I doubtlessly would have been exposed to it.

Scott McCloud really seemed to capture lightning in a bottle when he wrote this very clever and illuminating work, as it is by and large loved and revered by comics enthusiasts, be they scholars, practitioners, or even fanboys like myself. Featured in an engaging sequential art format, in which McCloud himself "narrates" to the reader, it covers a lot: the main points of the history of comics, the intricacies of merging words and images, how people tend to read comic panels and the assumptions made between pictures. And that's just the beginning.

One of the big points I took away from this book was McCloud's belief in the potential of the comics medium. He does a convincing job of making the argument that many comics lovers like to articulate to skeptics, that comics are often judged on their content simply by their form. He goes on to say that, as a storytelling medium, comics have the potential to be just as great as any other "legitimate" form of art. Both as a writer and as someone who's been told time and again over the years by some literary snob that comics are "junk reading," this stance struck a chord with me. It doubtless did with those who love comics when it first hit, and doubtless will continue to do so with those fortunate readers who are exposed to it.

This is one of, if not THE first, non-fiction graphic book I've ever read, and it really opened my eyes to the idea of "comics" as a way of informing and teaching as opposed to a purely storytelling medium. It worked. Despite the visual style, there is plenty of text that McCloud manages to stick into the various chapters as he explains details and information about comics theory, history and practice to the reader. The writing is as designed to keep the reader engaged as the visuals are: detail-heavy yet engaging, it moves the reader along without becoming burdensome and clogged.

The art, of course, also works well in this book. McCloud uses a simple style that is perfect for the intent of the book, which is to inform, educate, and occasionally argue for the medium. He is also not shy about using visual examples to illustrate any of the points he's teaching in the text, particularly when it comes to assumptions we make about the panels in comics while reading them. He uses examples of other works occasionally as well, amply demonstrating that he's not the only one who's thought about how people interact with and understand comics.

Personally, this book is one of my bibles. Not just about comics, but about writing and storytelling as well. McCloud has truly put together a brilliant work, and it will doubtless continue to inform and influence comics enthusiasts for some time. Highly recommended.

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