We all enjoy comics. Well, I’m assuming you do, considering you’re on this website. With any passion, though, we often reach a point where we don’t just want to sit back and enjoy it. No, we want to learn about it. What makes a movie good? What does literature mean? How do comics work? The former two questions have thousands of textbooks dedicated to the theory behind them, but the selection for comics is noticeably slim. Slim, but hardly nonexistent. If you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of the theory behind comics, there is no better first step than Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
First, one of the most interesting things about Understanding Comics: it is — despite being a non-fictional work on creative theory — a comic. Don’t you wish your college textbooks were like that? It’s not just a gimmick, though; by using the comic medium, McCloud can actively demonstrate exactly what he’s talking about while he talks about it, not just relying on using a diagram after making that point, as he would were he simply relying on prose. There are other ways that using comics to describe otherwise abstract concepts is effective, but McCloud describes this within his book, and I don’t want to steal his thunder.
Every chapter is interesting in its own right, but I think the first chapter, “Setting the Record Straight,” deserves special attention. It’s a great way to begin the book, as it isn’t quite as abstract and theoretical as the rest of the book gets. In this chapter, McCloud makes it his goal to settle on an accurate definition for comics, and then looks at the history of the medium through the lens of this definition. His ultimate goal, besides deciding what is and is not comics, is to prove that — despite all of society’s stereotypes regarding the medium — there is nothing inherently immature about comics as a medium of art (whether or not comics are art and why is another topic that he gets into later). Obviously, the average comic reader is going to agree with what McCloud says, but as imperfect as people are we sometimes believe things without exactly knowing why. Additionally, it’s still highly informative to those of us who are just comic fans on our first steps to becoming comics scholars. On the other hand, those who haven’t read comics before will have all their preconceptions about what comics “are” shattered before their eyes. Not only does McCloud perfectly illustrate why there’s no reason that comics have to be action-packed stories about spandexed do-gooders, but the reader is already reading something that is almost the opposite.
The rest of what McCloud has to say should, in my opinion, be read, not told. It will really open your eye as a reader to things you may have missed before. I will say, though: if you have any intent on actually making comics, READ THIS. “But I don’t want to read the non-fiction, I’ll learn by reading great things like Promethea or other comics that bend the standard storytelling conventions!” Uh-uh. By all means, read comics like that (for God’s sake, read Promethea), but it can be hard to “learn” ways of comic storytelling in this way without your learning simply manifesting itself through imitation. Sure, it’s not impossible, but why take that chance? Understanding Comics‘ approach of looking at the comics medium with as little reliance on examples as possible (obviously there are quite a few, but it’s not like McCloud is just like “Look at this! Isn’t that cool?”) helps you approach the medium from about as far outside of the box as you can get, making true innovation that much easier to grasp. If you don’t want to even try to innovate, then I don’t want to read your comics. Yes, the classic masters did just fine without McCloud’s book, but if you think they wouldn’t pick it up were it available then you’re daft.Continued below
If you just want to be momentarily diverted, then this probably isn’t the comic for you. That’s okay! Sometimes, though, a reader is moved beyond just wanting to passively ingest the contents of their weekly pull, and instead actually see what makes that sequential art tick. Whether you’re an avid reader or an aspiring creator, anyone who wants to look at comics as more than mere entertainment should definitely give Understanding Comics a read.