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REVIEW: Understanding Comics

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is probably the most influential and accessible book of comics theory. For this reason every comics librarian should read it (or re-read it), but with a more critical eye than they give other works.

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud
Harper Collins, 1993
publisher site | WorldCat

The book presents an impressively thorough approach to the way way the comics medium works, and it does so in the comics medium, which only adds to its accessibility. Whereas prose-only texts can only refer readers to illustrations (if they include them at all), here the text is the illustration, and it works perfectly.

After an impassioned plea to separate the medium from the "crude, poorly-drawn, semi-literate, cheap, disposable kiddie-fare" that many associate with it, McCloud attempts to define comics, landing on "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." He then uses this definition to make the convincing argument that comics have been with us at least as far back as the 14th century BC, citing an Egyptian painting depicting the steps of wheat harvest, sale, and taxation. With stops along the way for the Bayeux Tapestry, European prints of saints' lives, Mayan codices, and more, this expansion of what we can call comics does a great service to it history and readership.

From here, the book gets more conceptual, though always with accompanying examples and explanations. McCloud explores the tension between realism and abstraction in images and in the mind of the reader, the passage of time as created by gutters between panels, the many ways word and image can relate in a comics story, and much, much more. A chapter that will be particularly interesting to librarians of any variety is "The Six Steps", where the author breaks down the creation of any artwork into idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface, a fascinating parallel to FRBR's work-expression-manifestation-item model of bibliographic description.

Understanding Comics is truly impressive in its scope, depth, and accessibility, and it has been rightly embraced by huge numbers of comics readers and creators because of this. Unfortunately, this also means that it has developed a kind of hegemony in the world of comics theory. Some of McCloud's ideas that warrant critical re-examination include his outright dismissal of single-panel works, his push for some kind of universal language of comics, and his breakdown of all comics art among the three poles of abstraction, realism, and iconography. (These are only a few examples of my own thoughts, and I'm sure other readers will have different objections.)

I don't blame the author for the book's dominance, by the way -- on top of the fact that he literally invites debate throughout the book, his biggest "crime" is explaining himself well!  The comics scene and comics librarianship fields would only benefit from more creators and theorists expressing their ideas as successfully, and I hope we'll someday find ourselves overwhelmed by these kinds of manifestos and philosophical statements.  In the meantime, I consider Understanding Comics to be required reading for comics librarians of any variety; just be sure to read it critically, and seek out dissenting opinions wherever you can find them.