Updated: Jan 16, 2021
The Great Debate is a biweekly column examining new and classic books about the creators, craft, and history of comics. If you know of upcoming books you would like to see reviewed, please let us know in the comments!
Author: Scott McCloud
Publisher: Kitchen Sink Press
Publication Year: 1993
WHAT IS IT?
For most comic fans of a certain age, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was the gateway to a more thoughtful appreciation of comics as an art form and a craft.
Understanding Comics was one of the first books to take a serious look at what comics are and what they capable of. It remains important and influential almost thirty years after its release and seems like a natural choice to lead off this column.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
McCloud starts by trying to define what comics are – and are not – and then sets about examining how the strange alchemy of words and pictures we call a “comic” works. He dissects the visual and textual vocabulary of comics and spends a good deal of time thinking about exactly what happens when your eyes move from panel to panel.
Later chapters examine how comics deal with concepts such as the passage of time, or the expression of emotion. Eventually McCloud considers where comics might go in the future and looks at some of the ways the medium can expand artistically and technically.
McCloud’s decision to present his arguments in comic book form was a stroke of genius. Working within the medium he was exploring undoubtedly was one of the reasons that Understanding Comics gained immediate visibility and acceptance within comic fandom. McCloud was able to effectively demonstrate concepts relating to comic structure and examine extremely complex visual concepts in a readable and entertaining manner.
I distinctly recall sitting in a daze after reading chapter 3, which was a deep dive on the comic book gutter. I had been skipping over the spaces between panels for well over a decade at that point but had never actually thought about what the gutter was there for. This is where McCloud is at his best in Understanding Comics: when he is examining and explaining the fundamental building blocks of comics.
The chapter entitled “Show and Tell” is perhaps my favorite part of the book. It is here that McCloud really digs into the sometimes-contentious synthesis of words and images that is comics. He looks at comics not as a hybrid of graphic arts and prose fiction, but as something completely its own. In doing so, McCloud encourages us to think of the possibilities of comics as a medium rather than just concentrating on one or more of its genres.
I love how McCloud presents his ideas in a way which encourages us to consider and even contradict him. The literal last words in the book, tucked in after the bibliography, are “This book is meant to stimulate debate, not settle it. I’ve had my say. Now, it’s your turn.” If indeed his primary goal was to stimulate debate, Understanding Comics has succeeded admirably, as it continues to be a point of discussion and is still a key element of comics’ “Great Debate” almost thirty years later!
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
A number of the ideas McCloud introduced in Understanding Comics have come under scrutiny over the decades, including his almost comically overthought definition of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” But this is a nitpick. Overall McCloud’s ideas and analysis have stood up remarkably well over the years.
There are times when chapters run on a bit longer than they need to, and the book can perhaps become a bit dry as McCloud wades through more philosophical or technical topics. He seems to even realize that he can be a bit too enthusiastic or arcane at times, and eventually has his wife break the fourth wall to tell the reader that “at least you’re not married to him. I get this all the time!”
WHY SHOULD I READ IT? If you want to learn more about comic history or are interested in better understanding the intricacies of how comics work, Understanding Comics is a fundamental text. You don’t have to agree with McCloud, but if you are interested in learning more about comics criticism you probably should be aware of what he was saying. Think of this as the Citizen Kane of comics studies: it is a bit dated now, but was revolutionary for its day, influenced everything that came after, and is still well worth your time today.
Who It's For: Understanding Comics is a great starting place for anyone wanting to learn more about how comics work and how they are made. It is also a fun read for those interested in learning more about the magic going on in the panels, gutters, and pages of their favorite comic books.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
To continue with Scott McCloud: Reinventing Comics (2000) and Making Comics (2006)
To read another foundational text about comic structure and storytelling: Comics and Sequential Art (1985) by Will Eisner
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott McCloud created Zot! in the 1980s and has been a continual presence in the comic industry for over thirty years. His most recent published comic work is The Sculptor, an excellent graphic novel about how far a young artist will go to in order to create great works.
McCloud has also been an advocate of new technologies in the creation, distribution, and consumption of comics. For more, check out his website: scottmccloud.com
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local independent bookstore, and buy there! If that is not an option, the links below will do the trick:
The copyright for image(s) used in this review are likely owned by either the publisher of the book, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the book. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
This book is © 1993 Scott McCloud. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED