Saturday, November 08, 2014

Reader's Diary #1085- Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics

When I first started getting heavy into comics and graphic novels a few years back, I wasn't sure how to talk about them here on the blog. Not having much of an art background, nor any (at the time) formal education in comics, I thought the sheer lack of vocabulary would hold me back or render my opinions completely stupid; "I like the way he drew that thing by doing that weird stuff."

Still, appearing stupid has never held me back before. I write about other books and I'm not an author myself. My philosophy there was always, "who are they writing these books for: readers or other writers?" Since the answer is presumably readers, my opinions are still valid; my lack of a thorough writing education was inconsequential. I went for it.

Now, after more than five years of writing about graphic novels and with them slowly taking over my blog altogether, I was excited to hear about Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Don't get me wrong, the book's been out since 1993 and insiders seem to have known about its status as a landmark text for some time, but regardless in its delay in getting to me, I was eager to jump in. Finally I'd have some vocab to explain my thoughts on the latest Blondie strip.

And I gained that in spades. I now say things like, "I enjoyed Seth's use of non-sequitur transitions." Whether or not I'll hang on to all this new knowledge will remain to be seen. What's more important is that I don't believe I'll ever look at a comic the same again.

I read this back in August and with every comic I've read since, I've been enraptured by the artist's technique and identifying aspects I always took for granted before. This is not to say McCloud has ruined comics for me, removing me from the story to instead think about the writing, but just the opposite. It's like I have two levels of thought going on at the same time. "Wow, I loved that part! How'd she do that? Oh right, by..."

Understanding Comics is a nonfiction comic about comics. Going into the history of comics as well as the techniques behind them, McCloud's examples, whether they be his own or ones borrowed (and referenced) from famous sources, help explain and cement concepts. I can't imagine this working in a typical textbook. Add to that the light humour and enthusiasm, it's quite an engaging book.

It doesn't all work. There's a triangle with points representing reality, meaning, and the picture plane that is needlessly complicated and McCloud goes back to it over and over. There's a chapter on the meaning of art that seems unnecessary and out of place. (What's to say beyond "comics are art"? Nothing.) It's a bit dated and though he has written several books about comics since, I'd still like welcome a new, revised edition, one that looks at the rise of the graphic novel, manga's influence on western comics in the age of globalization, and why didn't he have a chapter on fonts and lettering, anyway? Plus, new examples would certainly be welcome.

Fortunately,  there were a couple of brilliant moments in the book that more than made up for the faults. Explaining gutters, the space between panels in which long or short time and/or distance passes and information is intentionally withheld, McCloud writes that "to kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths." What an ingenious way to describe the power that comics writers have and can pass on to us as they see fit. I'm sure I'm not describing this well, but the visual McCloud uses is another prime example as to why this book needed to be a comic. I was also in awe of the way McCloud demonstrated the bizarre time flow of comics, often within a single panel. Imagine two people speaking to one another. Their bodies are frozen in the scene but one person's speech (in a balloon) is followed by another. Time is passing for the audio but not the picture! And that's just a basic one.

It's all stuff that I didn't think a lot about before but now can't stop thinking about. 


Anonymous said...

I'm an occasional reader of graphic novels and comics who could probably benefit from this book. I just may end up reading it for non-fiction November.

Nikki in Niagara said...

I've shrugged off reading this as I thought it would be too out-dated but you've convinced me it's a must :=) I'm going to put it on my tbr for next year.

John Mutford said...

James: Even if it doesn't prompt you to read more graphic novels and comics, I think it'll give you a new appreciation.

Nicola: I had wondered if you read it, seeing as you're the most prolific comics reader I know. Definitely a must!

Becca said...

Now this I need to read. I draw a little but still do not know jack about what comics really entails.

Also, "it's never stopped me before" had me cracking up.

John Mutford said...

Becca: Yes, go for it! I'd love to hear your thoughts!