Sequential Smarts

COMIC: Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud

Kitchen Sink Press (later editions; DC Comics and HarperPerennial) 1993

It's no exaggeration to declare that Scott McCloud's groundbreaking book, Understanding Comics is very probably the most important book ever written about comics, whether comic or prose. It's certainly debatable, but it's no exaggeration. During the 3 years that I taught comics classes at an art college in Portland, Understanding Comics was the required text for my classes, and although I never lectured from it, I frequently referenced it, and felt no guilt about about making it a compulsory purchase for a class that most students took just for fun. If they didn't "get it" then, at least they'd have it and be able to come back to it, because it's the kind of book that reveals new insight with every re-read; not just about comics specifically, but ways of looking at the world and human thought in general. It belongs in the collection of every person who has moved on to the question of "Why are comics cool?" whether they're coming from the direction of fanboy or skeptic.

I want to choose the right words here, to explain what Understanding Comics is to the uninitiated. I'm tempted to use words like "documentary" and "lecture series" but I'm afraid that the eyes of more skeptical or anti-intellectual readers will instantly glaze over and they'll fail to grasp how entertaining the material is in McCloud's hands. Firstly, Understanding Comics is a comic. It's a 215 page meditation on what comics are and what they can be. McCloud attempts to define what "comics" is, or are -- well, both really. He explores the language, time-bending nature, psychology, mechanics and approaches to comics, art in general, what comics mean, how they work, and the vast potential to which they can be used. He deftly sidesteps the question of whether comics can be "Art" with little more than a "Duh!" and goes on to treat them seriously as such, without bothering to validate such an ignorant question.

[Note to video game fans who are still surly with Roger Ebert for claiming that games can't be art: Rather than worrying about arguing with Ebert about whether or not they CAN be, the onus is upon us to demand more from our creators so the question becomes a moot one due to overwhelming evidence that they simply ARE. But this is a discussion for another day.]

McCloud walks us through the process of arriving at his definition of "comics." What he comes up with is a pretty broadly embracing definition, "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence." I'm still personally a little iffy on his definition. It excluded things like single panel cartoons, which, as I have argued directly with McCloud, create their own sequence owing to the placement of words relative to the image (example: a Family Circus panel with the text placed on the left of the panel by newspaper editors trying to cram more comics onto a page will not "work" the way it was intended when Bill Keane wrote it with the text appearing beneath the image).

McCloud's definition may also includes things like magazine articles which arrange photos throughout. The images may not tell a story, but they're definitely in deliberate sequence to "convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" [from McCloud's expanded definition]. Now maybe he intends the definition to be that embracing, although part of me starts to believe that it's so broad that it doesn't really define ("to fix or mark the limits of") anything. His functional definition, however, is "Sequential Art," and that's as useful a handle as anything. With this definition, he's able to explore the impact that the form has had on culture throughout human history, far beyond the commonly accepted late 19th century origins of comics.

It becomes difficult to describe much of what McCloud talks about without turning into a second-rate parroting of all the material he manages so well. It's clear that he spent a lot of time thinking about these subjects, and clarifying his thoughts before he decided to tackle it all in a book. Much like describing the book in total, trying to explain the individual chapters would betray the ease and expertise with which McCloud handles (at first) seemingly esoteric and academic topics. He never speaks down to readers who would ordinarily never touch such a theoretical work as this. He explains things clearly, and makes understand why you suddenly care about things you probably never gave that much thought to in the first place.

By presenting this information in comics form, McCloud not only makes the theoretical more palatable, but he validates many of his points by demonstrating the largely untapped potential of the medium to communicate and enrich. When I taught my comics classes, and in conversations with fanboys online, every once in a while I'll come across someone who'll tell me "I already understand comics." Of course, what they really mean is that they understand what they want comics to be -- specifically, masturbatory nostalgia and/or juvenile reinforcement of male identity imagery -- and they don't want someone coming along and telling them that there's more to the medium that they love (and want to keep trapped in a frozen infancy, like a child who wants their dog to always remain a dependent and controllable puppy) than what they've believed it was since they first huddled under the covers with a flashlight and a stack of hand-me-down issues of Spider-Man. Understanding Comics doesn't make value judgments on content. In fact, it barely discusses content at all. What it does is deepen and broaden the reader's concept of what comics are, and what they can be. That expands the view of the reader (or the non-reader, for that matter) and opens them up to greater experiences, and in so doing, fills them with a hunger for a more refined and adventurous menu of a wider world -- and isn't that what art is supposed to do, after all?

Crosspost Classic!  08.21.2007

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