What I’ve Been Studying: Understanding Comics

My key takeaways from Scott McCloud’s landmark work

In the months since finishing reading Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, I’ve been making my way through Scott McCloud’s trilogy of books on comics. I started with Understanding Comics, which is the first and probably most popular in the trilogy.

The premise of Understanding Comics is to explain, analyze, and validate the art form of comics. Scott McCloud successfully does that and brings it all together at the end.

The book is presented as a comic, which is neat. Scott McCloud makes use of the approach to its full extent to drive points home. McCloud narrates the whole book, and it works so well because it feels like you’re in the room with him.

McCloud covers so many different topics, from what happens between the panels to the marriage of words and pictures to the types of transitions between panels. Understanding Comics does a great job of explaining what’s unique and powerful about comics.

My big takeaways:

  • The power of iconography. It’s one of the early topics in the book, and I can’t stop thinking about. McCloud posits that simpler, more iconic imagery is more relatable and universal than realistic imagery. Art on the spectrum from iconic to realistic can evoke a variety of emotions in the reader.
  • The six types of transitions between panels is wild to me. I was aware of the different types of transitions, but the way McCloud breaks them down clicked with me. Type 5, aspect-to-aspect, is the one I’m most interested in. They can set the mood and enrich the atmosphere, which I absolutely love.
  • The concept that time and space in comics are closely tied together blew my mind. Since the reader is an active participant in the process, there are certain approaches to panel layout that can change how time and space are perceived.

There’s more that gets covered, but I’m not confident in my ability to totally explain it yet. I’m going to have to re-read and continue to study Understading Comics. There’s so much there.

To put it simply, I like what Scott McCloud has to say about comics. It all clicked with me, and I think it’s because he’s a master at taking abstract and theoretical concepts and explaining in them in a way that is easier to understand.

Understanding Comics holds up well after 20 years. I’d still recommend people interested in making comics start with Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, and then follow it up with Understanding Comics. Having experience and interest in making comics helps drive home the points of Understanding Comics beyond the “oh, that’s neat” level of comprehension. You can’t go wrong with Understanding Comics, though. Whether you’re interested in the art form as a bystander or active participant, Scott McCloud connects the dots of comics and brings it all together wonderfully.

Since finishing Understanding Comics, I’ve been making my way through McCloud’s Making Comics. I’ll be sure to share my thoughts on that book soon.

Author: Brett Chalupa

day: software developer, night: comic artist

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