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Comic Book / Understanding Comics

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Understanding Comics, and its follow-ups Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, are a critically acclaimed non-fiction comic book series by Scott McCloud. More than that, Understanding Comics is a nine-part comic book about comics.

Essentially an essay about comics as a medium and the industry itself, the books are among the first that seriously analyzed comics in their own right. It has since become a common academic resource, being included in compilations like the Norton Reader despite its non-traditional style.

It was one of the first books to define the notion of "closure" or, rather, what happens between panels. That just as a reader's mind must fill in details when reading a book, so too must they fill in the blank space between panels. (exhibit A: Panel 1- Angry man raises axe while someone in front of him shouts NO! Panel 2- Loud, wet scream from a building in a very long shot. Implication: Someone got killed, and the reader has mentally created the way in which it happened.)

The book's discussion on Icons is also a contributor to modern views on comics; that something or someone drawn in a simpler style makes them easier to identify with. See No Cartoon Fish.

Another recurring theme is the "dichotomy" of words and pictures. Comics are a unique medium because the words and pictures needn't always go in the same direction, and that each one serves different, but not unique, tasks of telling a story.

For a similar book that likewise dissects the language of comics, see How to Read Nancy.

Tropes used and discussed by this series of books:

  • Art Shift: Several times, usually to prove a point.
  • Aspect Montage: McCloud identifies this, and the slow pacing it creates, as a key difference between manga and western comics.
  • Author Avatar: A cartoony version of McCloud acts as the narrator.
  • Author Guest Spot: The "guest" part is debatable since Scott is the main lecturer.
  • Author Tract: A non-political one, and rather well-executed at that. The three books are essentially long essays in comic book format.
  • Briffits and Squeans: McCloud talks about symbols in both Western Comics and in Manga, and references Mort Walker's book in his notes. He specifically shows plewds and waftrons as examples. He doesn't have to use Walker's terms in the book though, because he can draw them instead.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Arnie from Reinventing Comics is an accomplished real estate salesman who spontaneously starts painting people's portraits.
  • Four-Fingered Hands: The narrator had these initially in Understanding Comics, but Making Comics graduated his design to include an extra finger.
  • Iconic Outfit:
    • In-Universe. The chapter on color mentions how a superhero's color scheme becomes inextricably linked with the character in the reader's mind.
    • McCloud's own Zot! T-shirt, glasses, and plaid jacket also count. He keeps at least some of these every time he changes form to everything including semi-abstract rectangles, The Incredible Hulk, and a yin-yang.
  • Infinite Canvas: First proposed in Reinventing Comics as a stylistic choice unique to webcomics. McCloud has produced Infinite Canvas-style comics himself on his website. However, the vast majority of webcomics avoid doing this, because most of their authors want their work to be eventually published in physical books.
  • Loudness War: A comic-specific variant is demonstrated when Scott talks about the intensity of the image in Making Comics. He points out that if every image is as intense as possible, then the impact as a whole goes down and the comic is a lot harder to follow as well..
  • Metafictional Device: McCloud uses a lot of them, usually to make a point about how the reader's experience is shaped by the Paratext of a given work.
  • Microtransactions: In Reinventing Comics, McCloud advocates using them as a way to monetize content for webcomics. In practice, this is almost never done by webcomics, but mainstream comics publishers are now trying to use this business model to sell e-book editions of print comics.
  • Mukokuseki: While he doesn't mention it by name or even in the context of manga per se, Scott does give his insight into what he thinks is the operating principle behind this trope: When a person's image is presented in an iconic, abstract fashion, it encourages the reader to identify with that character and see part of themselves in him or her.
  • Narrating the Obvious: Referred to as "dual-specific panels", where the text on a panel reinforces the image within it.
  • National Stereotypes: As an example of using body language to show things about a character, Mr. McCloud shows us a jovial Man in a Kilt with his arms wide open contrasted with a man in a bowler hat standoffishly clutching an umbrella.
  • No Cartoon Fish: A large chunk of Understanding discusses this, and a bit of his ideas are in the article on it.
  • No Fourth Wall: Because this is a lecture in comic form, this is a given.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Scott mentions that he used to believe the world behind him would to stop existing the moment he looked in another direction, and came back again before he could turn around.
  • Obviously Not Fine: In Making Comics, in the chapter on expressions, the author mentions in one panel that readers will notice small changes of expression in comics characters. He shows a hypothetical scene where a girl snidely asks another girl if she's okay. The other girl, who clearly looks exhausted or depressed, and isn't making eye contact with the first girl, says "Yeah, I'm fine."
  • Older Than They Think (In-Universe): In Understanding Comics, Scott challenges the view that comics are merely Older Than Radio—he defines comics as a series of juxtaposed images to be read in sequence—and makes a case for things like William Hogarth's serial paintings, a 16th-century Central American manuscript, the Twelfth-Century Bayeux Tapestry, and name-drops the Second-Century Trajan's column. He even gives an example of Egyptian tomb paintings, making comics Older Than Dirt!
  • Only Six Faces:
    • He warns against having too many samey character designs. The example he uses? A bunch of identical guys all yelling, "I Am Spartacus," of course!
    • On the other hand, a simplistic art style as a deliberate choice helps the process of abstraction and, in the case of characters, makes their emotions easier to read and easier to empathize with.
  • Opaque Nerd Glasses: Scott's self-depiction is drawn in a simplified style such that his glasses appear to have blank white lenses. Lampshaded (to prove a point) when he takes them off and he has no eyes.
  • Painting the Medium: The author often reinforces his points about how a certain style or technique can convey a certain meaning by demonstrating the technique in question.
  • Self-Demonstrating Article: The entire book is done in this style. For example, the chapter on color is the only one drawn in color, and when talking about how drawing people in a simpler style makes them easier to identify with, he uses his own Author Avatar as a talking point.
  • Self-Deprecation: The final page of Understanding Comics makes fun of McCloud for being overenthusiastic about his ideas, and Making has a jab at his weight gain and the mixed reception of Reinventing.
  • Sliding Scale of Visuals Versus Dialogue: A major theme is how comic creators use words to complement or comment on pictures. Scott McCloud mentions that the extent to which words impact the pictures varies. He sees written words as a later "evolution" of pictures, and places both on his own sliding scale, the famous "Big Triangle," which is both big and a triangle.
  • Speech-Bubble Censoring: Does this at one point to cover up the "naughty bits" of Michelangelo's David.
  • The Treachery of Images: Takes this to a thought-provoking Overly-Long Gag to demonstrate just how much the reader of a comic is mentally filling in. Not only is it not a pipe, it's not even a painting of a pipe. Is it a drawing of a painting of a pipe? No, actually it's not even that — it's a printed copy of a drawing of a painting of a pipe. In fact, it's several printed copies, appearing in multiple panels, each one dependent on the reader to observe.
    Do you hear what I'm saying? If you do, have your ears checked, because no one said a word.
  • True Art: invoked McCloud attempts to circumvent the subjectivity of questions such as "What is art?" by proposing an extremely broad definition of art: "Any human activity which doesn't grow out of either survival or reproduction."
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: In-Universe. One part of the book discusses an entertaining aversion to demonstrate the importance of context: An enormous square of canvas with two tiny right triangles at the center of the top and bottom edges. Its name? The Big N, which is in fact precisely what the painting is.
  • Unmoving Plaid: Scott McCloud’s Author Avatar wears this on his jacket.
    • In the first two books, the size of the boxes never change no matter how big McCloud is drawn. Nothing about them does. This changes in Making, and the boxes are also seen being stretched and squished in proportion to him at one point. There's even a panel demonstrating perspective where the boxes on his sleeves change directions to accommodate his arms.
  • Wall of Text: Parodied to make a point in chapter 3 of "Making Comics" (The Power Of Words). The chapter starts with Scott spouting out a giant word balloon stuffed with enough text to fill up more than half of the page explaining the importance of using both words and pictures in comics, concluding with a small panel that says to find a "—balance between the two."

Alternative Title(s): Reinventing Comics, Making Comics