Nearly two decades ago (way back in 1993), cartoonist Scott McCloud penned a seminal tome about the nature of comic books and their place in the larger world of art. Tyhat book was called Understanding Comics. At the time it was hailed as a major contribution to the (if you’ll pardon me for saying it), the understanding of what comics is (or, was). To be sure, McCloud aptly subtitled the book “The Invisible Art” and truly, that is what they largely were, invisible. For decades comicbooks were derided as “funnybooks,” and considered to be completely disposable.
With his book, McCloud proved them all wrong.
Now, some 18 years later his book is every bit as relevant as it was then. McCloud spent over 200 pages of this landmark volume dissecting and then reconstructing the language of not only what comics were, but what they could (and should) be. Most folks (our parents) looked at comics and saw silly drawings, and colorful images that had no real-world value. McCloud looked at those self-same images and saw art — no, not comic book art, but actual art. He looked at the printed page and was able to disassemble and look beyond what was what there and see what it all meant.
Yes, McCloud was able to look deeper, and not only was he able to decipher the language of comic but he was also able to codify it, so that we as followers of this form of entertainment were able to grasp a deeper understanding of what it was that we were experiencing. That’s right, experiencing, not just reading, but experiencing. Because according to McCloud we didn’t simply read comics, but were able to immerse ourselves in the world of comics. He talked about the vocabulary of comics, how it used, isolated broke down and sped up time. How the form and shape of the panels themselves contributed to our understanding of this mystical and entertain medium actually worked.
Back in ’93 this was a revolutionary way of looking at comics, and now, in 2011 it still is. There have been many books on the nature of comics, how to create them, how to collect them, how to write and draw them, even how to price them, but this was perhaps the first time we were taught how to look at and actually understand them. Sure, sure in those 18 years, we have gone digital and taken them to the web, but the lessons that McCloud taught us back in “Pen & Ink Age” still ring true.
Comics are (and always have been) a viable form of (legitimate) art, and expression. From the charcoal drawings on cave walls, to etchings on wood, to the all in color for a dime adventures of men and women in spandex, to the pixilated digital expressions of web comics up on the Wild & Woolly Web. All of it is an expression of ideas in a unique and eclectic form of words and pictures.
For those of us who want to understand what it is that we are doing, and how to go about doing it well, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is as relevant today as it was back in the ‘90s when it first appeared.