Understanding Comics

From Media Technology and Culture Change

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993) is Scott McCloud's book that examines the medium of comics through comic book form.

McCloud begins this examination by defining comics as a medium, which uses visual iconography in a sequential form to express ideas or tell stories. In the first chapter McCloud specifically defines comics as:

"com.ics (kom'iks) n. plural in form, used with a singular verb. 1. Juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" (McCloud 9).

McCloud states, that the history of comics goes back to prehistoric paintings in caves and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then, the icons that constituted the sequential art were similar to words in the way that they conveyed a specific meaning. McCloud explains that sequential art has evolved and the visual imagery in comics goes beyond icons, since it needs to be understood through a different cognitive process. McCloud writes:

“Our need for a unified language of comics sends us toward the center where words and pictures are like one side of the same coin! But our need for sophistication in comics seems to lead us outwards, where words and pictures are most separate" (McCloud 49).

From this we can understand that the comics’ imagery not only conveys one determined meaning, but it is also based on the abstract significance characteristic of visuals. Thus, while reading comics, our cognitive process doesn’t work symbol = definition instead, we must abstract the multiple meanings from the image, which need to be analyzed in the light of a given context.

The context is how the panels are distributed in the page and how they relate to each other. Comics have redefined the sense of space and time. Artists distribute panels at their will leaving gutters to indicate the pass of time or emphasize an action or even convey an idea. Panels do not necessarily show a consecutive action, but they can show different perspectives of the same action, different planes of thought of one character, jump from event to event, represent contrasting ideas etc.. Comics’ artists have the faculty to play with time and space at their will through their use of panel distribution, within the page.

The revolutionary faculty of this use of space is that comics make us understand content through a new cognitive process. Our understanding of the comic depends on how all these panels work together which is what McCloud defines as closure in comics. This is different, from the way we understand movies or TV because these mediums just give us the pieces which usually tell the story chronologically without leaving any gaps. Thus, they don’t engage the viewer actively to understand what happens in between scenes and shots. Comics, on the other hand, play with the dichotomy of requiring the reader to focus on one image, while simultaneously asking him/her to be aware of the whole page distribution. Thus, in order to understand a comic we must pay attention to how actions are carried out through panels, the suggestive meaning that the panel’s shape gives and the amount of gutters and their placement. In comics everything from the panel to the page distribution works together creating the closure. Thus, comics are a revolutionary medium, since they require us to understand a particular image in relation to the whole visual displacement, which plays with our traditional sense of time and space at the convenience of the artist.