The book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud is a deep exploration of comics, as the title implies. As this work is presented in the form of a comic book, it becomes a unique work of both art and research. In his book, McCloud offers a number of interesting concepts that help to expand the understanding of comics as an art and a narrative form. Some of his ideas help to differentiate comics from other forms of art and show the potential of this art form. Therefore, in this research, some of these concepts will be studied, specifically the concept of sequential art, the role of simplification in the medium, and the importance of space between the panels.
One of the first concepts the reader of the book encounters is the definition of comics, as ‘sequential art’. McCloud explains that sequential art means that the story is told not through single pictures and not through the flow of images like in cinema or animation but through a sequence of pictures carefully chosen and put in a specific order by the artist (5-8). McCloud borrows this term from Will Eisner, a famous comic artist and researcher of the medium (5). However, the author elaborates on Eisner’s definition by adding other important aspects that characterize comics as a separate art form, thus coming with a definition of a comic as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (McCloud 9). This definition helps understand how comics differentiate themselves from other visual forms of art. Furthermore, McCloud describes sequential art not only as a form of the visual depiction of a story but also highlights the importance of arranging and organizing the images since when put in a sequence, they acquire a different meaning (5). The sequential nature of comics means that this medium depends not only on the artists’ ability to tell a story visually but also on their mastery of organizing images and choosing those that help describe the idea, the process, or the whole story. In other forms of visual art, the image has an individual narrative value, while in films, images play automatically one after another, with the value of a single image being diminished. At the same time, comics occupies the middle ground between these two, as the image has a narrative value but only when properly arranged in a sequence. In simple words, different images create a story when placed together. McCloud also mentions that the precursors of comics in the sequential visual storytelling can be traced much farther into the past to tapestries and carvings that showed various processes and events (11). Overall, McCloud’s definition of comics helps understand its place as an art form in the context of other visual arts and to understand how it has evolved and borrowed from other mediums to become what it is today.
Another interesting concept that McCloud discusses in his work is why people respond to the schematic cartoon images similarly to the way they perceive realistic ones. Thus, he presents a sequence of images, with each of them gradually becoming more simplified, from a photo-realistic depiction of a human face to a simplistic round shape (McCloud 28-29). Still, even in the round shape, people still can recognize the human face. The author describes this effect as the amplification through simplification (McCloud 30). This can be traced to childhood when all drawings that children make start from simple shapes that only vaguely represent the drawn object. Gradually, these drawing evolve into something more complex, as the child acquires skills and experience. This simplification unites people in understanding the idea behind it. Developing this idea, McCloud depicts the picture plan that shows three different approaches to depicting reality in the form of a triangle (51). This triangle is similar to the schematic triangle that writer Robert McKee presents in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and Principles of Screenwriting. McKee’s scheme provides three approaches to storytelling such as classical, minimalistic, and anti-structure (45). According to this scheme, the writer can choose the approach to the story by focusing on the realistic psychological depiction of characters (miniplot) or by painting a straightforward story with ‘a broad brush’ (archplot), or by defying the rules of narrative and creating an abstract piece of art (antiplot). Similarly, McCloud’s triangle provides three ways of depiction – realistic, cartoonish, and abstract. However, since in the core of understanding visual images lies the principle of the recognition of familiar forms, the viewer will still be able to see the idea behind the drawn image, whether it is a photorealistic depiction of a face or a combination of geometric figures. The understanding of this principle provides the artists with almost endless possibilities to form their individual style and visual language as long as they have skills and understand their target audience. The combination of different approaches to visual representation can become a powerful artistic tool to play an intellectual game with the reader and to challenge their perception of art and reality.
The third important notion discussed by McCloud is the importance of space between the panels. The artwork itself, the way it is drawn and supplemented with the text as well as placement of images in the sequence make the core of storytelling in comics. However, the artist should never forget about the power of the empty space between the panels, or more precisely – what is left or omitted in these spaces. Different objectives in storytelling can require different approaches to the usage of empty space. When drawing fast action, the artist can omit little to no movement, almost turning the drawings into an animation. To create dramatic tension, the artist can even drop images representing the most climactic scenes, leaving the viewer to wonder and imagine the outcome of events by themselves. The artist can decide whether they want to be graphic and precise in depicting the action or show constraint and leave more for the viewers’ imagination. The decision of what to leave and what to keep in the comic book can make or break the narrative, it can form the flow of action, create a mystery, convey humor or irony, and even help unearth some deeper meanings. This connects with the first idea of the sequential nature of comics, as it is up to the artist to decide what information should be show and what will be lost or hidden between the panels. Interestingly, McCloud writes that this also deepens the reader’s involvement in the process of reading because it is up to the reader to imagine what has happened in this blank space, making them an accomplice of the creation (65-68). Will Eisner also addresses this idea as follows:
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An assemblage of art that portrays life allows little input of imaginative nature from the reader. However, the recognition by the reader of real-life people portrayed in the art and the addition of “in-between” action are supplied by the reader out of his own experiences. (140)
Both McCloud and Eisner conclude that the usage of empty spaces between panels makes the reader more involved in the process of reading, leaving much to imagination. The process of what to leave and what to show is very similar to editing a film. There is a direct connection between the art of placing images in sequences and deciding what to show and what to cut with the craft of editing in the film production. Comics artists can use similar techniques as a film editor does when designing the pages of their comic story. For example, the artist can use parallel editing, showing two actions taking place at the same time on one page, or they can ‘cut’ an action when depicting a dramatic scene. Thus, a comics artist can benefit by drawing their experience from cinema and animation.
Overall, McCloud’s book provides a deep perspective on comics as an art form. This work shows that while being a unique medium with its separate features, comics have enough connection to other narrative and visual art forms, and thus, they can borrow various ideas, notions, methods, and influences from them. It is up to the artist to decide whether their comics will be visually influenced by some experimental artistic movement, will try be as ‘cinematic’ as possible, or simplify the imagery to the level of a cartoon. Thus, a comics artist can become a unique combination of a writer, illustrator, film director, and editor. The understanding of these almost endless possibilities can help them form their unique and distinct voice.