The best way to view Understanding Comics is to see it as something of a handbook to the medium of comics as a whole. It goes over the basics on how they work, looking into things that are central to comics more so than other mediums, like the use of the gutter and the dichotomy between image and text. It’s a book I could reasonably hand to almost anyone and they’d be able to understand it, regardless of whether or not they are interested in comics, in which case they’d probably wouldn’t read it or care about it, but the point is that they COULD read it to the end.
But Scott McCloud has written two other books on the topic of comics, could those be seen as further introduction to comics or is the audience being narrowed along with the topic? After reading through both thoroughly, I can safely say the answer is neither of those options.
Reinventing Comics, the first of these two, initially struck me as the latter, narrowing the discussion on comics so that only people who are involved and interested in the topic can understand it. About halfway through, I found that wasn’t the case because, as someone with a fair amount of knowledge of comics in several ways, I found it nearly incomprehensible. The broad topics are basic enough, McCloud discusses the changing economics of comic publishing with the advent of independent publishers and the Internet as well as topics like diversity in both genre and characters when it comes to comics. However, the topics often stray from their application to comics into what could almost be seen as contemplating the navels of comics itself. If it sounds like I’m not doing that great of a job explaining it, it’s because I struggled to understand much of it. This isn’t entirely unexpected as the title does seem indicative of a deeper look into the nature of comics. Even with that in mind, the book goes deeper than expected and loses the simplicity of Understanding in the process.
Something to note, however, is that while McCloud discusses the ways the Internet could change comics (several years before this became a popular trend, as it was published in 2000), he has applied some of these ideas to his later online work. Scott McCloud’s website lists his work and hosts some of his online content, and it’s interesting to see how he’s applied some of the ideas presented here in his own work. For example, many of his comics have stuck to the traditional page and panel setup of print. For example, in 2008, he was commissioned to create a comic for Google to illustrate their then-new Chrome browser and how some elements of it work. The resulting product is done entirely as a traditional comic book, rather than utilize some of the other ideas he proposed. Also, he uses the same font here that he does for Making Comics, but we’ll get into that a bit later.
Making Comics, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of work. Here, McCloud looks to explain many of the finer details of what to consider in the process of creating a comic. This includes looking at how to form images, especially in relation to how they tell a story, as well as creating characters and making their appearance suit the needs of the story. He also looks at the writing behind comics, how words are used in conjunction with images, and how they can create a world with accompanying images. Finally, he looks at the creation process of comics and a bit at the culture around them. It’s a very extensive look at the medium, as evidenced by the massive table of contents at the beginning of the book.
The most interesting thing about the book, I found, was that it is entirely accessible and interesting even without a desire to make comics. It analyzes how much of the medium works while giving advice on how to go about considering the same details in one’s own work, but the analysis alone is interesting enough to justify a read. It feels like a more true spiritual successor to Understanding Comics in that regard, but also loses something in doing so. You see, some of the content of this book, unlike much of Understanding and Reinventing, is not exclusive to the medium of comics. His talk of body language and character design are things that could be applied to almost any artistic medium, as well as some of the discussion of writing and image choice. While the chapter about gutters from Understanding was something that could really only be discussed in relation to comics, these are more general. While this makes the book more inclusive, it could also be seen as sacrificing some of the importance of the medium of comics. Regardless, it is still a discussion that is worth merit.
Evolution of McCloud
Across these three books, it’s been interesting to see how McCloud has changed as a writer and artist. His writing style has remained largely consistent, though this may be more due to the essay style these books are delivered in. It should also be noted, again, that Reinventing Comics discusses concepts that range from simple to abstract, and his style changes to suit this. The goal throughout all these books is clearly to deliver upon the topics being described in the most clear way possible, as he’s aware that what he’s trying to teach may not be immediately understood by his readers. Furthermore, his font choice changes across the three books. Understanding uses a traditional comic book font, complete with all-caps at all times (Interestingly enough, it appears to be the same font used in Zot!). Reinventing uses a more formal font with proper lettering, distancing itself from the typical comic format while Making takes a middle ground, keeping the clean look of Reinventing with the traditional all-caps of Understanding.
What’s somewhat more interesting are the changes in style across the books. McCloud uses himself as an author avatar across all three, with each changing to reflect how his physical appearance has changed. Between Understanding and Reinventing, there is little to no change in his appearance, besides the change in the color of his plaid shirt on the cover, from blue to green, while still keeping the same lightning bolt shirt from Zot!, which is seen across all three books. In Making, however, his appearance changes dramatically. He adds white streaks to the side of his hair, and makes the bangs more spiked in shape. In addition, his character is drawn as more heavy-set, something he notes early on. Most interestingly, he grows an extra finger. The first two books feature himself drawn with four fingers on each hand, while this one sees him drawn with the proper five fingers. It’s an interesting thing to note in terms of art evolution and how he’s changed as an artist, though it may also have to do with the book’s small aside into the detail of drawing hands, something else he lampshades.
A Brief Word about Zot!
Zot! is the comic book series written and illustrated by Scott McCloud during the mid-to-late eighties. It’s a throwback to the pulpy science-fiction/superhero genre of previous decades, created as a contrast to the then changing comics industry which had been recently shook up by the creation of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, instead choosing to recreate a style that was less dark and gritty.
The series is meant to be a melding of the post-war superhero comics, as well as alternative comics of the time and manga. The resulting product is very much a traditional comic book story, a narrative that feels entirely and refreshingly irony-free. This was, of course, the intention, as the comic was meant to be a throwback rather than another radical shift in the language and delivery of comics the industry was seeing at the time. What this shows in relation to Scott McCloud is how it shows where he’s coming from when he writes these books.
McCloud spends his time in these books explaining the principles behind comics from multiple perspectives. He looks at mass market American comics, independent comics, and foreign comics, and he looks at how each of these can be used to teach something different in relation to his greater ideas. Zot! is written to be an amalgamation of several different styles of a regular comic, drawing influence from different sources to better tell the story he wishes to tell. At several points in Making, he expands on his decisions in Zot! and why certain things were created how they were, such as how certain characters were influenced and meant to represent themes of human thought. Overall, it establishes the thought McCloud puts into the medium of comics and how he wears his influences on his shoulder, allowing them to better represent what he wants to create.
Scott McCloud’s work all share a theme. They all look to take the best elements that can be found across the wide medium of comics, and use elements from each possible and available source to better his or anyone’s work. He looks to help make comics a more widely accepted cultural and artistic medium, without sacrificing what they are, by looking at what they can be and what they are, without condemning any specific idea or use in the medium. From looking to the influences of others for his own work, to looking at how to read the medium, in its past, present, and future, McCloud looks to give to comics as they have given to him.