Serious Examination of Comics

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, March 20, 1994

Understanding Comics
By Scott McCloud

"WHEN I was a little kid," says Scott McCloud in his opening chapter, "I knew EXACTLY what comics were . . . . Comics were those bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights."

If that's still your definition of comics, you owe it to yourself to check out "Understanding Comics," a brilliantly insightful look at the medium. McCloud starts by pointing out that most discussions of comics have focused on content, rather than form. There have been attempts to elevate Superman to the status of mythology, or examine the theological implications of Charlie Brown, but few analyses of how the medium works.

McCloud takes his basic definition from one of the few exceptions - Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art." He expands Eisner's definition a bit, ending up with "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." But he admits that this is not likely to come up in casual conversation, and that "sequential art" is as much of a definition as we're likely to really need.

But don't expect a rehash of Eisner's book, which is primarily a manual for aspiring comics creators. McCloud primarily addresses readers - comics readers, of course, but also those who think they're "too old" for comics, as McCloud did before he discovered that "the potential of comics is limitless and exciting!"

After defining comics as the form of pictures in sequence, often used to tell a story, McCloud shows that the form has been around a long time. Most histories of comics have started in the late 19th century, but McCloud shows that the Bayeux tapestry, pre-Columbian picture scrolls and even Egyptian tomb paintings are essentially the same medium.

He also distinguishes cartoons from comics. Single-panel cartoons are not comics, because there is no sequence. Nor are all comics cartoons - any style of art may be used in making comics. The two forms are often mistaken, partly because the comics most people are familiar with - the daily newspaper strips - are on the same page with single panels, and most of them use similar cartoony styles.

McCloud does discuss cartoons, and the mysterious reasons why we are so attracted to cartoon characters. His own alter ego, the narrator who leads us through the book, is a cartoon, and he argues that a more fully rendered version of himself would not have worked as well.

The entire book is done in comics form, demonstrating his points in ways that mere words could not - which in itself is the biggest argument for the form.