When I started blogging about books, I didn’t know what “graphic novel” meant. In fact, in June 2008, I wrote a post explaining my confusion. But at Dewey’s urging, I gave some of them a try. Since then, I’ve read a few graphic novels. But I admit that I still hadn’t completely understood the concepts behind writing a novel (or a memoir) with pictures. Why? Shouldn’t we focus on learning to read, not handing our teenager illustrations?
It seemed odd to me, and although I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read, I didn’t understand it, I’m sorry to say.
Thanks to a tweet from Nymeth, I found Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud, which is a nonfiction comic all about comics. It’s kind of like a poem about poetry, except that analogy fails, for poetry is limited to words. Comics (or graphic novels, if you will) are multi-dimensional compared to a poem.
McCloud illustrates the power of comics by showing the reader what it can do. This is a book that literally shows, not tells.
Yes, Understanding Comics is nonfiction. If you do not normally read nonfiction, you may be bored. It goes through a brief history of comics, it analyzes what makes a comic good, and it gives some background on how comics interact with the reader. If you, like me, are interested in understanding what is meant when someone says “comics” or “graphic novel,” you will, like me, be fascinated by Scott McCloud’s book.
Because I’m such a neophyte when it comes to this type of book, I feel I can’t coherently put into words all the amazing things I comprehended about comics as I read this book. Instead, I’m going to give you some bullet points what I’ve learned from each chapter. I suspect if I read it again, I’ll get even more out of it. (I wish I could “quote” the pictures to you!)
- No genres define “comics.” “Comics” is not a genre, but a format. “Sequential art” can be about any subject. (Chapter 1)
- Viewing cartoon-like images helps us picture ourselves. A simple style does not necessarily mean a simple story. Symbols and icons are somewhat universal. (Chapter 2)
- The white space (or lack of it) between frames tells a story to. Comics allow each reader to use his or her own imagination to close each panel and move to the next. (Chapter 3)
- Comics allow time frames to get tangled up. (Chapter 4)
- The art in comics provokes emotion by using symbols and recognized. (Chapter 5)
- In comics, pictures and words work together in an appropriate balance to show and tell a story. (Chapter 6)
- Successful comic writers have to balance these things: purpose; form; idiom (i.e., genre); structure; craft; and surface. (Chapter 7)
- Color has not historically been a bonus to comics – it tends to overwhelm the purpose – but with new technologies, it could be used as a bonus to the format. (Chapter 8)
- In short, comics can go anywhere – and they do! (Chapter 9)
As I started realizing what he’s saying about genre, I got really excited. Comics is not a genre, but a format to tell a story. No wonder I am not drawn to the superheroes and the fantasy fables comics. It doesn’t mean I don’t like comics, I just don’t like the genre; I don’t normally like superheroes in novels either. But there are comics about subjects I’m interested in, and those the comics I should look for.
I also was fascinated by the discussions in chapters 4 and 6 about how comics successfully capture a reader and make a reader participate in the creation of story.
Notable quotes (note that they don’t seem nearly as powerful without the awesome illustrations:
If people failed to understand comics, it was because they defined what comics could be too narrowly. | A proper definition, if we could find one, might give lie to the stereotypes – and show that the potential of comics is limitless and exciting. (page 3)
The artform – the medium – known as comics is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images. | The “content” of those images and ideas is, of course up to creators, and we all have different tastes. (page 6)
A good rule of thumb is that if readers are particularly aware of the art in a given story — | — then closure is probably not happening without some effort. | Of course, making the reader work a little may be just what the artist is trying to do. Once again, it’s all a matter of personal taste. (page 91)
The idea that a picture can evoke an emotional or sensual response in the viewer is vital to the art of comics. (page 121)
And because I love you all, here’s something from Scott McCloud’s website so you can read the first pages and see just what I’m talking about when I say “a comic about comics.”
Even after reading Understanding Comics, I’m not certain the comics format is for me. It seems many comics are fantasy, and I just am not drawn to it (even something like Fables doesn’t appeal to me much; although I did enjoy reading Castle Waiting). That said, the nonfiction comics I have read have always fascinated me. While I don’t normally enjoy a memoir, I have loved how comics give dimension to memoirs. I may pick up more of those, particularly the political impact memoirs. I have a few on my list, including Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco and Pyongyang by Guy Delisle. Can you recommend any others?
Understanding Comics is excellent. If anything is missing, it is only the effect of the past 17 years of comics history and impact, for this book was written in 1992. It seems the graphic format has exploded in the past decade. I highly recommend it to anyone who seriously wants to understand the hows and whys behind comics.
If I’d recommend one comic/graphic novel to you, I’d say start with The Complete Maus. It’s excellent.
If you have reviewed Understanding Comics on your blog, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.