Understanding Comics Response
Last updated: Nov 12, 2019
When I opened my copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a folded hot pink post-it fell out. Based on the to-do list sketched on it, I’d say I first read the book about four or five years ago. Around then I was writing games criticism and reading more comics and I think I was looking for something that would help expand what I was reading for fun and maybe inspire what I was writing for work. Then it’s kind of amusing that I’m reading it again for an animation class. This time, I tried to hold in my mind the idea that these principles are applicable to animation as well as to comics.
The sections of the book that deal with timing and sound are really effective, especially in their demonstration of things that take place somewhere between the page and the reader. I remember finding these parts of the book revelatory—like something I had always known about comics was becoming clearer in front of me. Some of the techniques presented in the book are necessary and inherent to the medium, but are usually left unspoken and uncatalogued.
And still, I think the best parts of the book are the applications of the comics-specific formal tools he invents. I know that a lot of McCloud’s framing comes from McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and the sort of analytical tools presented there, but the categorization of panel transitions produces some really interesting results when he applies it to specific other artists and their specific works.
It’s a survey course, but in some respects it’s a survey of mostly original art. The excerpted panels illustrate his points well, but don’t come up often enough for me. Plus, so much has happened in the last twenty-six years that by not pointing to more specific panels and pages, the book feels less timeless than intended.
When I started at ITP, I walked into my local comics shop (Anyone Comics in Crown Heights, if you’re curious) and said I was ready to cancel all my subscriptions. Costs a lot of money to keep up on comics. I’ve still learned a lot lately, reading the comics I have at home and the ones available for free on the internet.
It’s full of short work older than Understanding Comics but I think the recent Susumu Katsumata collection Fukushima Devil Fish has some really excellent examples of the conflict in post-war Japanese comics between industrialization and pastoral traditionalism. This page has a really heartbreaking example of the use of sound.
I hugely enjoyed Ben Passmore’s short series DAYGLOAYHOLE, which I think has a lot of the kind of high-action vibes you might see in superhero comics, but almost as camp. The series centers on two-characters: Passmore himself wandering the desert of the apocalypse, and No Limitz, who is very hungry and hates the cops that still exist after the world has ended.
Madeleine Jubilee Saito’s Poetry Comics are spectacular examples of timing and repetition, which is also exhibited in Understanding Comics, but which here takes on a really rhythmic and reflective quality.
Michael DeForge Leaving Richard’s Valley is funny and does some of what we talked about in class (less discussed in Understanding Comics): character design. The strange forms and cute shapes of DeForge’s characters do a lot of work to explain who they are, how they move, what they’re up to, etc.
Understanding Comics puts into words (and pictures) many of the unwritten axioms of sequential art and situates the medium in its past. It’s a useful and valuable reference book, but it works best for me as a gesture towards what we can learn from the overlooked and the new.