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I like to take things apart and figure out how they work, except instead of doing internal combustion engines or pocket watches I like to play with books, movies and television shows. In "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art," Scott McCloud not only takes apart comic books, he puts them back together again. Certainly comics are a neglected art form. Put Superman, Batman, Spawn and Spider-Man on the big screen and there will be some cursory comments about the actual all-in-color-for-a-dime, and names like Stan Lee and Frank Miller will get kicked around, but nobody really talks about how comics work (the exception that proves the rule would be the Hughes brothers talking about adapting the "From Hell" graphic novels). Part of the problem is conceptual vocabulary: we can explain in excruciating detail how the shower scene in "Psycho" works in terms of shot composition, montage, scoring, etc. That sort of conceptual vocabulary really does not exist and McCloud takes it upon himself to pretty much create it from scratch.
That, of course, is an impressive achievement, especially since he deals with functions as well as forms. To that we add McCloud's knowledge of art history, which allows him to go back in time and find the origins of comics in pre-Columbian picture manuscripts, Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Bayeux Tapestry. Topping all of this off is McCloud's grand and rather obvious conceit, that his book about the art of comic books is done AS a comic book. This might seem an obvious approach, but that does not take away from the fact that the result is a perfect marriage of substance and form.
This volume is divided into nine chapters: (1) Setting the Record Straight, which develops a proper dictionary-style definition of "comics"; (2) The Vocabulary of Comics, detailing the iconic nature of comic art; (3) Blood in the Gutter, establishing the different types of transitions between frames of comic art, which are the building blocks of how comics work; (4) Time Frames, covers the ways in which comics manipulate time, including depictions of speed and motion; (5) Living in Line, explores how emotions and other things are made visible in comics; (6) Show and Tell, looks at the interchangeability of words and pictures in various combinations; (7) The Six Steps, details the path comic book creators take in moving from idea/purpose to form to idiom to structure to craft to surface (but not necessarily in that order); (8) A Word About Color, reminds us that even though this particular book is primarily in black & white, color has its uses in comic books; and (9) Putting It All Together, finds McCloud getting philosophical about the peculiar place of comic books in the universe.
"Understanding Comics" works for both those who are reading pretty much every comic book done by anyone on the face of the planet and those who have never heard of Wil Eisner and Art Spigelman, let alone recognize their artwork. Which ever end of the spectrum you gravitate towards McCloud incorporates brief examples of some of the artwork of the greatest comic book artists, such as Kirby, Herge, Schultz, etc., as well as work by more conventional artists, including Rembrandt, Hokusai, and Van Gogh. "Understanding Comics" is a superb look at the form and functions of the most underexplored art form in popular culture.
I am using Spider-Man comic books in my Popular Culture class this year and will be using some of McCloud's key points to help the cherubs in their appreciation of what they are reading. If you have devoted hundreds of hours of your life to reading comic books, then you can take a couple of hours to go through this book and have a better understanding and appreciation of why you take funny books so seriously.
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on December 22, 1999
This is one of my favorite books and one of the most insightful, unique, and enjoyable books that I've ever read. I have recommended it to many people, bought copies for several of them, and own two copies myself so that I can lend out one. I recommend it VERY strongly to anyone who's involved with designing Internet sites. Although it's not about that subject directly, it has more wisdom about the design of sites than any Web design book I've ever read or seen. Afterall, the Web is basically a 'page' structure, with text and graphics, just like a comic. Also, you'll learn more about art history from this book than you will from most art history classes (I know, I went to art school...). And did I mention that it's funny too! -E
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on March 3, 2000
I expected this book to be a witty and well-done presentation of mostly stuff that I already knew; but it was much more than that. McCloud has a deep understanding of art and society and people, and a completely lucid presentation.
There are neat and useful new ways of thinking about comics here (his comparisons of American and Japanese comics, his theories of panel transitions and why comic characters are sometimes drawn more simply than the backgrounds, his comments on the psychological impact of color), and for that matter ways of thinking about art in general, and design in general. And he makes masterly use of the comic medium itself to present the material in a way that never drags or confuses.
I hope someone programs the Orbital Mind Control Lasers so that McCloud extends this book into a whole series on the theory and practice of comics, and another on general visual design. The world needs it!
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on July 9, 2006
Mc Cloud writes and draws in such a logical, straightforward style that remains funny and entertaining. His research and organization show this to be a heavy book disguised as fluff. (not to say that all comics are shallow, but they usually do not give the first impression of "War and Peace"). I was visiting my daughter at school and saw this softcover laying on the coffee table. I thought it might be a counter- culture "People" magazine. I was sucked in to the light approach and funny quirks in animation. Soon I realized this was a serious topic and also impossible to put down. I had to have a copy of my own. (turns out it was being used as a textbook in an English/Writing class on campus). Scott is a genious if could reach me. I am a photographer and Scott opened my eyes to new visual logics.

Steve Maulin
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on October 27, 1999
I first read this book when it came out in 1993, I guess the demand was unanticipated as I could not find a copy to purchase for myself until the second printing was finished.
Scott McCloud brilliantly and thoughtfully examines not just comic books, but how we view ourselves, how society views comics (And how comics influence society!) and goes in depth into storytelling, form and substance.
I'd recommend this book for anyone who is interested in comic and cartooning as a profession, or as a passing interest, and I recommend it to those who are skeptical about the comic storytelling medium as it contains insights that I've never seen discussed so eloquently. All schools should have a copy of this in their library :)
Don't let the comic book format fool you, this is a great book! (My favourite chapter is the one on icons.. and how we see ourselves in everything.. :) )
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on October 9, 2002
A very unusual book from McCloud, the writer/artist of the comic Zot! In fact, I'm amazed that McCloud doesn't have a more extensive bibliography, given the wealth of information and insight presented in this volume. Succinctly, this book explains how comics work. Not how they are made, per se, but why the sequential images of a comic are an art form different from books or TV. And McCloud accomplishes this using the very medium he is examining.
I'm a comics fan that stopped buying them because they were putting me in the poor house. McCloud here explained to me how I was initially sucked in by the medium and why I kept reading some of the "worst" examples even while my artistic tastes were changing in other media. While I doubt that I could recreate the same Glen Cox who once wrote letters to comics, I can now reconcile myself with the Glen who still enjoys Howard the Duck and Cerebus (not to mention Zot!).
My friend Phil Yeh has been on a literacy campaign for over five years now, and he gives the following reason for why he dedicated himself to it. He said that he saw the literacy figures for America, and the downward trend, and realized that he was losing more and more of his audience. He felt that the American disdain for comics was missing the point--children who read comics are still reading. Although McCloud makes a strong case for the comic being different from prose, I don't think that he would disagree. And, if the interplay between words and pictures keeps a child reading, what is wrong with that?
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on January 21, 2000
If you are interested in any aspect of comics at all, this is the first book you should have on your shelf. Scott McCloud guides you through the history and theory of comics art with wit and wisdom, all captured in an easily accessible comic. More than a simple funny book, this book will change your opinions on comics, whether you have never picked one up before, or you are a long-time comics professional. This book could be used as curriculum for a college course, despite (or maybe because of) the whimsical artwork. The art draws you in and makes the information easy to accept and understand (in fact, McCloud gives examples of why the comics artform makes it easy to read and identify with). McCloud takes this subject matter seriously, and after reading, you probably will too.
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on October 31, 2002
Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics," a creation that sits roughly between comic book and historical literary criticism, is an indispensable work for anyone interested in studying funnybooks seriously. Along with Will Eisner's seminal works on the subject (which I have not read all the way through), "Understanding Comics" uses the graphic-text art form to dissect one of the most rapidly growing trends in both art and literature. In an accessible, readable style, McCloud takes the reader through the history of comics, the definition of comics as a sequential art form involving symbols, and examines several major trends in modern comic-dom.
While there's plenty here for both the casual reader and someone interested in more scholarly study. While it's more of an introduction than an in-depth exploration of comic study, McCloud provides enough resources for someone to continue study on his or her own, and enough seeds to begin sprouting ideas about the funnybooks. Occasionally, he misses the mark - his definition of art, for example, is a little broad - and "Understanding Comics" isn't nearly as well-cited as it could be, but these are easily overlooked flaws.
Especially beneficial is his comparison of Japanese Manga comics with traditional American graphic storytelling, because the two are basically the same medium but evolved almost entirely independent of each other, until the last 15 years or so. I wouldn't recommend it for the Sailor Moon fans, but those that enjoy anime and Manga will find much useful information here, in particular the comparisons between the two comic forms (not so much in any actual study of Manga in and of itself).
I highly recommend "Understanding Comics" to anyone who wants to - well - understand comics. Whether you are interested in the ways Alan Moore tells a story, or want to deconstruct the use of movement in Dave McKean's artwork, or you want to learn why Spiegelman chose certain symbols and styles in his work, "Understanding Comics" gives the reader an excellent springboard to further study.
Final Grade: A-
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on May 31, 2002
Understanding Comics is a must have reference book for every creative professional. The ideas presented in this book transcend sequential art and can be applied to every creative process. As Scott Adams point out, the pursuit of advanced skills, often overshadows the core of art which is: "what do I want to say?"
I recommend this book to budding music composers to help them understand that a composition should be idea driven and the tools should support the idea. Too often I find the tools driving the composition which results in a bunch of interesting sounds strung together. Wallowing in novel sensation may be pleasant for a short amount of time, but music created in this fashion will not stand the test of time because it is emotionally void.
Even if you have zero interests in comics, artists of all professions need to read this book.
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on December 3, 1998
Understanding Comics lucidly covers material that should be of interest, not only to comic book artists, but to every student of contemporary design. McCloud explains the various mechanisms that artists use to create compelling combinations of images and words, and why audiences respond to them. Since comics are sequential art, this book applies directly to design problems encountered in internet and multi-media design. At the other end of the spectrum, there are insights about basic drawing technique. Understaning Comics covers it all.
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