Review: Understanding Comics

by Kim on June 9, 2009 · 13 comments

Title: Understanding Comics

Author: Scott McCloud

Pages: 215 (hardcover)

One Sentence Summary: A non-fiction comic that explores the definitions, history, and vocabulary of comic books.

One Sentence Review: Even though reading a comic on comics was a challenge, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in comics that wants to learn more about the genre.

Grade: 95/100


Understanding Comics has been on my TBR list since my friend Aaron listed it as one of his 12 Comics for People Who Don’t Read Comics. I finally got the push to finish it after I found out I can’t renew it more than two times and readers voted it the book I should finish in May.

But don’t take my reluctance to read the book as a sign that I thought it was bad; on the contrary, it was awesome. I just wasn’t in the mood for much theory at the semester end, and this book is chock full of theory.  But the theory is written as a comic book, so you’re learning without even trying!

Instead of a traditional review, I solicited questions from readers to help me write the review. Enjoy!

jennysbooks asked: Given that the book was published in 1993, and comics have come a long way since then, does it seem dated at all? Or does everything still seem timely and interesting?

Yes, I felt like the entire book remained relevant. Comics have come a long way since the book came out, but the book is mostly theory about how to read and understand comics.

McCloud actually deals with the issue of timelessness pretty effectively, in my opinion. He consistently argues that the possibilities for what stories can be told through comics are endless and that we haven’t even come close to exploring it fully. I agree with that, and because he takes that approach it keeps the book relevant even though it was written about 15 years ago.

Nymeth (things mean a lot) asked: What did you think of McCloud’s definition of comics? Did it match your own?

ScottMcCloud_defpart1The panel on the right shows McCloud’s definition of comics. Sure, I could have justy typed it out, but what fun would that have been?

Anyway, the first time I read through the section on definitions (I read it twice), I felt like my brain was being turned upside down — not because I disagreed, but because I just hadn’t thought of comics that simple before.

I mean, the idea that the only thing you really need to be a comic is a series of images that change to imply time passing seems almost too simple to make sense. And yet, it makes total sense. Even two images placed side by side can tell a story, which I think is cool.

Nymeth also asked: Of all the ideas he presents in the book, is there are that particularly stands out for you?

One that I remember, and will talk about in more detail with the next question, is the distinction between comics as a form and comics as a genre, which I thought was spot on. I also loved the chapter where he discussed the space between panels and what that means for the passage of time in comics.

Joanne (Book Zombie) asked a two part question:

1) Before starting to read this book, did you have any specific expectations about whether the book would teach you anything new? And if so, what were you most looking forward to learning more about comics?

I didn’t have any specific expectations exactly, but I was hoping that the book would help give me a vocabulary to talk about comics and a sense of what to review in comics. I’ve started to read a lot more graphic memoirs and comic books, but I never know how to review them other than to comment on whether I like the artwork and story. I wanted the book to help me understand how to talk about comics intelligently.

2) After reading, did you find that the book was biased at all in terms of type of comic? I’ve noticed some people who look at the entire comic world as a class system – classic comics like Marvel/DC superheros as low class, Indies as middle, graphic novels as upper and graphic memoir/non-fic as an elite super-upper.

pg 6 panel 1McCloud addresses this question right away by making the distinction that a comic is a vessel that can be used to display any sort of content. He illustrates this using the picture at the right: comics are the pitcher that holds the content.

This means that when critics make the sort of judgements Joanne is pointing to, it’s more a question of the content of the comic rather than the form of comics itself. That doesn’t exactly answer the question, I guess it’s more just what I thought was one of the most interesting arguments of the book.

To address Joanne’s question more directly — I didn’t think the book was biased because McCloud didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on specific kinds of content. He actually mentions a ton of different artists (from the “high brow” to the “low brow”) but always in the discussion of how their work is related to his theories on comics. I didn’t feel like he made a class system of comics because he wasn’t focusing so much on the content as he was how different artists use the form.

Concluding thoughts: Reading this book gave me a ton of things to think about, and it’s definitely going to be a book that I re-read in the future. I haven’t had a comic to review in awhile, but I’m certain the next time I do I’ll refer to some of the ideas from this book as I write about it. Understanding Comics is highly recommended for anyone who is even a little bit of a literary theory nerd.

Other Reviews: things mean a lot;

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny June 9, 2009 at 9:32 am

Great review! I tried to get this at the library yesterday and couldn’t find it – of course as soon as I got home I realized it was because it was in the YA nonfiction section rather than adults’…darn it!

Did you get the impression it was written for a YA audience? Or do you think they just filed it away there because it was extremely accessible?

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stilettostorytime June 9, 2009 at 9:37 am

I really enjoyed this book as well, as someone who wasn’t familiar with comics or their formats. I read it in college as part of a class on the history of comics. I have to say it definitely made my reading of future comics much more educational and enjoyable! You always enjoy and understand things better when you know the basics!

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Nymeth June 9, 2009 at 12:59 pm

I wanted to give him a hug for emphasizing that comics are a medium rather than a genre. Sometimes I feel like I’m being picky for involuntarily cringing whenever I see them being referred to as a genre, but I also think that even when people don’t say it with that intention, the effect it has is a bit dismissive. It makes comics sound much less rich and varied than they actually are, and therefore it might drive away potential readers.

Anyway…I really enjoyed your review.

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Joanne June 9, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Great review and great answers! You described exactly what I wanted to know about how the author approached the types of comics. I knew I would like to read this as soon as you said he focused more on how the comic form is used.

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christina June 9, 2009 at 7:28 pm

I have been wanting to read this book for -EVER! It’s on hold at the library. *argh* Maybe sometime soon.

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Rebecca Reid October 1, 2009 at 7:58 pm

How did I miss this review back in June? At any rate, just finished it myself (posting in the morning). I love it personally, but I did find it exhausting because it is theory. I am still not sure that I love the format of comics but I’m so glad I read this book so I could better understand them!!

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Kim June 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm

YA? Seriously?

There’s no way this is a YA book. I took a pretty intense literary theory course in college and this book brought up ideas I thought about then. It’s not difficult, exactly, but it is a little bit dense. I don’t think I would have gotten most of the book when I was reading only books from the YA section.

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Kim June 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Exactly, I totally agree. I haven’t read a comic since I finished the book, but I can’t wait to think about the concepts he brings up when I try to review them next.

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Kim June 10, 2009 at 5:25 pm

I’m definitely guilty of thinking of comics as a genre, even though I know better. It’s a huge point though, as you said, because comics get dismissed that way.

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Kim June 10, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Yes, the book is definitely more about form than content. Specific authors only come up when he uses their work as an example of a more theoretical point he’s trying to make.

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Kim June 10, 2009 at 5:26 pm

I hope it comes soon!

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