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Scott McCloud Book Review
I present my detailed review of the Scott McCloud book 'Understanding
Comics - The Invisible Art'. My focus is to present the theories McCloud
has about the language of comics. This means I skip all the
humorous asides and palpable enthusiasm that make McCloud a likable
chap. I also skip most of McCloud's 'six step' creative process, to stay
focused on the comic language chapters.
The selected chapters of the book are reviewed separately. To give a
coherent description of each chapter I have found it necessary to
rearrange the material. I believe the descriptions to be an accurate
representation of what McCloud intended.
The review ends with my own conclusion for how McCloud's work may be
defined. I present a number of advantages to my conclusion.
What is Scott McCloud's 'Understanding Comics'?
It is a comic book that presents a definition, a vocabulary then a
grammar for comics. The grammar of comics is the reader's translation of the visual messages into something in their experience. McCloud explores the
grammar used to represent time then emotion and sensation.
He extends the discussion to how colour can represent emotion and
sensation. McCloud presents a grammar for how words and pictures
can interact in comics.
The Key is:
- Black writing is my opinions about the book.
- Blue writing is my summarised notes of the book.
Setting The Record Straight
McCloud aims to find a suitable definition of comics.
He distinguishes between the message (the comic content) and the messenger
(the physical comic).
It is the message part McCloud is most interested in defining which means
he is not restricted with advancements in technologies.
McCloud starts with Will Eisner's definition of comics as 'sequential
To avoid value judgements about art he replaces the word 'art' with
To avoid inclusion of film (visual art sequenced in time) McCloud adds
'juxtaposed sequential' to the definition to establish that this images
are sequenced in space.
To make the sequence less arbitrary he defines the images to be
deliberately sequenced: 'juxtaposed static images in deliberate sequence'
McCloud considers that words are made up of sequenced images (letters) so
he changes the definition to: "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in
McCloud adds some details to get the definition of comics as:
This is a very wide definition of comics compared to, say, Roger Sabin,
who considers a comic to be both mass reproduced and containing a
recurrent character which starts for British publications with 'Alley
Slopper'. The effect of such a wide definition is that comic history is much
wider and longer. McCloud uses the early comics to his advantage in the
chapter 'Show And Tell' were he explores the relationship between pictures and words. There is little other use of the wide definition through the rest of the book. The wide definition does allow for more possibilities of comics as communication of ideas.
"Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to
convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer".
McCloud states that his definition includes the following as comic
artists (not normally considered as comic artists):
- Raymond Briggs
- Milt Gross
- Shel Silverstein
- Jules Feiffer
- The author of 'Good Dog Carl'
- The author of 'In The Night Kitchen'
- The woodcut artist Lynd Ward whose silent novels are powerful
modern fables that are prized but not recognised as comics
- The Belgian artist Frans Masereel also does woodcuts e.g
'passionate journey' 1919
- Max Ernst's surreal 'collage novel' called 'A Week Of
Kindness'. This is an 182 plate sequence of collages that lacks a
conventional story. The collages are not generally called a comic --
but by McCloud's definition it would be
- Sequenced photos as comics (popular in some countries)
- Diagrams of instructions
- Stained glass windows
- Monet's series paintings
- Car manual
He does note that his definition excludes:
- Cartoons and animation as comics these are just approaches to
picture making rather than a medium like comics are.
- Single panels (there is no such thing as a sequence of one) but
single panels do derive part of their visual vocabulary from comics.
- The Egyptian hieroglyphics as some hieroglyphics represent sounds,
similar to our alphabet therefore are not a comic.
McCloud presents a history of comics.
With his definition he is able to extend the history of comics beyond the
point the first comic books were produced.
He lists some of the possible origins of comics:
He considers Egyptian painting is a comic.
- The comic is read from the bottom left forward and from left to
right until you reach the top right corner.
- Thirty two centuries ago a complete scene was painted for the tomb of
"menna" by an Egyptian scribe.
- The scene shows agricultural processes.
Then 36 foot pre-Columbian picture manuscripts from 1519.
The glyphs seem to be coded symbols that are combined to give a story.
Then he considers the Bayeux Tapestry:
- A 230 foot long tapestry details the Norman conquest of England
beginning in 1066.
- The events on the tapestry are ordered chronologically.
- As with the Mexican codex, there are no panel borders but there are
clear divisions of the scene by subject matter.
He considers some modern day comic artists who draw whole page compositions
for example Will Eisner.
McCloud considers the invention of printing.
McCloud considers that printing opened up the sale of comics to a wider, less
affluent, group of people.
I am not sure this is really correct, woodcuts were sold
cheaply to working classes I believe. Maybe this is just in Britain.
He shows "The Tortures Of Saint Erasmus" from 1460 as an example of how
our thirst for gruesome violence has not changed very much.
He considers William Hogarth's engravings 'A Harlot's Progress' and 'A
Rake's Progress' as an example of first printing techniques and socially
conscious and richly detailed engravings.
He says that Hogarth's prints were so popular that new copyright laws were
created to protect the new form.
He considers the father of modern comics to be Rodolphe Topffer:
- Topffer made light satirical picture stories in the mid 1800's.
- Topffer made drawings with panel borders.
- Topffer had the first interdependent pictures and words (under the
pictures) in Europe.
- He says that Topffer was neither a writer or artist, he was both at
- He says that Topffer was the first to create a language of his own.
McCloud says that this 'world' of comics will change and this will be a
The Vocabulary of Comics
He considers that any movement in art history occupies a point within
He gives examples of points in the triangular area when there is:
- In this chapter McCloud describes a vocabulary of comics.
- Wikipedia says that a 'vocabulary' is:
- "a set of words known to a person or other entity OR
- that are part of a specific language."
- So he is trying to determine the parts that can be combined to
make a comic.
- He does this by defining an area in an equilateral triangle.
- Any point within the triangular area represents a unique combination
of the three things that he considers to make up a comic.
- One or more points within the triangular area can show:
- A movement in comic history
- A collection of comic artists
- The life work of a comic artist
- A collection of comics books
- A single comic book
- Individual comic strips
- Individual frames
- A comic frame or strip may be described by several points in the
triangular area if a range of styles are used.
- What are the three things that make up a comic?
- The vertices of the triangle are:
- images that very closely resemble the thing they are representing
- like photos.
- McCloud calls this vertex 'Reality'.
- words that are combined with meaning
- the vertex represents the most sophisticated meaning there is.
- McCloud calls this vertex 'Meaning'.
- images that represent only themselves
- Like geometric shapes and colour.
- McCloud, confusingly, calls this vertex 'The Picture Plane'.
- He considers the first two corners of the triangle as different types of
'icon' and the final one is non-iconic.
- He considers the non-iconic to be abstract
- Wikipedia describes abstract art as:
- Abstract art is now generally understood to mean art that does not
depict objects in the natural world, but instead uses colour and form in a non-representational way.
- The lines that make up the triangle are continuum from one thing that
makes up a comic (vertex) to another.
- McCloud calls the lines:
- Retinal- between the 'reality' and 'the picture plane' vertex.
- Conceptual- between the 'meaning' and 'the picture plane'
- Representational- between the 'meaning' and the 'reality'
- McCloud describes the 'representational' line in particular detail.
- The 'reality' vertex would have the most 'realistic' icons
- the detail in the icon compared to the thing it represents gradually
decreases the further from the 'reality' vertex and closer to the
- At a point about 2/3rds of the way from the 'reality' point and
closer to the 'meaning' point, he considers as a special point for
- At this point a character icon has enough detail to let us know it is
a character we can invest in but not enough detail so we can identify
that it does not look like us.
- McCloud considers that also at this point with the simplified character
allows the comic artist to focus on ideas.
- He marks a transition-point on the representational line
between the very simplified image and the point simple 'written
- At the transition point he constructs a 'language'
border-line up to 'the picture plane' vertex.
- McCloud has split the original equilateral triangles into two smaller
- One containing representational icons and abstract images.
- One containing only the icons of written language and abstract
- The 'meaning' vertex would have the most complicated collection of
I notice here that the collection of points in the
triangle do not relate the subject to the style. From the diagram we
do not know that the character is the iconic collection of dots and
the environment is the realistic collection of dots. It could be the
other way around and the diagram would look the same.
When there are:
- A simply drawn character (near the language line).
He believes that readers empathise more easily with the character
as there are fewer details to determine difference between the
character and the reader. The icon can become an extension of the
readers own senses.
- A realistic environment (near to the reality vertex)
- Placing a sensation rich environment around a character the reader
strongly empathises with is a way to really draw the reader into a
- He calls this phenomenon 'masking'.
- Masking is the reader feeling the sensations applied to the icon
- Masking is used in Europe by:
- Herges in Tintin (Belgian 'clear line' style)
- René Goscinny (stories) and Albert Uderzo
(illustrations) in Astrix
- Jacques Tardi
- Masking is used in America by:
- Carl Barks
- Jamie Hernandez
- the team of Dave Sim and Gerhard
- Masking is used widely in Japan as influenced by Osamu Tezuka
(creator of 'Astro Boy' and 'Kimba the White Lion'. He is often
credited as the Father of Anime and the Walt Disney of Japan).
- This style is shown in the triangular area as a collection of
points along the 'representation' line and either side of the
This can be shown on the triangle by two points separated by the 'language'
line and close to the 'representation' line.
- Extremely simple characters
- Extremely simple environments
- Simple direct language
When simplified drawing and language become increasing abstract:
- An example of this is Matt Feazell's "Cynicalman".
(a Michigan comics artist, primarily working in minicomics and
contributed to stories in issues of Scott McCloud's series Zot!)
When drawing is simplified but has a sense of real about it and the language is simple.
- This can be shown on the triangle as a collection of points separated
by the 'language line' and spanning from the 'representational' line to
the 'picture plane' vertex.
- An example of this is Mary Fleener.
Mary Fleener (1951) is an American underground cartoonist, writer and
musician from Los Angeles, California. She is a member of the rock band The Wig Titans. Fleener is know for her unique, cubist-like drawing
style which she termed cubismo and her autobiographical stories, many of
which are featured in her series Slutburger.
Among her influences are:
Her website is http://www.maryfleener.com/home.html .
- Ancient Egyptian art
- The works of Chester Gould (Dick Tracy)
- Otto Soglow (The Little King)
- Al Capp (Li'l Abner).
When drawing is realistic and the writing is more
- This can be shown on the triangle as a collection of points close to
the 'language line' on the 'meaning' side of the line and other
points further from the 'language line' on the 'realist'. All the
points are close to the 'representational' line.
- Examples include Jack 'King' Kirby and Stan Lee in the mid-sixties.
He describes a couple of comic movements are shown in the
- This can be shown as two points, one close to the realist vertex and
the other close to the meaning vertex.
- This is popular in current day American mainstream comics.
The eighties and nineties counterculture of independent creators
- The underground cartoonists who used:
To portray adult activity
- Cartoony styles
- A broad range of writing styles
- This movement can be shown in the triangular area by
- A large collection of points from the 'language' line to the 'meaning'
vertex near to the 'representational' line.
- Points dotted from the language line to quite near to the reality
vertex and half way between the representational line to the
'picture plane' vertex.
This movement can be shown in the triangular area by
- Worked mostly in black and white
- Had a broad range of writing styles
He notes that some artists e.g. Dave Mskean who try lots of
different things with comics can have their career shown on the triangle
with points all over the place.
(Wikipedia had nothing to say about Dave Mskean!)
- A large collection of points from the language line to the meaning
vertex near to the 'representational' line.
- Points dotted from the language line to quite near to the reality
vertex and half way between the representational line to the
'picture plane' vertex.
Blood In The Gutter
He aims to find a suitable grammar of comics.
Wikipedia says that grammar is the study of rules governing the use of
McCloud states that 'closure is its [comics] grammar'.
That is, closure is the rule governing the use of the comic language.
Closure is the process of 'observing the parts but perceiving the
- in frames
- He describes two instances of this:
- In bridging the gap between representation and reality.
- When information is missing in a frame.
- between frames
- What the reader may be required to fill in between panels.
- What possible relationships may the comic reader be required to
interpret between two panels?
- He describes 6 possible types of frame transition.
The 6 possible types of frame transition:
Moment-To-Moment Transition Emphasises a small time change.
For example an expression has changed slightly or a planet has moved
The effect is to show small but significant or simply atmospheric.
In the west artists prefer to use action to action to keep the pace
moving. In the east where comic books can be longer, it is often
atmospheric to have moment-to-moment frame transitions.
Action-To-Action Transition Emphasises change in a subject's
For example a ball has been hit by a baseball and one frame is before
and another is after the hit.
The effect is to keep a fast paced plot.
Subject-To-Subject Transition Emphasises change of subject.
For example two people in a conversation, the first frame has the first
character speaking the second frame has the second character replying.
The effect is to change emphasis of an action or idea.
Scene-To-Scene Transition Emphasises a large change in space or
For example a time gap of 10 years between two frames or one frame set
in Paris and another in London.
The effect is to give the comparison of two different spaces or times or
to increase the action or location of action.
Aspect-To-Aspect Transition Emphasises a small change in space
or mood or ideas.
For example different frames show different details of the same
The effect is to give the mood and some detail.
Non-Sequential Transition Emphasises a change between unrelated
For example one scene and/or character in one frame followed by a second
frame with a deliberately unrelated scene and/or character.
The effect is to get the reader to question the possible relations.
He then uses these transitions as a tool for analysing:
- Individual comic
- Comic books
- Individual comic strips
- Comic artist's careers
He creates a histogram with the types of transition on the horizontal
and the percentage incidence of the transition type on the vertical.
He finds some interesting patterns:
- between west and east
- within a comic artist's career
Decisions about closure determines the number of panels. What may be safely
assumed and how much information is necessary?
This chapter McCloud presents some techniques that increase or decrease
the time period being represented.
The techniques may be in a single panel or may require multiple
There is an assumption that a panel represents one moment in time.
Techniques to suggest a time length in a panel are:
- To add sound. He observes that with sound effects or speech bubbles.
- Increase the width of the panel to increase the time represented.
Increase the height of the panel to decrease the time represented.
This seems to work because of the relationship between time and
space in comics. This is a subtle technique. Time is perceived
- Border-less panels give the sensation of time lengthening
- Motion lines (zip ribbons) are used greatly in Japanese comics.
The different types of motion lines may be categorised as
'multiple images' or 'streaking' which is a photographic technique.
- Panel 'bleeds' when the panel runs off the edge of the page.
Techniques to indicate a time length with Multiple panels are:
- add more frames
- increase the space between frames.
- give choices in the sequence the panels are read in.
Living In Line
This chapter shows different ways of expressing emotion and
sensation in comics.
McCloud describes how emotions may be described visually:
- Line Types:
- Lettering Style:
- Symbols of love, hate etc:
- He describes how various sensations may be described visually:
- Sounds: through speech bubbles and word sounds like 'bash', 'bang'
- Smells: through lines
- He describes the effect of different styles on how the message of the comic is presented. McCloud takes 12 artists as examples:
- Jose Munoz's work with "puddles of ink and fraying line-work"
are said to "evoke a world of depravity and decay".
- Chester Gould used "bold lines and obtuse angles and heavy
blacks" to create the "grim deadly world of adults" in Dick Tracy.
- Carl Bark's Mr Scrooge had "gentle curves" that give a
"feeling of whimsy".
- Robert Crumb uses "neurotic quill-lines" for his modern adult
- Krystine Kryttr uses "mad lines" like those of a "toddler".
- A LA Kirby and Sinnott drew for Marvel in the mid-1960s with
dynamic but friendly lines.
- Rob Liefeld drew more "hostile jagged lines" for the adolescent
audience of Marvel.
- Nick Cardy puts lots of expression in his characters.
- Jules Feiffer drew "uneven lines" that do "battle with themselves"
in tales of "the inner struggles of modern life".
- Art Spiegelman's "Prisoner On The Hell Planet" has
"deliberately expressionistic lines that depict a true life horror
- Joost Swarte's has "crisp elegant lines and jazzy designs"
that show a world of "cool sophistication and irony".
- Will Eisner's has a "full range of line styles" capturing a
"full range of moods and emotions".
Show And Tell
This chapter shows how art and words may interact.
McCloud starts the chapter with a summary of the history of words and
He uses his triangular area which shows the possible vocabulary of words
and pictures to show the changing relationship of pictures and words
He shows that the earliest words were stylized pictures. This phase may be
represented in the triangle as two points near the representational line
and either side of the language line.
Some languages have kept their visual heritage but other modern languages,
for example English, represent a sound only and do not resemble the visible
world. The writing of the latter languages can be presented as a point in
the triangle near to the 'meaning' vertex.
Meanwhile pictures in fine art, from Durer, Rembrandt, David and Ingres,
became more representational. These representational images may be presented
by a point near the 'reality' vertex.
Modern art became more abstract, starting with impressionism then
expressionism, futurism, dad, surrealism, fauvism, cubism,
abstract-expressionism, neo-plasticism and constructivism. These movements
may be shown as points along the 'retinal' line of the triangle.
McCloud lists a set of interactions of words and pictures:
- Word Specific: the pictures simply illustrate the words.
- Picture Specific: the words are just a sound track
- Duo Specific: words and pictures combine to give specific
- Additive: Words amplify or elaborate on the image or vice
- Parallel: Words and pictures follow different courses without
- Montage: Words are treated as integral parts of the picture.
- Interdependent: Words and pictures go hand in hand to convey
an idea neither could convey alone.
The Six Steps
I would like to smooth over most of this chapter in order to keep this
review focused on McCloud's theories of comics as a language. This
chapter is about "a general process of producing any work in any medium",
which has, according to McCloud, six steps.
I think that the most interesting point in this chapter is the choice for
an artist between "saying something about life though ... art" or
"say[ing] something about art itself". Examples of artists who made the
later choice to questions the art itself are:
Examples are artists who took the former choice to tell life through a
medium they control to convey messages effectively are:
- Virgina Woolf
- Orson Welles
- Woody Guthrie
- Edward R. Murrow
A Word About Color
This chapter shows the effects that colour may have on comics.
Colour can be said to have physical and emotional effects.
The use of colour in comics has been limited due to commerce and technology.
Colour is made by the combination of cyan, magenta and yellow being mixed.
Colour costs more to produce but also makes for better sales.
Newspaper dulls the effects of coloured ink.
To get the brightness and contrast costumed heroes were dressed in bright primary colours and lived in a bright primary world.
Often the effect of the many colours was overall dulling in emotional effect.
The colours had iconic power , as the colours of the heroes costumes became iconic.
Flat colour also emphasises the shape of objects making them standout from the background.
Some people who used this to their advantage are Kirby, McCay, Cole, Carl Barks and P. Craig Russell.
Herge used colour so that no one object stood out more than another, all objects were equal in emphasis.
Some artists who used colour to create more intense mood comics were Claveloux, Caza and Moebius.
In the 70's publishers used the four colour process with better paper and the results were garish flat colour.
More subtle colouring to give form seemed out of place with the definite lines.
The surface qualities of colour attract readers.
Putting It All Together
McCloud states "this book is meant to stimulate debate, not settle it". Here is
my contribution to that debate: I propose that 'Understanding Comics' is
effectively a piece of qualitative research concerned with the language
of comics. In simple terms, qualitative research takes complicated sets of
data, here that would be all comics as McCloud defines in his first chapter,
and identifies patterns, in this case what comics are made up of and how they
are able to communicate the range of things they do. Of course McCloud does not
talk of the methods used to obtain the description of a comic language he
presents. A qualitative research study would state the methods. Viewing the
work as a report on some qualitative research has the advantages of:
- Allowing for the possibility that qualitative research may be
presented in a comic book. I like the idea of using words and pictures
imaginatively and entertainingly to explain research.
- Being open about McCloud not explaining his methods. Maybe in
future debate about how comics work it would be useful to be clear on
how theories are reached.
 Roger Sabin. A History of Comic, Comix and Graphic Novels. 1996.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.