Monday, October 12, 2009

Response to Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

During this past week we explored the use of comics as a distinct medium of communication. As part of this exploration we read Scott McCloud's classic book - "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art". This is a fascinating book that is well worth the read (and it's a quick one, comic book style). This post will focus on my response to this book.

But before we proceed, this week we also had an assignment to develop a short comic. Here is a link to the comic that I developed with Patricia Adler along with an overview of the process we used to create it.

Understanding Comics - A Response
In his book, Scott McCloud makes the case that comics have their own language, which is distinct from purely symbolic or visual communication arts such as literature, photography and painting. He then explores the main characteristics of comics, such as use of various types of symbols, the relationship between space and time, reflection of motion and emotion in the use of lines, and the reader's role and ability to "read between the lines".

The foundation of Scott McCloud's argument is that the term comics refers to a form of art, loosely defined as sequential visual art, that needs to, and should, be understood separately from the content that populates. This distinction is important because in the US comics have often been a vehicle used primarily for kids or low-brow content. Scott's book is an example of a comic that features content that is largely academic in nature. Best of all it delivers this information in a fun and easy to understand manner.

Comics leverage an extremely rich and diverse ecosystem of symbols to communicate information. These symbols range from fully abstract elements, such as words, to real-looking elements, such as detailed drawings, to abstract visual elements, such as lines and shapes. These elements can be recombined in a many different ways with an equally diverse number of potential outcomes. For example, to help a readers identify with a character, writers often depict that character with a level of abstraction that is greater than the background and other elements of the story (think Tin Tin).

The relationship between time and space in a comic book is fascinating. In some ways it is very straightforward; for example, the physical distance between two elements in a story almost always reflects the temporal difference. However, the past and future are always "present" in the current moment in a way that can be accessed visually - in a more direct way than in any other medium.

This provides comic authors with interesting storytelling opportunities. McCloud gives a great example using of a simple cartoon where the main character, who is located on the top row of frames, steals money from his future self, who is located in the frame right beneath.

Another interesting aspect of comics that McCloud points out is how they are able to successfully portray motion using static images - and the importance of motion. The ability to convey motion was one of the things that attracted me to the aesthetic of comics when I was growing up (though I never realized that until now). I had a special fascination with Japanese manga-style cartoons that played in Brazil in the early 80's. Comic artists seem to be true experts in this realm.

At the end of the day comics work because of the way the human mind works. We are meaning making machines. We see forms created from lines and colors on a page and we translate that information into meaning - who hasn't seen a human face in a power socket? We all know that we make meaning out of what we see, but equally important we make meaning about what we don't see as well. That is why the area between the frames in a comic book are so important. Ultimately, the story is constructed in a reader's mind according to how his/her mind creates closure between the contents of the various frames that make up a story.

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