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.