written by Scott McCloud
Comic books have always struggled with their role as art. At worst, they’ve been called subversive, destructive trash (see the Seduction of the Innocent fracas), but at best, they’ve won the Pulitzer (see Maus). But their main problem has always lain somewhere in the middle: with the overwhelming majority of people (at least in North America) who simply see them as “subliterature” (meaning not significant enough for truly intelligent readers), overly juvenile, or even detrimental to education.
Comics creators and readers have been battling these negative perceptions for decades, and finally, or at least it so appears, there have been major, incredible breakthroughs in the past several years. And with so many new readers flooding into the marketplace, there comes a need for a greater understanding of what comics are, what they do, and what they can be. Scott McCloud understood that need and saw it coming more than a decade and a half ago, and he catalogued it in Understanding Comics.
McCloud is perhaps still best known for his groundbreaking work on Zot! But when he took on the comics format and deconstructed it, dissected it, and labeled its essential components, he furthered the comics initiative even more—because he gave the format a basis for discussion and analysis that was previously left unmentioned.
Understanding Comics breaks down the comics format to its panel essentials and allows readers to see why the format works so well for telling stories (all kinds of stories). What McCloud doesn’t do, thankfully, is preach or talk down to the reader. Instead, he uses the joys of comics reading to teach the joys of comics reading, elevating the format to level it deserves to be studied and talked about on.
There’s a reason Understanding Comics has been an industry staple since its first publication in 1993: It gets it, and helps everyone else get it, in a way that gave fans an “A-ha!” moment but also gave nonreaders, or new readers, a chance to jump onboard the train. By the time he walks through the complete language and form of comics (and he’s incredibly thorough, covering discussion and thought balloons, the ways panels work, the roles of lines and artwork, color and black and white, and the evolution of time in the pages of comics), he’s completed a short master class in the format. If comics is the language we all speak, McCloud has provided the essential dictionary.