Monday, January 2, 2012

On the Coffee Table: Scott McCloud

Title: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Author: Scott McCloud

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This was just the sort of book I needed. My comic book posts, and indeed my whole blog, has been in need of direction and Scott McCloud's examination of the art form is a great place to start. Anyone who's already into comics is probably well aware of McCloud's work. He has now produced three books, presented in comic form, outlining the tricks and trends of the trade. Understanding Comics was the first, published in 1993. The book first came to my attention when it was recommended by Daniel Pink in his very interesting book, A Whole New Mind. This year, it was one of my Christmas presents from My Wife.

Employing the comic book idiom itself, Understanding Comics shows as much as it tells - very helpful and truly essential to the points McCloud is trying to make. It's a quick read except for the fact that I had to stop a lot to absorb the material. I now have a lot to think about as I continue my explorations of the medium.

To this point, I've approached comics primarily as a reader, thus focusing on elements of plot and character in the text. I have given less thought to how the artwork serves those elements. As McCloud demonstrates, the real trick is synthesizing art and language to communicate effectively. I readily admit my own relative ignorance regarding visual art. In my youth, I received far more encouragement in the realms of music and literature, in no small part because I had more ability in those areas. I've pursued an interest in visual arts as an adult but my knowledge still lags far behind. If I'm to continue exploring comics as a reader and a blogger, I'd like to devote some time to learning more about the graphic aspects.

I especially appreciated the cross-cultural examinations. Manga are the dominant literary force in Japan, or at least they were when I was there in the '90s. Looking around the average train car, far more people were reading comic books than either newspapers or regular books - adults and children alike. However, since I wasn't even into comic books in English at the time, I failed to appreciate the completely different aesthetic which has developed in Japan. My daughter, actually, is already well into Japanese manga, in translation, of course. She has several of the books adapted from Hayao Miyazaki's films and seems untroubled by having to read from right to left. Her favorite, however, is the Chi's Sweet Home series. Whenever she gets a new book in that series, she'll curl up on her bed to read it probably several times through, not to emerge from her room again for hours.

McCloud's thoughts on the balance between the literary and artistic quality of a work are also relevant to a genre I've explored quite thoroughly over the past 8+ years: children's picture books. In my experience, it's rare to find a book in which both aspects are strong. The vast majority have either beautiful artwork with uninspiring text or the other way around. To me, the children's book which best synthesizes the two is Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. In fact, just about everything Sendak ever touched is amazing.

I definitely plan on checking out McCloud's follow up books. I highly recommend Understanding Comics to anyone with an interest in comics or the artistic process in general.

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