by Scott McCloud
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Comic Related Book
I was poking through my shelves looking for my copy of Understanding Comics so that I could have it in front of me as I write this review and it was nowhere to be found. Not filed with the Scott McCloud books, not shuffled into in the indy books section, not lost among the wall of trade paperbacks. I couldn't find it in the pile of books by my nightstand or in the massive pile that accumulates around my computer. As it turns out my brother who has been living with me while he goes to college lent it to his girlfriend in order to help her (to steal the title) understand comics.
Now besides the obvious familial conflict this brings home the strength of Understanding Comics. It is not only the definitive guide to the medium, it is also approachable enough for those whose only experience with comics are in the newspapers. When it was first released I gave a copy to someone interested in graphic novels as an introduction. It's not just for newcomers either as it breaks down the medium in a way that even those who have read comics for years can appreciate.
McCloud has created a technically deep work about comics and presented it as a comic book. It's an intuitive leap that's so obvious in retrospect that it's shocking no one had done it before. He spends a lot of time on iconography and representative images which makes his using a caricature of himself as the guide so recursive you'll go cross-eyed if you think about it too hard.
He starts by defining exactly what comics are which is a more difficult process than you would think. It's followed by a side trip to the history of the medium as it flickered at the edges of art for all of human history until it finally came together in the past hundred years. Once the introduction is over McCloud gets into the nitty-gritty of representative images, the complications of pacing, how artistic style changes everything, and the artistic process.
Understanding Comics is a very philosophical book. It could almost work under the title "Understanding Communication and Art". Obviously the focus is on how comics communicate and form art but McCloud establishes a basis for readers to comprehend that in a larger context. I've never encountered anyone breaking down these concepts better.
Artistically the book has a cartoony style that works perfectly for the purpose of illustrating the topic at hand. A more complicated or detailed art style for the essays would have been distracting and McCloud is adapt at mixing in greater detail when necessary to make the point. McCloud uses a very simple design for himself creating a very likable lecturer. The drawings are not going to impress anyone though for this book that's for the best.
I don't have a single bad thing to say about Understanding Comics. If I had to pick a single comic for anyone to read this would be it though that's because I think it would convince people to look for more comics. Even if you think you know comics well enough that the book would be redundant I still highly recommend it for the fresh perspective it brings. McCloud's work is as close to perfect as you'll find.