2006-11-10: Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics

The Invisible Art (1993)

by Scott McCloud (1960-)

This book was mentioned in an odd context: as containing insights into the presentation of ideas in graphical and textual form, applicable to the making of effective PowerPoint presentations. I am not much interested in either PowerPoint or comics, so the mere fact that I read the book is somewhat interesting.

McCloud (whose work I’m otherwise unfamiliar with) approaches comics as an art form, and so appropriate for serious criticism and understanding.

Using a face as an example, he shows a sequence of drawings from a near-photographic rendition to a circle-line-two-dots, and says: “When we abstract an image through cartooning we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning,’ an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.”

He describes several dimensions along which variations in style or approach can be applied to the creation of comics, such as complex-simple, realistic-iconic, objective-subjective, specific-universal, pictures-words. He illustrates the second with a series of faces, with the smiley-face exemplifying the iconic. Of the last he says: “Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived information.  It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.” Thus he re-labels the dimension as received-perceived. He further says: “When pictures are more abstracted from ‘reality,’ they require greater levels of perception, more like words. When words are bolder, more direct, they require lower levels of perception and are received faster, more like pictures.

On page 52-53 McCloud constructs a triangle with edges labeled ‘The Representational Edge’ (bottom), ‘The Retinal Edge’ (left), and ‘The Conceptual Edge’ (right). He labels the lower left corner ‘Reality’ and the lower right ‘Meaning’. The far right side is mostly empty beyond a line labeled ‘The Language Border’. Within this triangle, he has drawn over a hundred faces from various comic artists’ works. It is an interesting exercise, though I don’t really know what to make of it.

Starting on page 169 is some relevance to presentations, introduced with the statement that “the creation of any work in any medium will always follow a certain path. A path consisting of six steps. [idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, surface] First: The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes, of the work … the work’s ‘content.’ Second: The form it will take … will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A pot holder? A comic book? Third: The ‘school’ of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter, the genre that the work belongs to …  maybe a genre of its own. Fourth: Putting it all together … what to include, what to leave out … how to arrange, how to compose the work. Fifth: Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the ‘job’ done. Sixth: Production values, finishing … the aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work. In all the arts it’s the surface that people appreciate most easily, like an apple chosen for its shiny skin.” Later he says, “In practice, any aspect of comics may be the one which first draws an artist into its orbit. Still, the learning process for most artists is a slow and steady journey from end to beginning, from surface to core.”

As I read this, perhaps because of the way I was prompted to read it, I was tempted several times to copy pages and take them to work; however, it seems unlikely to appeal to, or even be comprehensible to, my coworkers. It might be more interesting to Chad, as a summary view of one artist’s view of art.

 

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