Understanding Comics

When Will Wright gave me this book at the CGDC, I didn’t know what to think. Why a book on comics? I don’t read comics! Oh well, Will is one of the sharpest people I know; if he thinks I ought to read it, then perhaps the thing to do is read the book and ask such questions later.

This is a great book.

I don’t give such praise lightly. If you’ve read any of my previous "designer’s reviews" of books and software, you’ll know that I’m a harsh judge. Moreover, I’m a pretty serious reader with little interest in fluff. My current reading includes Erasmus, Epictetus, some history, stuff like that. So when I say that this is a great book, I don’t mean that it’s better than the latest high-tech thriller.

The author, Scott McCloud, is a serious man working in a medium that is seldom taken seriously, and he sets out to show why comics should be taken seriously. To prove that he’s serious, he uses his subject medium to make his points. In so doing, McCloud proves beyond any doubt that comics are a powerful medium capable of expressing complex and difficult ideas.

One of the things that is so impressive about this book is the creative manner in which McCloud uses his medium to make his points. He does it so well that I simply cannot convey the effectiveness of his technique to you in plain text. You simply have to see his work to appreciate his methods.

Nonetheless, I will try to give an example. At one point, McCloud is discussing the classic philosophical question of the existence of objective reality outside of human perception. He demonstrates the point by showing a panel in which a boy is walking down the sidewalk, whistling. In front of the boy stretches a typical suburban scene, with yards and trees and toys on the ground. But behind him, the page is blank. Suddenly suspicious, the boy whirls around to see a panel that is properly filled in and utterly normal but now the scene that had been in front of him has gone blank. Satisfied, he resumes his course, and once again the page behind him is blank. In once quick sequence of drawings, McCloud clearly shows an issue over which philosophers have spilled rivers of ink.

The range of material McCloud handles is impressive. Early in the book, he assembles a definition of his term. Now, definition-building is tricky business, and often it is necessary to explain in great detail exactly why a definition is built the way it is. McCloud’s approach to the problem is to present himself in debate with an audience, an ideal way to show the conflicting forces that tug and pull at a definition. Later on, he develops a statistical fingerprint for style in the form of a histogram, and proceeds to dump histograms all over the reader without compromising his use of comics.

Another point McCloud makes repeatedly concerns the role and value of simplification. Our industry-culture has raised visual verisimilitude to the status of a stairway to heaven; McCloud’s points might help bring us down to earth. He presents a sequence of decreasingly detailed renditions of a human face. At the left end of the sequence is a photorealistic representation; at the right end is a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. "By stripping down an image to its essential ’meaning’, an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t. ... The more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe."

Another telling point comes in Chapter Six, in which McCloud discusses the role of words and images. Far from dismissing text, Scott emphasizes the possibilities that arise from the creative interplay between the two: "...the more is said with words, the more the pictures can be freed to go exploring, and vice versa."

This chapter also contains a quote that could be tellingly applied to our industry: "Far too many comics creators have no higher goal than to match the achievements of other media, and view any chance to work in other media as a step up."

Game designers should pay particular heed to Chapter 7, in which Scott tackles some of the larger questions of art. Here he deviates (for the first and only time) from the easygoing style that pervades the entire book when he notes that "Even today, there are those who ask the question, ’Can comics be art?’ It is I’m sorry a really STUPID question!" This leads to one of the most profoundly hilarious definitions of art that I have ever encountered.

Later in the chapter, Scott introduces his "Six Steps in the creation of any work in any medium". These are: 1. Idea/purpose; 2. Form; 3. Idiom; 4. Structure; 5. Craft; and 6. Surface. This last step comprises "production values, finishing ... the aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work." He goes on: "In all the arts, it’s the surface that people appreciate most easily, like an apple chosen for its shiny skin. The latest ’fan favorite’ often looks better at a glance than the older artists who had the ideas and created the idioms, but were less interested in surfaces. But often if we bite into that shiny new apple --

[it’s] hollow."

Scott continues by tracing the learning path for the artist, explaining that the neophyte begins by concentrating on the last step surface and then progressively graduates to each of the next steps in reverse order. Thus, beginners start off worrying about how to draw well and then evolve to progressively higher considerations.

Only the very best ever make it to the point where the first two steps dominate their thinking. The central question these people ask is, "Why am I doing this?"

Our industry looks shoddy when this analysis is applied to our creative people. They spend much of their time talking about surface issues: how to write code that runs animations at a higher frame rate. The better ones do talk about craft and, occasionally, structure. But how many times do you see people in our industry talk about idiom, form, or idea/purpose (outside of this journal)?

So there it is. If you’re serious about designing interactive entertainment, you should buy this book. The publisher is Harper Collins, the year of publication is 1994, the ISBN number is 0-06-097625-X, and the price is $20.00.

And thanks, Will, for the book. Would you care for a copy of 
Fiscal Records of Catalonia, 1151 - 1213 AD?