Typically when we think of comics we think of children. Their excitement mounts as superheroes defeat villains or save damsels in distress. Comic books are one dimensional and transparent with little to offer the adult world other than nostalgia. Or is there something more to them? It would be difficult for the average person to open a comic book and understand that there are a multitude of communication devices at work on the vibrant pages of Batman or X-Men. It would be equally difficult to ponder of comic books were actually more relatable because they were drawn as cartoons, than if they were still frames of real people. Though these notions are difficult to grasp Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art helps walk the reader through the use of the comic’s vocabulary as well as what they are really trying to say in an effort to show that they are not just childish drawings.
Chapter 2 of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is about the vocabulary of comics. McCloud states that, "For the purposes of this chapter, I'm using the word icon to mean any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea." (4). In a nutshell this means that the words and letters used in comics are used abstractly, holding no physical resemblance to the actual ideas they represent. The pictures used in comics signify varying degrees of abstraction but, McCloud reveals, this is where the bulk of the communicating is completed. From complex characters to simple inanimate objects, all are subject for communicational purposes. Even a simple smiley faced emoticon can be considered a picture in a comic book, primarily because the human brain is wired to see faces in as many places as possible. This facial recognition software in our brains happens to be one of the reasons this form of communication works so well. It also is one of the primary draws of comic books. When humans interact with each other they focus primarily on each other’s faces. We see our partner’s face very vividly, while only having a blurry self-awareness of our own. When we look at a realistic painting, drawing, or a photo of a face, we see another human. When we look at a cartoon, or a comic, we see ourselves (10). The comic, or the cartoon, becomes a conduit for self-awareness or an empty shell for us to crawl inside. We do not just read the comic, we become it. Superheroes fighting villains and saving the innocent communicates a need within us to be heroes (21).
McCloud goes on to assess an individual’s idea of object permanence in Chapter 3. As we grow, we realize that there is an entire world outside of our sight. He calls the idea of perceiving things as a whole, “closure” (33), and goes on to suggest it can pertain to something grand or something small. Realizing the neighbors have furniture in their house even if you have never been inside is closure. Connecting two parallel lines and a parenthesis to see a “smiley” face is also closure. Here he goes further in depth about his ideas of communication, stating that the pictures and art of comic books can sometimes be the words of the comic book. Through the use of icons we get a sense of the language comic books are using. He goes on to say that if art is the vocabulary, closure is the grammar. In this case closure is considered to be the small gap between panels, called the gutter. The gutter can act as a comma, a period, an exclamation point, or whatever punctuation mark is needed to be in the moment. McCloud has classified panel to panel vocabulary into six sections including moment-to-moment and non-sequitur; all six would be in need of the gutter’s grammar skills. Though many different artists have their own styles, the main point McCloud is trying to argue in chapters 1 and 2 is that comic books are more sophisticated than they appear (49). They allow us to become something else, or perhaps our true selves and they have their own unique language that allows them to get diverse points of view across to the reader.
The two chapters inform each other well. McCloud is slow to build on his theories of vocabulary. The idea that pictures can be used as a language is not an easy one to understand in our modern world where we are constantly talking, but it is made less difficult by the fact that his entire book is also written as a comic. McCloud was able to illustrate through his own imagery just how easily it is to use a photo to say something that words would not be able to convey (8). He avoids allowing the reader to think that they are the language by explaining that icons can be used to express importance. The character can be holding a weapon to show power or prestige. He also tells the reader that characters, though they are not the vocabulary, can be a channel for the unspoken vocalization. If a character is looking in a certain direction or has a pained expression on their face the reader can pick up on these cues i.e. what is down there? Or something painful has happened. The gutter, or grammar of the comic, allow us to link the frames together in our mind, create scenes, and understand what is going on. This unique vocabulary is how we read comics.
In essence McCloud thinks that comic books have their own language. He also believes that they are more relatable because we can see ourselves as comic book characters more easily than we could a “real life” superhero. I do agree with McCloud’s views. The blurry self-concept I have when speaking to another person is snapped quickly into focus when I read a comic book. I am not ashamed to say that I still enjoy reading them at my age. It is not an obsession but it is one of the pleasures I have found in life. The unspoken ebb and flow between the characters, the icons, and the gutter is all part of the comic book reading experience that I have always enjoyed. It does not make everything obvious, as some of the plotlines often are in movies. There is some work to be done on the reader’s part but it is worth it.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art shows that there is much about comics that we do not realize. An entire unspoken language exists within the colorful pages. This language is crucial to the story and yet it often goes unnoticed by the reader. McCloud is good to bring this language to our attention but may be asking too much when he says comic books could be more.
Cohn, Niel. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Chicago: Harper Collins, 1994. Print.