Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics has been on my to read list for a while but a couple of weeks ago the author did a book signing at my local comic shop. So I picked up a copy for him to sign (to my nephew, Nollie).
My first response was WOW! And I continue to be impressed by this book. And my enthusiasm was sometimes a little much (which happens). I showed it to my girlfriend, to my writing friends, and to strangers at the coffee shop. It is that good.

As Art Spiegelman wrote in his blurb for this book, it is more than just a treatise on the art of comic books. Understanding Comics is about Art, Time, Space, and the Cosmos. This is not an exaggeration.

In the first chapter, McCloud offers a definition of comics:

?Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the view.

With this definition he goes on to call comics the invisible art because what makes comics work is between the panels. In other words, what makes a comic different than other pictures ? is the transition between one picture (or panel) and the next.

There’s a lot in this book that would interest anyone interested in comics, art, and storytelling. But right now I’m most intrigued by McCloud’s discussion of transitions, because I think it is essential to all storytelling. He identifies six different transistions in comics:

  • Moment-to-Moment
  • Action-to-Action
  • Subject-to-Subject
  • Scene-to-Scene
  • Aspect-to-Aspect
  • Non-sequitor

He then takes a sample of a bunch of comic book artists (from Jack Kirby to Herge) and shows that all of them use mostly Action-to-Action transitions, with a few Subject-to-Subject and Scene-to-Scene transitions as well. This is pretty surprising considering that artistic style varies so widely among these same artists.

McCloud then looks at Japanese comic book artists, like Osamu Tezuka. And the use of transitions doesn’t follow the same pattern. Instead the types of transitions are much more evenly distributed, with many more Aspect-to-Aspect transitions.

Not only is this interesting to comic book fans and artists, but to all of us wanting to tell stories. It is the transitions which are so important. One of my next projects is going to be investigating how these transitions are used in my favorite fiction. I’ll take a closer look at some of my favorite novels and identify where there are transitions (not just chapter breaks, but also double line breaks, paragraphs, and maybe even sentences) and what kind of transistions they are. McCloud’s list may or may not be totally accurate for prose writing, but I think its a good place to start.

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2 comments to Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

  • […] to include. The gap is fundamental to how narrative works. Scott McCloud outlines six different types of transitions in comics and their various affects. The power of these transitions are in the gap between panels, called the […]

  • […] When I wrote about Understanding Comics ? in 2007, I expressed an interest in exploring how McCloud’s list of transitions might be applied to prose writing. Schema poetics can offer some insight. The fundamental unit of comic book art is the panel and the story is told through transitions, which is why McCloud focuses on types of transitions. The fundamental unit of prose is the sentence (or paragraph, depending on who you ask). In comic books, the types of transitions McCloud defines are frames the reader employs to make sense of the images. Readers employ frames or scripts to understand prose as well. […]