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March 2018



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Understanding Comics

I loaned my friend Anne my copy of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. Because I think it does a good job of explaining many things about human perception.

She returned it to me on Thursday and when I asked her what she thought of it she said she didn't agree with him that comics rose to the level of High Art. Anne is a smart woman and I respect her intelligence so I gave this some thought.

As a dabbler in the fine arts myself, I do think that comics are art. But then I am critical of the distinction between High and Low art. The very idea that Art is something distinct from craft is a very recent one and more to do with snobbery than any objective qualities of any object. We consider the works of Shakespeare to be High Art despite the fact that in his day the theater was little different from modern TV, it was popular entertainment. It was written to appeal to the common people as well as the nobility (who provided most of the funding). So, I didn't give much thought to McCloud's assertion that comics should be taken seriously as an art-form because I already agreed with him.

But still, I don't think that is primarily what this book is about. McCloud is not primarily arguing that comics are High Art. He is primarily arguing that comics are an art-form that should taken seriously on it's own merits.

Comics are not like pictures that can be hung in a gallery. Nor are they simply literature. Comics are a specific art-form that uses visual art to convey a narrative, like literature (or sometimes just a mood or an experience, like poetry). Comics use visual images to do what writers do with words alone. But because comics are not just words (or just single images) they can't be evaluated the same way books and painting are. I'm not saying that they can't be evaluated at all, but that they have to be evaluated on their own terms.

The book is mostly about what can be (and what has been) done in the comic art-form. It is a glossary of the vocabulary for evaluating comics. He discusses: icons and symbols, closure, transitions, the graphic depiction of the passage of time, how lines convey mood, emotion, and character.

As McCloud says in the first chapter, it is important not to mistake the medium for the message. Most comics like most novels and most paintings are not High Art. But that doesn't mean they can't be.