This past year, I re-discovered comic books. I've written before how comics didn't just teach me to read, they taught me to read well. But I drifted away from comics in the late nineties. Pandering to an overblown speculation bubble (3 glow-in-the-dark variant covers for every issue!) and the urge to make every title grim and gritty and X-TREME!! had bankrupted companies--first creatively, then financially.
When I returned a decade later, I found an industry and fan base that had grown smaller but also more eager and open to discovery. Once-fringe writers like Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison had taken over flagship titles. Quieter, indie stuff like Craig Thompson's wonderful Blankets was finding its place among the caped heroes.
Excited by this new comics landscape and wanting to learn more about it, I picked up cartoonist Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.
Drawing from both literary theory and aesthetics, McCloud explores the psychology at work underneath the comics page, what he calls the "invisible art." He shows how the crispness of a line or the use of color changes a reader's perception of an image. And how the space between two panels forces us to mentally "fill in the gap," imagining how one scene transitions into the next, creating a kind of audience participation that film doesn't. Explaining the way people identify more with simplified figures (because we tend to project our own self-image onto them) than highly detailed ones (which we see clear as an "other"), he shows how this has been used to great effect in comics. Art Spigelman's Holocaust story Maus wasn't emotionally-wrenching despite the characters being Disney-esque mice and cats but because of it. In manga, often in the same story, some characters will are drawn simply and others with more detail, depending on whether the reader is meant to identify with that character or not. (Several times, McCloud points to Japanese manga as the future of comics. Considering he published Understanding Comics in 1993, when manga was just edging into the American consciousness, this seems incredibly prescient.)
All these heavy ideas should be as dry as burnt toast. Maybe even more impressive than the theories, though, is the breezy way Understanding Comics presents them. Drawn completely in comics format and narrated by McCloud's smiling alter-ego, this is literary theory meant for everyone.
Also, for people wanting to create their own comics, I recommend McCloud's follow up, Making Comics. This isn't the normal "how to draw" guide with lessons on figure drawing and crosshatching. Instead, this is more about the mechanics of telling stories through images: How to make panels flow easily across the page, how a character's posture communicates his personality or internal mood. Like Understanding Comics, the brilliance in Making Comics is the way McCloud reduces complex ideas into a few simple principles and clever illustrations.
Despite the industry's problems back in the nineties, the stories stuck with me. I couldn't shake them, no matter how many "real" books I read, and I finally found my way back. In a similar way, the industry survived its own excesses because there are some stories you can only tell through comics. In his accessible style, McCloud reveals this "invisible art" and makes me appreciate it even more.
(Cross-posted on my blog.)