Understanding Comics Fridays: Chapter Two

Scott McCloud says "Understanding comics is serious business."

This iconic image isn't kidding.

So last week, I was generally terrified by the amount of supplementary reading involved in getting a feel for Understanding Comics at this point in time. That fear hasn’t really abated any, but here we are at Chapter Two, “The Vocabulary of Comics.”

Chapter One laid the groundwork, defining McCloud’s vision of comics as an expansion of the critical work of Will Eisner (“sequential art”) and Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”). Chapter Two moves on to the basics of semiotics, or the analysis of the presentation and meaning of signs. As usual, it also provides me with an insight into why this feature is so hard to write so far, even though I’m up front about the fact that it’s an experiment and may go horribly wrong at any moment.

When I started reading, I hit up my friend Eric Burns-White of Websnark co-fame for advice on approaching the entire project. His words of wisdom were twofold– one, a general bit of encouragement about bringing my own reading to the work, and the other… well…

The other one was “Deep breaths. Remember, Icon Scott McCloud cannot hurt you.”

And Eric’s right. Smiling Icon Scott McCloud is about as accessible a tutor on basic semiotics as anyone’s ever going to get. Chapter Two breezily defines icons, covers levels of abstraction from “cartoony” to “photoreal,” and maps out the vocabulary of comics on a three-dimensional model– a diagram that tries to plot out comics style in the same way a gamut plots out a colorspace. It’s densely-packed in terms of just how much information McCloud’s put into each panel; Chad said it reminds him of the “Mr. DNA” sequence in Jurassic Park in its simplification of complex theoretical topics.

The symbolic gamut of comics creation runs from realistic depictions to cartoony images and beyond into pure abstraction, and from representative shapes to non-representative imagery. McCloud breaks it all down in what has to be the most intimidating diagram in the book, a map with 100 different comics artists plotted along the pyramid of visual styles. Fortunately, he admits that it’s a lot to digest at once, and Icon Scott McCloud advises us to save it for later.

The high bandwidth and high compression in this chapter is impressive… and when you start unpacking the content outside of the book itself, wham, you’re knee-deep in John Locke and Wassily Kandinsky. McCloud cites Kandinsky’s “On the Problem of Form” as part of the inspiration for the critical grammar set forth in Understanding Comics. It’s a short essay, and it serves to bolster McCloud’s content-agnostic, broadly egalitarian definition of comics. Every comics creator will choose the form that’s most suited to their needs; in McCloud’s paradigm, those needs and forms will be roughly circumscribed by his own definition of comics.

It didn’t take me long, this time around, to Google “semiotics,” bounce off Locke’s treatise on the topic (“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”), and say “Hey, wait, I think there’s going to be some conceptualism involved here, since we’re starting to talk about individual perception of these iconic images.” Obviously, if we talk about perception, we’re going to discuss how much of reality is perceptually-based and how much of it is objectively real.

And, lo and behold, when I dipped into Chapter Three, there was Icon Scott McCloud, walking through a disappearing landscape. I might be catching on to this game.

(Also, if you’re interested in how McCloud applies to other uses of iconography– say, human-computer interaction– you’d be well-served to read Lukas Mathis’ essay “Realism in UI Design,” which just went up yesterday over at his blog. I’m apparently not the only one thinking about Understanding Comics lately.)


  1. I thought I’d say something about semiotics as a concept, though I haven’t read McCloud and accordingly don’t know how he’s using it (so I’m not talking about that at all). Semiotics was one of those things that was an arcane critical Thing for quite some time for me until someone put it pretty concisely and clearly.

    “Semiotics” — as a discipline/concept/subsect of critical discourse — used to be this impenetrable jargon-strewn morass a few years back in which academic semioticians would discuss semiotics using jargon and terms that weren’t easy for outsiders to find definitions for. And they would tend to do so in po-mo ways that made it difficult to have any clue what they were talking about. This practice had the effect of looking clever but incomprehensible. That’s thankfully changed over the last few years, to the point that I see Warren Ellis talking about the semiotics of this and that at times.

    The short response I give to folks when I try to explain what “semiotics” means is “cultural representation,” the embedded cultural meanings within signs (where signs can be practically anything). It basically comes down to cultural symbolism, whether we’re talking the semiotics of Mickey Mouse, the use of italics in print, comic sound effects like BAM, or even a character’s choice of a ratty, tan trenchcoat. What does italics in print suggest to a reader? What does BAM! call to mind for a reader of comics? What does Constantine’s choice of outerwear call to mind or suggest to readers?

    The funnest and most accessible dip into this sort of thing comes via Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which begins with what amount to several semiotic explorations of different things out of common life and pop culture and concludes in the second part with the theory.