4 min read

UX Bookclub Edinburgh: Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud

A decade ago, while doing a school English project on the language of Peanuts vs Footrot Flats comics, I picked up Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’ and was blown away by his thoughful unpacking of a so-called ‘childish medium’. What would I think of the book today? We took a look at it at tonight’s UX Bookclub Edinburgh. Our small group of readers came at it from a range of angles including working in UX, teaching visual language, and just being interested in it all (OK, that last one was me).

One of the key things McCloud discusses, aside from a proper definition of comics (below):

Scott McCloud: "OK how does this sound? - Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence". "But what about Batman? Shouldn't it have Batman in it?" "Who let him in?" "No I mean it! And what about the X-Men and… Ow! He! Hey! Let go of me! Hey". McCloud: "Well, anyway, this should do for now"

is the role of abstraction in terms of comics and relatability. He argues that the more simplified the image (e.g from picture to similey face) the more we project ourselves into the image. This is strongly noticeable in Art Speigelmann’s Maus, a story of the author’s Holocaust survivor father. It shows all the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.

I Have medals from the kaiser. My son is a German soldier". Only they hit him and they laughed. "Was he really a German?" "Who knows. It was German prisoners also, but for the germans this guy was Jewish"

Fellow bookcluber Dave Wood recently read it for the first time. He believed that reading it now after years of Holocaust films and media has perhaps diluted its effect, as he didn’t feel the need for the abstractions, but friends who had read it on its release in the 80s really did feel that the format helped them empathise and relate. I personally think it helped when I read it in the early noughties.

What those academically-focused people noticed about McCloud’s book is that he introduces a lot of concepts — semiotics, film theory, phenomenology — without ever using the terms. While we initially thought that might be an oversight, we decided that this could well be deliberate, for it means that the book can be read on a number of levels.

For example, phenomenology:

While you could argue that a bit of referencing might have been helpful, not having it makes it more of a read than a struggle.

One thing that is notably missing from the book is a mention of European comics. McCloud mentions the usual suspects (Asterix and Tintin) but aside from that his work compares American to Japanese structures. Again, this is probably a feature of the book in him writing about what he knows. He also has high praise in the appendix for a book on European comics so perhaps believes we should just read that instead.

Even the writing on Asian comics is fairly light (though what is there is illuminating), but you do have to keep in mind that the book was written in 1993 before Pokemon and Dragonball Z or even the internet.

Understanding Comics isn’t a book to be read in one go: it’s more of a collection of chapters (of which the last two could probably have gone).

In terms of UX, there weren’t that many things that were directly useful — though that framework about levels of fidelity did seem a bit familiar, eh, Dan Roam? —

The scale shows several slightly different progressions. Let's concentrate on one and see if we can take it any further. Complex - simple; realistic - iconic; objective - subjective ; specific - universal"

but there were certainly elements to think about, such as the concept of closure in both a visual and sequential sense,

Closure can take many forms. Some simple, some complex. (images of Closure with bits removed)

and how we can assume certain structures when we’re in a format. I particularly liked his sections on the different type of frames, perhaps film school 101 but very easy to read

and I similarly liked his parable on the steps to mastery in comic design

In all the arts it's the surface that people appreciate the most easily; like an apple chosen for its shiny skin (centre to outer - idea, form, idiom, structure, craft, surface). The latest fan favourite often looks better at a glance than the older artists who had the ideas and cerated the idioms but were less interested in surfaces
1: idea/purpose; 2: form; 3: idiom; 4: structure; 5: craft; 6: surface

It also gave some useful thoughts about visuals and personality: works done with brushstrokes are very different from those with sharp straight edges (I couldn’t help but think of companies like Dropbox and Google using watercolour like images here).

And it’s hard to to marvel at the sheer effort that’s gone into the book. It’s over 200 pages long, and *every single page* is done in comic book format, and done beautifully at that. It’s a useful reference for sheer craftsmanship alone.

Scott singing. Wife with baby: "At least you're not married to him. I get this all the time!"

So, while Understanding Comics may not appear to be directly useful to UX, and is certainly not rigorous in terms of theory, its commitment to its cause in both content and presentation means that it’s the type of book that can remind you of things you’d forgotten you know, and inspire you to explore your methods of visual storytelling. Despite being nearly 20 years old, it still holds up. And I got just as much — and different — things out of it as a UX practictioner/PhD student as I did all thoe years ago as a high school student.

All images above copyright of Scott McCloud ‘Understanding Comics’ except for Maus by Art Speigelman, and used as fair use.