90 pages 3 hours read

Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Nonfiction | Graphic Novel/Book | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


A lifetime student of graphic arts and highly regarded artist himself, Scott McCloud first published Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art in 1993. The book is a graphic nonfiction work—literally a comic book about comics as an art form. Soon after its publication, the book began to garner extensive praise, and it continues to be well received three decades later. Understanding Comics received several awards including the Eisner Award for Best Comics-Related Book as well as the Harvey Awards for Best Writer and Best Graphic Original Material in 1994. McCloud wrote his book to deepen the public’s appreciation for the history, power, and unrealized potential of comics.

This guide is based on the 1994 HarperCollins version of the text.


The introduction comprises a comic strip of a phone call between Scott McCloud and his friend Matt Feazell. When Feazell asks about McCloud’s next project, he describes an ambitious graphic work about comic theory. Feazell’s doubtful response results in McCloud’s silence.

Chapter 1 of Understanding Comics is largely devoted to the history of graphic storytelling, beginning with McCloud’s personal history with comics. Before he was out of high school, he decided to pursue comics as a career and devoted himself to understanding them. Because comic art is so vast, it is essential to come up with a definition. McCloud describes the strengths and weaknesses of several definitions but ultimately adopts Will Eisner’s version: Comics is “sequential art.” He points out that, unlike fine arts and literature, comics were not as examined at the time, an error that Understanding Comics seeks to rectify.

McCloud explains that sequential art—a series of images that tells a story—can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt. He then discusses the transition from the first printed cartoons to those of the 1990s. According to McCloud, comic art requires words to reach its full potential. The storyteller who actualized this development was one of his role models, Swiss artist Rudolphe Töpffer of mid-19th century fame.

McCloud begins his discussion of comics storytelling in Chapter 2. Comics is a very specific type of icon. Unlike other visual icons—such as the dollar sign or peace sign—comics are icons that resemble what they are trying to represent; a cartoon drawing of a face is meant to depict an actual person. McCloud makes the counterintuitive observation that the more cartoonish an icon is, the more universal it is. The simpler a comic’s drawings, the more readers can place themselves in the comic’s story. Comics storytellers have the ability to adjust the degree of realism in their drawings based on how broad or specific their target audience is.

A simple art style doesn’t indicate a simple story. Understanding Comics itself uses simple drawings while dealing with complex subjects. McCloud uses a pyramid, an “iconic abstraction chart,” to illustrate differences in how language develops (i.e., abstraction versus realism)—and returns to it several times as he reflects on the historical development of comic art and written language.

One of McCloud’s most famous contributions to the study of comic art is discussed in Chapter 3. “Closure” is a natural process in which a reader’s mind fills in the unknown of any given media (i.e., if a reader sees a panel with a shipwreck followed by a panel of a man on a deserted island, the mind automatically assumes the man swam to the safety of the island). McCloud discusses how comics use “gutters”—the white spaces between panels—to achieve closure and move a narrative forward. In other words, the reader becomes a participant in the story, filling in “missing” details. McCloud shares six different closure-related methods that enable artists to complete stories depending on their priorities and readers’ expectations.

In Chapter 4, McCloud discusses how comics can manipulate a reader’s sense of time. By altering or removing panels, storytellers can create any desired impression of the passage of time (i.e., the panel being read is sensed as being in the present; the panel to the left is in the past; the panel to the right is in the future).

McCloud goes on to discuss the history of “motion lines”—an artistic method used to suggest movement. The idea of including motion in static drawings emerged mid-19th century as motion pictures were being developed. Where fine artists failed to create believable motion, comics artists succeeded. Sound is also one of the invisible realities that comic art is able to portray.

Speaking of invisible realities, emotions are the focus of Chapter 5. Like with motion, fine artists of the 19th century were interested in evoking emotions through their art. Attempts to accomplish this are well-documented by fine art historians but virtually ignored in relation to comic art. The act of using one medium to evoke a different type of awarenesses is called “synaesthetics,” something comic art proves adept at.

As graphic artists grow in their ability to depict different emotions and sensations, other artists adapt their techniques and in doing so, add new icons to an expanding comic language. As new iconic meanings emerge, artists and readers (via connecting to comics emotionally) alike contribute to the new language.

In Chapter 6, McCloud points out that young readers are often weaned off picture books in favor of “real books,” those without illustrations. American culture and education assume the written word is the highest expression of communication. McCloud counters this idea by including several panels with images of cave art dating around 15,000 years old. He is able to demonstrate that these ancient images have a great deal in common with today’s comic art, implying that comic art has an inherent meaning to human beings that existed prior to the advent of the written word.

McCloud returns to Chapter 2’s pyramid to explain a media trend that impacted Western civilization in the early 1800s. He argues that art and literature distanced themselves from each other, with language becoming abstract and art becoming realistic. This led to countermovements such as artistic expressionism and literary freedom; comic art itself began to perfect the inclusion of images and words. McCloud goes on to describe seven categories of storytelling.

Chapter 7 begins with McCloud’s defense of comics as a legitimate art form. He uses anthropology to explain humans’ basic instincts—survival and reproduction—and how all other human activities are forms of art. McCloud goes on to discuss the six-step process behind fine art of any genre—including comics.

In Chapter 8, McCloud traces the history of color in printing—particularly the “four-color process.” The process first became possible in the late 1800s, but it was the early 20th century that saw it streamlined. At the time, the process confined publishers to bright primary colors with little subtlety in hue or shading.

McCloud summarizes his insights and restates his theme: Comic art is an important and undervalued genre of fine arts that possesses great potential. Universality gives comic art a better chance at breaking down communication barriers than most media. McCloud closes the book by encouraging readers to become involved in comics.

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