Understanding Comics  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is a 215-page non-fiction comic book, written and drawn by Scott McCloud and originally published in 1993. It explores the definition of comics, the historical development of the medium, its fundamental vocabulary, and various ways in which these elements have been used. It discusses theoretical work on comics (or sequential art) as an artform and a communications medium. It is also uses the comic medium for non-storytelling purposes.


Understanding Comics is a wide-ranging exploration of the definition, history, vocabulary, and methods of the medium of comics. An attempt to formalize the study of comics, it is itself in comics form.

The book's overarching argument is that comics are defined by the primacy of sequences of images. McCloud also introduced the concept of "closure," to refer to a reader's role in closing narrative gaps between comics panels. The book argues that comics employ nonlinear narratives because they rely on the reader's choices and interactions.

The book begins with a discussion of the concept of visual literacy and a history of narrative in visual media. McCloud mentions, among other early works of graphic narrative, the Bayeux Tapestry, as an antecedent to comics. Understanding Comics posits Swiss caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffer as in many ways "the father of the modern comic." McCloud emphasizes Töpffer's use of "cartooning and panel borders" along with "the first interdependent combination of words and pictures seen in Europe."

One of the book's key concepts is that of "masking," a visual style, dramatic convention, and literary technique described in the chapter on realism. It is the use of simplistic, archetypal, narrative characters, even if juxtaposed with detailed, photographic, verisimilar, spectacular backgrounds. This may function, McCloud infers, as a mask, a form of projective identification. His explanation is that a familiar and minimally detailed character allows for a stronger emotional connection and for viewers to identify more easily.

One of the book's concepts is "The Big Triangle," a tool for thinking about different styles of comics art. McCloud places the realistic representation in the bottom left corner, with iconic representation, or cartoony art, in the bottom right, and a third identifier, abstraction of image, at the apex of the triangle. This allows placement and grouping of artists by triangulation.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Understanding Comics" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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