Understanding Comics

Comics today remain an underused and misunderstood medium, even despite many of its greatest stories being adapted for big and little screens everywhere, the comic book is rarely taken seriously. In the past it was much worse, and comics were seen solely as children’s books, and could never be regarded as true literature. And yet even now telling somebody you read a novel versus a comic still brings about a much different reaction. These books that clearly house not just great stories (Maus), unforgettable characters (Superman) alongside fantastic works of art (Most comics) can’t seem to leave their place of limbo somewhere in between books and animation. But despite this being one of the biggest issues faced by comics, it also happens to be one of its greatest strengths.

Back in 1993 cartoonist and author Scott McCloud published understanding comics. This was essentially a combination of things, a study of the medium as a legitimate platform for storytelling, a focus on the way that comic art is different to other forms as well as being a graphic novel in itself. What he wrote and drew in those pages were important and often unnoticed elements that relate to comics, psychology and beyond.


He speaks about how unlike film, comics rarely strive for photorealism, and in simplifying forms into their more recognisable parts we create icons. Not to be confused with symbols which are shapes constructed to represent anything from real world items to abstract philosophies, like the dollar sign or the cross. Icons instead are non complex pictures that mirror something we can see. These include faces, environments and anything you would see on a comic page. The magic here is that with just a few lines and geometrical shapes our brains can discern a person from a tree and skip thousands of years of required language. Icons are ever present in today’s society as emojis are a commonly used substitute for explaining our emotions.

Magic Between the Panels

Though film is technically a series of images one after another, the speed in which these pictures move is so fast that we cannot comprehend the space between them. In comics however each panel and the gutters around it (the often white background between images) are clearly separate. This allows us to read the comic, much like the space between words allows us to differentiate one from the other. However, in our brains, many events happen in the gaps. From fighting moves being executed to buildings toppling, when we read a comic the action on the pages doesn’t stay static, we make comics come to life in our heads. This participation of the reader makes it a perfect halfway line between fully imagined books and fully directed cinema.

Comics Are Timeless

We often think comics are a modern invention, but Scott shows this isn’t true. From cave paintings to pictorial sculptures, we have used this medium for centuries without giving it a name. This and many of the other topics covered in his graphic novel will not just inspire any writers and artists trying to break into the industry, but anyone interested in how humans tell stories, which would no doubt include everyone.