Chapter outline: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Comic-book art as a teaching tool: These panels dramatize the story of the chemist Kekula and how he pictured the benzene molecule as an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994: Harper Paperbacks).


  1. Key questions:
    1. What can comics do?
    2. How do comics work?
    3. How do we define comics?
    4. What are the basic elements of comics?
    5. How does the mind process the language of comics?
  2. Key concepts:
    1. Closure: what happens between the panels
    2. Time flow and how is it represented
    3. Interaction of words and pictures to story-telling
    4. Comprehensive theory of the creative process
    5. Implications does this have on comics and on art in general

Chapter 1: Setting the Record Straight

  1. Comic refers to the whole medium, not a specific object
  2. Comics: Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer
  3. When comics originated is not known:
    1. 1519: Mayans used drawings of sequential images along with the French and early Egyptians to depict stories and make words with pictures.
    2. 1450: The invention of printing allowed everyone toenjoy art, not just the rich and powerful.
    3. 1460: The Torture of St. Erasmus, a story told in sequential panels.
    4. William Hogarth, The Rake's Progress: II. The Levée. Engraving, published 1735.

    5. 1735: Hogarth’s paintings were designed to be viewed in sequence
    6. 1837: Rudolphe Topffer, the father of modern comics, publishes Histoire de M. Vieux Bois (published in the United States in 1842 as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck).
    7. British Caricature magazines kept the traditions alive and as we got closer to the 20th Century comics began to appear
  4. The word “comics” had negative connotations; many comics practitioners have preferred the title “illustrators”, “commercial artists” or “cartoonists.”
  5. Their low self esteem was self perpetuating, and comics gained an image obscured by that negativity
  6. Sequential images have been an excellent communication tool, but people call them “diagrams” instead of “comics.”
  7. Single-panel images are not comics but rather just comic art.
  8. Pictures when viewed individually or with another are different; when two pictures are put together, eac image is transformed into something more than just a single image.
  9. Our attempts to define comics continues and won’t end anytime soon.

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Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics


Robert Indiana, “LOVE” (1967): Scott McCloud would call the word “love” a non-pictorial icon. Its meaning does not change even when it gets an artistic treatment. The semiotician Charles Saunders Peirce would call the word a sign in the symbolic mode.

  1. The treachery of images: — This is not a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe … no it’s a drawing … no it’s a printed copy of a drawing …
  2. Icon is an image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea. (NOTE: McCloud’s use of the word “icon” is different from how semioticians define it.)
  3. A non-pictorial icon’s meaning is fixed and absolute; its appearance does not affect its meaning because it represents an invisible idea.
  4. A picture’s meaning is fluid and variable; it differs from real-life appearance to varying degrees.
  5. Words are totally abstract icons; their sound is not represented in their form
  6. Cartooning is a form of amplification through simplification.
    1. Cartooning is a way of seeing
    2. The face theory, we control a mask that is our face.
    3. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it.
    4. We can look at shapes and feel as if they have human attributes. For example, we see a human face in the front of an automobile.
    5. Our identities and awareness are invested in many inanimate objects, such as clothes that can transform the way others see us and the way we see ourselves.
    6. Marshall McLuhan originated the idea that we see extensions of ourselves in inanimate objects.
  7. All the things we experience in life can be separated into the realm of the concept and the realm of the senses.
  8. Our identities belong permanently to the conceptual world.
    1. They can’t be seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted.
    2. They are merely ideas and everything else at the start belongs to the sensual world.
  9. A cartoon can display the world within
  10. Backgrounds are usually more realistic that the human figures, as in the comic TinTin.
  11. Japanese artists sometimes use detailed photo like drawings to emphasize the object. Ex. Sword with writing
  12. Writing and drawing are seen as separate disciplines
  13. Iconic Progressions in Comics
    1. Complex → simple
    2. Realistic → iconic
    3. Objective → subjective
    4. Specific → universal
  14. Good comics have a harmonious combination of writing and images, two different means of expression.
  15. Single unified language deserves a single unified vocabulary. Without it, comics will continue to “limp along as the bastard child of words and pictures” (47).
  16. Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to get the message. The message is instantaneous
  17. Writing is perceived information. It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language
  18. When pictures become more abstract, they become more like words;
  19. When words are more direct and require lower levels of perception, they become more like pictures.
  20. The pyramid:
    1. The lower left corner represents reality
    2. Across the bottom, moving right, images become simpler until they approach the abstraction of words.
    3. Moving upward along the left edge, images become more abstract until lines and shapes express no apparent meaning.

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Chapter 3: Blood in the Gutter

  1. We perceive the world as a whole through our senses.
    1. Our senses reveal a world that is fragmented and incomplete.
    2. Our perception of reality is an act of faith.
    3. In an incomplete world, we depend on closure.
  2. The gutter is the space between frames.
    1. The gutter is where things happen.
    2. Our imagination comes into play to provide closure.
  3. If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar.
  4. Closure can be a powerful force within panels when the artist chooses to show only a small piece of the picture.
  5. Readers are partners in crime when reading comics; they fill in the gutter.
  6. A comic strip with moment to moment transitions.

  7. The Transition Craft:
    1. Moment to moment transitionsrequire little closure; it’s like blinking.
    2. Action to action transitions focus on a single subject in progression, such as a batter hitting a baseball.
    3. Subject to subject transitions stay within a scene or idea; reader involvement is needed to connect the two subjects, such as an axe in one panel and a person screaming in the next.
    4. Scene to scene transitions transport the reader through time and distance.
    5. Aspect to aspect transitions bypass time and set a wandering eye on different aspects of a place, idea or mood.
    6. Non-sequitur transitionsprovide no logical relationship between panels.
  8. Comic books from the Far East use transitions differently from U.S. comic books.
    1. The East focuses on being there while the West focuses on getting there.
    2. Action to action transitions dominate comic books in America and Europe.
    3. Comics from Japan, on the other hand, include a much higher percentage of aspect to aspect transitions.
    4. Not all Western artists are alike: aspect to aspect transitions dominate in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novels, such as Maus.
  9. The power of closure between panels is what is most interesting:
    1. Comics are a mono-sensory medium. They rely on only one of the senses to convey a world of experience
    2. Sounds are represented through devices such as word balloons.
    3. Within the panels information can be conveyed only visually. But between them, all of our senses are engaged.
    4. Only comics can create the magic that occurs in the blank space.

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Chapter 4: Time Frames

From Action Comics No. 1, June 1938, in which Superman was introduced. Note the use of motion lines to indicate action.

  1. Words represent sound, something that exists only in time.
  2. The panel acts as a general indicator that time or space is being divided.
    1. The durations of that time and the dimensions of that space are defined more by the contents of the panel than by the panel itself
    2. The panel’s shape can make a difference in our perception of time
    3. Wherever a viewers eyes are focused is NOW; everything else is past or future
    4. Viewers have a choice in which way they want to go, unlike in television or movies.
    5. Time and space in the world of comics are closely linked
  3. Modern comic books have always struggled with showing motion in a static medium.
    1. A motion line represents movement.
    2. Zip ribbons or motion lines were at first wild, messy and almost desperate attempts to represent the paths of moving objects.
    3. Over time they became more stylized.

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Kadinsky, Composition VIII

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII (1923). Artists use the unadorned line as a form of expressions.

Chapter 5: Living in Line

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Scott McCloud

The real Scott McCloud

Chapter 9: Putting it all Together

  1. In comics, the conversion from physical world to the mental world follows a path from mind to hand to paper to eye to mind.
  2. The mastery of a medium is measured by how much of the original artist’s ideas survive when taken in by a reader.
  3. Comic books are a sight-based medium.
  4. The whole world of visual iconography is at the disposal of comics creators.
  5. Comics have harnessed the power to command viewer involvement and identification, and realism to capture the beauty and complexity of the visible world.
  6. The dance of the visible and the invisible is at the very heart of comics, through the power of closure