Tuesday, November 26, 2019
The real failure of Understanding Comics
Even though giants such as Will Eisner and Jim Steranko had put out books looking at the craft of comic creating, and how story and energy flow across that infinite break between panels, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics still had a powerful impact when it debuted in the early nineties.
McCould's book put a lifetime of thinking about the medium into a coherent narrative that could be easily followed, with sparks of self-deprecating humour and a willingness to accept that other theories - even if they contradicted his own - were always equally valid.
His book was extremely popular because it didn't just talk about the need to have action or mood or thematic resonance in every panel, it talked about the perception of comics, and how the brain works when it puts static images together to create the illusion of movement, and all sorts of things.
McCloud's observations were incredibly thoughtful and those big ideas had a light touch, and almost everybody involved in comics at the time was grateful that he had put in the hard yards. But they were a little too grateful, in the end. Because if there was one real failure with Understanding Comics, it's that it didn't inspire more of the same.
The book ends with the hope that other creators will come up with their own theories and ideas, and put them out in the world, and there has been some of that, but there was also something like a sense of relief that somebody else had done it, and had put out a book that everybody else could point to and say: 'See? Comics are a genuine artistic form'. And nobody else had to bother.
McCloud himself went back to the well with a couple more books, with some diminishing returns, and while there has been plenty of comic scholarship since, there hasn't been anything that has had the broad impact that Understanding Comics did. Nearly 30 years later, we're still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.