What are comics?: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud Part 1

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I talk a lot on this blog about how much I love comics and graphic novels and why it’s so important to encourage and support the young readers who love them. I’m lucky enough to get to work with comic creators as a developmental editor and to geek out over them with my 6 year old every day!

But what are comics? What’s the difference between a comic and a graphic novel? How long have they been around? How do they work?

Scott McCloud’s guide to comics

About 13 years ago I discovered Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, part how-to, part comic, part history book, part academic text. I was gearing up to write my MA dissertation about representations of colour in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and needed to level up my visual literacy and I’d heard that McCloud’s book was the best way to learn about the way pictures and text can work together. I’m SO glad I picked it up because it’s utterly fantastic: a really immersive, compelling read and full of McCloud’s expertise and passion.

I started putting together a blog post discussing definitions of comics and graphic novels and picked up Understanding Comics from my shelf to remind myself of how McCloud uses these terms. Once I started reading I couldn’t stop! So I decided to treat myself and revisit the entire book, and I’m going to discuss it here as I read.

I hope this series will be useful to any storytellers but especially comic book artists, writers and editors as well as anyone interested in making picture books and illustrated children’s books in general.

It will also be helpful for parents, teachers and school librarians wanting to learn more about this medium and looking for ways to connect with and support the young comics readers in their lives.

Comics as an art form: a definition

I want to start by discussions what the term ‘comics’ means. People often ask what the difference is between a comic and a graphic novel and there are distinctions (primarily length and whether it’s serialised) but first it’s important to understand that they’re both the same medium and both come under the heading ‘comics’ as an art form.

McCloud talks a lot about this definition of comics, using ‘comics’ to refer to the art form and not to a specific, tangible object like a comic book or strip (although of course we do generally talk about these as ‘comics’, too). He plays around with Will Eisner’s definition of comics as ‘sequential art’ until he comes to his own definition:

Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.

What are comics? A spread containing Scott McCloud's definition of comicsMcCloud admits that, sometimes, things that aren’t comics might try to squeeze through the boundaries of this definition and join the party. Films, for example, could be said to be pictorial images in a sequence intended to convey information, right?

The difference between a comic and an animation or live action film is that the images in a film aren’t juxtaposed spatially (side by side) but rather take up the same space, one after the other, on a screen. In a comic, those images are each occupying their own space at once so the viewer experiences them very differently to a movie on screen.

And how about single images paired up with words – are those comics, too? Single-panel comics like these are often referred to as comics but McCloud doesn’t think they pass the test: they’re not sequential. 

Single panels like this one are often lumped in with comics, yet there’s no such thing as a sequence of one!

Such single panels might be classified as ‘comic art’ in the sense that they derive part of their visual vocabulary from comics–but I say they’re no more comics than this still of Humphrey Bogart is film!

They are cartoons, as am I, and there is a long-standing relationship between comics and cartoons.

But they are not the same thing! 

As an overall summary of the term ‘comics’, I think Scott McCloud’s definition is pretty good! Hopefully you feel you’ve get a clearer understanding of comics as an art form and what we mean when we talk about comics in general.

Suggested post: What’s a comic and what’s a graphic novel?

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes