Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics

I was sixty pages into Understanding Comics when I realized it had already earned a spot  in my top-ten favorite nonfiction books.  Don’t ask me what the other nine are because I had never thought about my top-ten favorite nonfiction books until that moment.  I just know that Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is one of them.  This is a graphic novel about the theory, history, and art of comic books.  What hooked me though was McCloud’s presentation of how the human mind handles images and language, and he does it within the comic format.  It is nothing short of genius.

McCloud begins the book trying to answer the question “what is comics?”  The definition he comes up with is “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He goes on to examine that definition by looking at how comics have evolved through human history, from the Aztecs to the 1400s to modern day.  What we often consider to be a childish form of entertainment today is a form of communication that seems to have been natural to humans since our beginning. And McCloud argues that comics are a legitimate art form that has largely gone unstudied.

It is chapter two that begins to look deeper into how images affect us.  I found it fascinating, and like I said, by chapter three I was hooked.  McCloud’s theories are not really new.  Marshall McLuhan, Will Eisner, Neil Postman, and others have written about how media affects us, but McCloud’s presentation makes all the difference for me.  What’s Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying?  The medium is the message?

McCloud goes into the theory, the nuts and bolts if you will, of comics making- panel arrangement, the different types of transitions, the style of art, time, line, and color.   What keeps all of this accessible to those of us who aren’t artists is the fact that McCloud always brings it back to how the reader is a participant in all of this.  A discussion on how time is handled in comics didn’t mean much to me until I saw how I create the time and motion from the ink on the paper.

Another recurring theme is how all of this is a relatively new art form in terms of being examined and pushed to its limits.  Novels, poetry, music, art- virtually everything that could be done has been done.  McCloud argues that comics still have a lot of unexplored territory.  He touches on how some artists and writers have experimented with the aforementioned aspects of comics, like time and color. He encourages new writers and artists to do more.

I would have loved to have used this book when I taught High School English.  I’m sure it would have saved the lives of some of the gang members I taught.  As an English major, I feel slightly cheated that this wasn’t in the curriculum.  It should be required reading in College English classes, but as McCloud states, new art forms are judged by their predecessors.  Any study of language, art, and what it means to humans would greatly benefit from Understanding Comics.  Am I laying it on too thick?  I can’t say enough good things about his book.  Art Spiegelman, author of Maus,  writes this:

Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple-looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comix while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art, and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comix I’ve seen in a long time.

The Cosmos, people.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  Check out Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art here.

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

If you have ever questioned whether graphic novels can be as poignant and powerful as traditional novels or memoirs, Stitches proves that they can. In fact, I don’t think David Small’s memoir could be told as powerfully in any other format.

David’s mother was a “difficult” person to live with, and everyone in the house retreated into their own forms of silence. Tragically and ironically, David is left a virtual mute at the age of fourteen after what he thought would be a simple operation to remove a cyst in his throat. It was cancer, but no one thought he needed to know that. As his family crumbles under his mother’s austere dictatorship and his father’s belief that he gave David the cancer, David finds his voice through art and escapes the mental illness that seems to haunt his mother’s side of the family.

The simple artwork in Stitches captures the mood of the Small family perfectly. Pages will go by without a word, beautifully capturing the silence and agony David was experiencing. It would take pages and pages of text to describe what Small is able to express in a few simply rendered panels.

This is a great graphic novel and memoir. Check it out here.

Another great ARC from ijustfinished.com

Moby Dick – Comic Book Love 2

I recently bought a used copy of the Classics Illustrated Moby Dick drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, and I was not disappointed.  This is the same Bill Sienkiewicz of Elektra and Daredevil fame, the same Sienkiewicz I thought was the greatest comic book artist of all time when I was a teen.

Sienkiewicz brings his unique brand of surrealism and expressionism to the great American novel about dark obsession and madness.  Sienkiewicz’s art captures Ahab’s madness perfectly.  As Ahab’s obsession grows, Sienkiewicz uses a recurring image of a scratchy black and white demonic face that appears in its own box.  This, of course, captures the book’s theme perfectly. Sienkiewicz’s feverish depictions of the crew show how Ahab’s madness spreads to even the most reluctant sailors, and his depictions of the monsterish white whale draw the reader into the fear and mystery that have twisted Ahab’s mind.

If you’ve never read the orignial Moby Dick, Herman Melville intertwined chapters of action and theme-driven plot with scientific chapters on whales and the industry of whaling.  It is a long and strange, but rewarding read. This graphic novel focuses on the action-driven plot and theme to capture the essence of the original story.  All of the famous images and scenes from the original are here: the opening scenes with Ishmael and the tattooed savage, Queequeg; the appearance of Ahab on deck; the making of the coffin and Ahab’s special harpoon; the tri-works, etc.

You can find all of these samples and much more on Sienkiewicz’s site:   http://www.billsienkiewiczart.com/

Knucklehead featuring Jon Scieszka

Jon Scieszka’s semi-graphic novel memoir about growing up with five brothers reminded me of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was a kid. There’s lots of action and adventure to grab a young boy’s attention- wrestling, peeing on electric heaters, breaking stuff and then blaming it on someone else, telling jokes, making mortars out of M80 firecrackers, etc. It’s just good boisterous fun. I grew up around farms, and so we always dared each other to pee on electric fences, which is its own special kind of fun.

It’s not fully a graphic novel/memoir. He includes pictures of the family and various pieces of old-comic-style art to correspond with the text, but the memoir is largely text-based. The chapters are very short and each one focuses on a specific situation or memory. As the title states, these are “mostly true events.” I question the group puking incident in the station wagon, but I imagine this is the story the way the boys told it to their friends. The book is good fun and a quick nostalgic read, for me anyway. Good times, good times.

Another good read from ijustfinished.com

more about “Knucklehead featuring Jon Scieszka on…“, posted with vodpod

Daniel X: Alien Hunter, a graphic novel by Jame Patterson (ARC)

James Patterson expands his Daniel X adventure with Daniel X: Alien Hunter, a graphic novel.  I had a student a few years ago who loved James Patterson’s young adult novels.  I even made a few accelerated reader quizzes for him, so he could get extra credit.  I respect Patterson for motivating preteen and teen boys to read.

This graphic novel is a quick read full of action and mystery.  Daniel’s parents were murdered, and he discovers that his father was an alien who hunted outlaw aliens on Earth.  Daniel finds his father’s list of outlaw aliens and is on a mission to find his parents’ killer.  Over time Daniel has practiced and honed his own alien powers.  He can use his imagination to create just about anything he wants, including friends.

Daniel is hunting #7 on the list in this installment of the story.  Patterson includes enough twists, turns, and monsters to keep young readers turning the pages.  Daniel’s foe is almost too much for him.  I imagine the most interested age group would be boys 9-12.  My seven-year-old has already asked if he can read it when I’m done.  I’m not sure he can keep up with dialogue or the vocabulary, but I’ll let him give it a shot.

I find Patterson’s writing a little heavy handed at times for a graphic novel.  For example, when it starts to rain, Daniel actually says in a thought bubble, “It’s starting to rain. I’d better get inside.” Well, we have the picture.  We can see that it’s raining.  The art appears to be computer generated.  It looks good, but its not spectacularly original.   Overall, I think its a graphic novel preteens will like.

Into the Volcano by Don Wood (Early Reviewer Book)

wilsonknut.com

I’ve been trying to think of unique ways to describe this graphic novel without using “visually stunning” and “breathtakingly beautiful,” but I can’t do it.  Every panel is a work of art.  The scenes where the lava meets the ocean are perfect.  It’s just ink on a page, but Wood captures the light, the hiss, and the heat.  The graphic novel not only stands up to artistic scrutiny, but also has a gripping story.

It’s a mystery- adventure that appeals to a younger audience, but I found myself engrossed. Brothers, Sumo and Duffy, are pulled out of class unexpectedly by their father to be shipped off to an island with a mysterious cousin they’ve never met.  The whole enterprise is shady, and when the boys meet Auntie, it gets even more suspicious.  The book twists and turns, so the reader is never quite sure who’s good and who’s bad.  The boys have to do some self-reflection.

Wood’s artistic portrayals of the characters captivated me.  I was shaken by overweight Auntie with her greenish-pink skin and broken foot.  I immediately knew something wasn’t quite right with her.  You can almost smell her.  The boys have a  pugish Hawaiian look, which made me not fall for them right away.  That’s a good thing.  Most books aimed at younger audiences try to win the reader over to the protagonist’s side with sentimentality too soon. Wood’s style and scope gives the book a cinematic depth that I have rarely seen in graphic novels.  One panel you’re in the boat with the characters, waves pounding; the next you have a bird’s eye view.  It sets a fast adventure pace that young readers will love.

Overall, I’ll be shocked if Into The Volcano doesn’t win some awards.

ijustfinished.com

Elektra: Assassin – comic book love

Elektra cover

The Zeppelin post put me in mind of my thirteen-year-old days.  I read the Elektra: Assassin graphic novel, which collected all eight issues written by Frank Miller and painted by Bill Sienkiewicz, until the spine broke and the pages fell out all over the inside of my locker.  I had never seen a comic drawn or written like it before.

Elektra is the daughter of a Greek ambassador who is assassinated.  She is trained in childhood by a master assassin / kung-fu guy.  We get a brief glimpse into her background and psychosis.  Now she is planning to assassinate the President, Ken Wind, who appears to be an anti-christ-like figure.  He is referred to as “The Beast.”    Continue reading “Elektra: Assassin – comic book love”