Scott McCloud connects the dots to demystify the world of comics THE TOON TEXTBOOK

June 22, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

When comics artist Scott McCloud decided to suspend work on his ongoing comic "Zot!" to write a book entitled "Understanding Comics," most of his friends had the same reaction: What's to understand?

"It's the assumption on many people's part that we don't need to understand comics in order to enjoy them," admits McCloud, who was in Baltimore recently for the annual Diamond Distributors comics convention. "I think they're right to a degree. You don't need to dive underneath a lake to enjoy sailing across it.

"But if you do dive underneath, your experience of the lake is enriched. You get a greater feeling for what the lake is all about, and I think you understand it better."

That, in a nutshell, is the basic impulse behind "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art." In it, the 34-year-old author doesn't just address words and pictures we see on the comics page, but the chemistry between them -- the way certain devices and juxtapositions can convey everything from mood to movement.

Moreover, McCloud truly takes to heart the writer's dictum "show, don't tell." Rather than fill his book with page after page of impenetrable art history analysis, he uses comics to explain comics -- illustrating concepts like the relationship between line and emotion in vivid, visual terms any reader could understand.

No wonder the book -- which was originally published by the comics-oriented Kitchen Sink Press before being picked up by mass-market publisher HarperPerennial -- has quickly become a popular educational tool.

"Nobody had subjected comics to the same rigorous formal analysis McCloud has," says cartoonist Tom Chalkley, who has used McCloud's book to teach a course in cartooning at the Johns Hopkins Art Workshops. "It's not a no-brainer, by any means. But it's much easier to convey these ideas by showing them, rather than talking about them."

Take the concept of "closure," for example. Closure is the mental PTC process that allows us to take discrete images and fashion them into a continuous narrative -- filling in the blanks, as it were, between individual images.

Described as theory, that seems pretty dry. But McCloud's book shows the reader how it works, placing a picture of an axe-wielding maniac shouting "Now you DIE!!" beside a picture of a city skyline with a scream ("EeYaa!!") drifting over. Closure, obviously, is the mental leap we take when we make the connection between the two pictures.

But the book doesn't stop there, for beneath the two images is the cartoon McCloud, pointing out that the space between the first two panels -- the "gutter" -- is where the closure actually takes place. As the cartoon McCloud (himself standing in the gutter) explains, "Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea." A difficult idea, but easily grasped in picture form.

As much as McCloud might come across as an earnest educator, the truth is that his real goal is comics advocacy. Because even though America is home to some of the world's most recognizable comics characters, from Superman and Spider-man to Calvin and Hobbes, the sad truth is that Americans as a whole just don't take comics seriously.

For one thing, he says, most of us tend to make distinctions between comic strips, which every age group reads, and comic books, which seem intended mostly for socially maladroit adolescent males.

It's not as if there's any inherent difference between the two. "If you made short films, you would still be making film," McCloud points out. "You would be working in the same medium as Francis Ford Coppola, even if you only made a five-minute film. But you would be working in a different phase of it, a different idiom within that art form."

So why don't we make the connection between comic strips and comic books?

"Comic strips are associated with journalism, with newspapers, and they are classified as light entertainment in a very safe way," he says. "Comic books are a little more subversive, and we still have the residual contempt that grew out of the McCarthy era when comics were put under a great deal of hostile scrutiny. We've never completely outgrown that."

Ironically, even McCloud looked down on comic books when he was a kid. "I didn't read comics at all, until I was 14 years old," he says. "I looked down my nose at comics, because I read science fiction. Since most comics superheroes were a kind of science fiction, I was very skeptical, because it was almost universally bad science fiction. So I avoided them like the plague, and thought my friends who did read comics were brain dead."

What changed his mind was when a friend showed him some of the more adventurously drawn superhero comics -- comics that didn't just use pictures to illustrate fights between good guys and bad guys, but incorporated elements of linear style and page design to heighten the action and emotional impact.

"The content was the same as it had always been -- just superheroes battling it out -- but the form attracted me," he says. So he began to draw and experiment on his own, embarking on a course that would lead not only to a career in comics, but to "Understanding Comics."

McCloud feels there's much work to be done before comics becomes the mass medium it deserves to be. But he believes it can be done.

"In Japan, there are comics for everyone," he points out. "There are comics about sushi chefs, comics about salaried employees, comics about bicycle messengers. There's a comic for every type of reader, and that's why comics are a true mass medium in Japan, the way movies and television are mass media here in America.

"That's a direction a lot of us would like to go in, because right now comics appeal to a very narrow sector of the population. That's bad business, and stifling to the art form."

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