08 June 2010

Unraveling the Complexities

In Chapters Four and Six of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art Scott McCloud discusses how time is handled in comics, and the interplay between words and pictures in comics. In Chapter Four his examination of time in comics explains different techniques creators use to manipulate time, and convey it to the reader. Chapter Six explores the different ways pictures and words work together to make comics as we know them.

McCloud demonstrates that in comics time is a complicated notion. In some cases one panel could take up thirty seconds of time using dialogue to pace the reader. That same one panel could be broken up into multiple panels and give the same effect. He shows that time can be manipulated by the shape of the panel itself. Some changes, such as making the panel extend past the edge of the page, give it a timeless feeling making it feel like more time has passed. He also explains a unique feature of comics, that the past, present, and future are visible all at once on the page, unlike other media such as TV and movies. As usual McCloud discusses possibilities not yet explored by comics, such as letting the reader choose which direction to go thus varying the story. McCloud also discusses the use of motion in comics, and techniques creators have adapted to display motion.

Comics use both words and pictures to get their point across, and McCloud dissects how the two work together. He first explains the mere fact comics use pictures and words make them seem nothing more than “a diversion” to some. That classically, the “Great” works of literature and art were kept at arms length, anything that sought to combine the two might as well have had “For Children” stamped on it. After the usual history lesson McCloud develops more on what he said from Chapter Two regarding comics as a medium or “vessel” rather than a style or genre. He then identifies seven ways words and pictures can be used together in comics: word specific, picture specific, duo-specific, additive, parallel, montage, and interdependent. Finally McCloud explains that as either pictures or words take up more of the job of explaining whats happening, the other can be free to make explore artistically.

The examples of manipulating time by changing frame size and shape on pages 100 – 102 are very interesting, and as usual very funny if you read what exactly the two men are talking about. However, my favorite part of Chapter Four is the experimental “choose your own story” on page 105 in which our dear Carl is given another chance at life. The way this page is interactive shows how progressive McCloud is.

Chapter Six seems to be what McCloud couldn't fit into an already bursting-at-the-seams Chapter Two. In many ways he is building on the same concepts introduced in that chapter. It did add to it another method by which to examine comics, the seven ways pictures can combine with words. McCloud loves to give us these tools, and I can see why. It makes something that seems simple, and that we might take for granted, and breaks it down to show the complexity of it.

Both chapters successfully unravel complexity where at first I perceived none. This seems to be another major theme of McClouds. Apparently “Understanding Comics” partially means understand how complex they can be, and not taking them for granted.


  1. I too was amazed at the complexity in these chapters... my brain adjusted automatically to understand the time/space concept. It was nice to unravel, as you said, these complexities and better appreciate comics for the incredible things they do!

  2. Congrats to B for being this week's Rhetoric of Comics Spotlight on The Daily Pugle!