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Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud)

Understanding Comics is one of the most fascinating, enlightening books I've had the pleasure to read recently. I picked it up last week after seeing it on someone else's reading list, and within a couple pages, I was hooked.

Why? I rarely read comics; last time I followed a series, it was The Sandman about fifteen years ago. The thing is, Scott McCloud has a passion for the medium which permeates every page of his book, and he takes Understanding Comics beyond just understanding, and creates almost a manifesto that challenges comics to live up to their potential.

Of course, McCloud writes Understanding Comics as a comic book itself. Yes, you can read deep art theory stuff in comic form. McCloud doesn't just write about comics, he uses the medium to show you its potential first-hand. (In the software business, we call this "eating your own dog food.")

Most of the book is black-and-white, which looks primitive at first glance, but you quickly realize McCloud doesn't need color. In his words, "when we abstract an image through cartooning, we're not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details." When he gets to the chapter on color, the printing switches to color. I found myself actually happy for the switch back to black-and-white for the last chapter, for reasons I would have never understood before reading this book.

Some of the topics I've thought about before, for example when creating graphic icons for software projects. There's a continuum of realism between photographic and completely iconic (e.g. a smily face), and when creating 3D icons I found it best to eliminate many details because they just add clutter. Finally, with McCloud's help, I understand why this works as it does.

Other topics I simply never thought of, for example the importance of what happens between frames in a comic. Comics only show you snapshots of what's going on, and your mind is responsible for filling in the gaps. Further, the nature of time in comics is hardly as straightforward as it appears on the surface. McCloud explores these topics in depth.

Understanding Comics prompted many long pondering sessions as I considered its implications on graphic design and even user interface flow. But it's also just a darn good read. There's something infectious about Scott McCloud's passion for the comics medium -- it stirs a passion in me for my areas of expertise. If McCloud can dig into comics, down to its very essence, can I similarly dig into and unearth the essence of, say, software craftsmanship?