Understanding comics

I don’t like the word seminal. Besides its dual meaning, it’s a lazy, overused shorthand. But I would grudgingly apply it to Scott McCloud’s 'Understanding Comics', which I’m currently reading after many months on my ought-to list.

It’s as excellent as I’d heard, with some fascinating concepts on abstraction, graphical representation of time and motion, and icon design. Most impressive is a chapter on 'The Six Steps'. The creation of any work in any medium will always follow a certain path: a path consisting of six steps:

  1. Idea/purpose – the impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes of the work. The work’s content.

  2. Form – the form it will take. Will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A pot holder? A comic book?

  3. Idiom – the “school” of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter, the genre that the work belongs to. Maybe a genre of its own?

  4. Structure – putting it all together. What to include, what to leave out - how to arrange, how to compose the work.

  5. Craft – constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the “job” done.

  6. Surface – production values, finishing - the aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work.

My first thought was just how close this was to Jesse James Garret’s marvellous 'The Elements of User Experience' diagram. There are clear parallels – particularly the importance of strategy and choosing the appropriate medium, rather than jumping straight in to the visual layer. Ready, aim, fire.

McCloud talks too about how most newcomers start at point 6, then gradually realise the value of starting earlier through the process as their expertise grows. It’s the same issue that prevents information architecture being appreciated more widely: the “I can do that” syndrome, by which any untrained observer thinks that by merely replicating point 6 they can create a work of art. Hacked copies of Dreamweaver and Photoshop do not a designer make.

It’s great to see these issues talked about outside of the contexts I’m familiar with, and I’d love to learn more. Sadly I can’t make the day Scott’s presenting at NN/g’s User Experience Week 2006 (although I am going to the previous three), but I really hope he makes it to Page 45 later in the year as promised.


While I’m on the topic, this is King Cat by John Porcellino. [CB 2018: not the original image; this issue likely published after this post was written.] I was introduced to King Cat by a friend, who in turn was introduced by a friend, and so on. I try to continue the chain where I can. It’s probably the one title that got me over the comics-are-just-superheroes-and-fantasy hurdle, so I’m immensely grateful to it. The stories he tells are genuinely contemplative and sensitive, his drawing sparse yet lively – as much about space and omission of detail as what it portrays. Oh, and his animals are superb: Picasso dogs with jaws at obtuse angles, crayfish with pliable legs and squirming bodies.

To read King Cat is, for me, to be touched by a brief glimpse of the beauty of the world – which I something I think very few other media could achieve.

Cennydd Bowles