Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art*
By Scott McCloud
Review by Steve Andreas
Warren McCulloch was one of the first, and one of the best, to
apply the rigor of logic and mathematics to understanding the functioning
of neural nets in the first half of the 20th century. He laid much of
the foundation of understanding upon which the field of artificial intelligence
and parallel processing computers has been built. His retrospective
lecture in the ‘60’s was titled “What Is a Number
that a Man may Know It, and a Man, that He May Know a Number?”(1)
Understanding Comics could
well have been titled “What Is a Comic that a Man May Know It,
and Man, that He May Know a Comic?” Although this book is apparently
about comics, and is appropriately presented
entirely in comic book form, it is really about how we represent
and understand experience internally, taught through a very thorough
exploration of the many aspects of the structure of comics. I have learned
more from this book about how we process and represent experience than
from any other book l have read in the last 10 years, and I will be
periodically going back to it for more.
Comics are a very simplified arena in which to explore how our
minds work. Although comics can be purely visual, they usually also
include visual representations of sounds and words, while feelings are
created by identification (association) with the characters and the
content depicted. How this identification is affected differently by
a realistic image in comparison to a more simplified abstract image
is only one of many aspects explored, but one with far-reaching implications
for our work. Never before have I seen the continuum of simplification
and abstraction that leads ultimately to icons and language so enjoyably
and comprehensively demonstrated and delineated.
The subtitle“the invisible art” indicates the book’s focus on what we do in our
minds in order to interpret the images on the page--for instance how
we fill in the space between two static images to create a sense of
time sequence and continuity of events, and what we experience when
this continuity is deliberately made difficult.
The section on time alone is well worth the price of the book.
When you look at one frame in a comic strip, it becomes the “now,”
while the frames to the left become the past, and the ones to the right
become the future. Yet when your eye moves to another frame, all this
shifts. Obvious, but never have I seen it shown so clearly, and with
so few words. What a vivid and concrete metaphor for reorientation in
time, and all the other utilizations of time shifts embedded in NLP
McCloud also shows how a few lines, the shape of the static image,
whether it has a border or not, etc. can alter the perception of the
magnitude and speed of time, and even create a sense of timeless eternity.
The potential here for modulating our perception of the tempo and span
of experience is prodigious.
His characterization of the art of the comic as a 6-step nested
hierarchy, with idea/purpose at the core, bears great similarity to
Dilts’ “neurological levels.” It is also a lovely
metaphor for what we can do with our lives as well as how to succeed
at any other task, by carefully selecting and mastering each of the
levels and integrating them into a whole.
These are only a few of the many topics explored in great detail
in this wonderful book. But of course no written review can begin to
do justice to how vividly these
ideas are presented visually in Understanding Comics. This book should (yes, should) be required reading in
every (yes, every) NLP practitioner training program. And everyone (yes,
everyone) who has already been trained can enjoyably benefit enormously
from reading it. Five stars!
1. Embodiments of Mind,
by Warren S. McCulloch MIT Press, Cambridge
Comics: the invisible art, by
Scott McCloud. Kitchen Sink Press, 320 Riverside Dr. Northampton MA
01060 $22.50 1993.
*Anchor Point, Vol. 14, No. 12, December, pp. 48-49