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 patterns!

            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 MA 1965

Understanding 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