Originally published in 1993, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, has become one of the more fundamental primary sources surrounding the history, development and theoretical analysis of the art of comics. The basic idea surrounding the book is that comics are a serious communications medium and art form, not simply relying only on humor to tell a story, but as a commentary on society, culture, politics, and human foibles. Certainly not everyone agrees with McCloud’s assumptions, but the idea that comics are iconic in the way they present stories and rhetoric, unique because the reader interjects their own viewpoints and “settings” in between panels (Horrocks).
The reason behind the subtitle, “The Invisible Art,” which is sometimes used in film jargon as well, focuses on the idea that comics are visual language, they communicate far more than simply the dialog within the picture; and it is that sequence of words and pictures combined that expresses more than simple prose. Picture language, for the most part, has a cultural basis but can be understood multiculturally. While it intensifies the message, the visual aspects of the comic tell the story in a personal way that is “invisible” because it is not completely quantitative, but more subjective and interpretive based on the viewpoint of the reader. The book is presented in picture/comic form, but is historical, sociological, anthropological, and political (McCloud).
In addition, the invisibility of the comic comes from the manner in which the action in the picture is understood by the reader’s brain. The invisibility revolves around the interpretation of the issues presented, and is often subtle and variable. For instance, while one could understand many of the famous political cartoons of the past, one would need a basic cultural reference to understand the irony and sarcasm, as well as the exaggerations of features, props (money, trains, etc.) and the impact those designs had on the message from the author. Because it is so subjective, this invsibility also means that each person who views the comic will have a slightly different interpretation, which then is also invisible to the future audience.
An additional note on invisibility comes with the manner in which visual symbols communicate (or do not communicate) messages. For instance, what should the symbol in Figure 1 represent? For someone in the developed world, this represents many things — sound, amplification, radio, communication, and so on. But, like in the movie The Gods Must be Crazy, in which a Coke bottle falls from a plane and is picked up by a Bushman, what reference would some cultures have to the symbol? Now, if we contrast that with Figure 2, we find a more universal, but still subjective icon — could it be growth, love (a Western concept), gardens, beauty, purity, sorow, etc. Each one of these is “invisible” in the sense that there can be as many interpretations as there are readers. When one combines this with a multi-panel comic (say in a newspaper or magazine) or graphic novel, then the interpretations of invisibility increase exponentially.
If we think of graphics as mind maps, and thing of the interpretation of those mind maps as a way of communication, then we can see how for centuries, iconic representations have replaced language in communicating cross-culturally, to illiterate populations, or simply for ease of use. A blank red octagon will likely tell most people to “stop” even without the words; a picture of a cross has different meanings, many religious; pictures of iconic myths and stories communicate more than just their prose, but morals, ethics, and cultural norms. This, in fact, is the invisibility of the comic — the fact that the visual image, the type set, the setting, colors if used, etc. all contribute to the story and are available for all readers, regardless of culture, educational level, chronology, or age — as long as there are appropriate cognitive skills.
Horrocks, D. “Inventing Comics.” June 2011. Comics Journal. Web. Feburary 2013. .
McCloud, S. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow, 1994. Print.
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