Understanding “Understanding Comics”

This semester I’m teaching HIST 1500: History of American Comics at Webster University.  To start the course, we’re reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to build a common understanding of the medium and to give the class terms to use to analyze comics.    This is the first time I’ve taught the comics medium.  Previously I have used comics in my classes and taught a class on the superhero genre, but I’ve never taught comics as comics.

Not surprisingly, I’m finding that I understand Understanding Comics much more through teaching it. For instance, I always understood the subtitle “The Invisible Art” as it referred to the gutter–according to McCloud, “comics” happens in the gutter. The reader fills in the action that takes place from panel to panel. This action is invisible, the artist does not draw it.

But another sense of the invisible art is that the artist draws what is invisible.  In chapter five, “Living in Line,” McCloud explains the way cartoonists make visible emotional and sense experiences, which he refers to as synaethestics.  He starts by using wavy lines to show smoke coming from a pipe and moves on to wavy lines that stand for the stink rising off a garbage pile. In this way, comics depict smell, which is invisible.

So the art of the invisible is both closure, which makes the visible invisible, and synaesthetics, which makes the invisible visible.

For their first paper, the students will be applying McCloud’s terms to a comic book of their choice.  In this way we’ll be applying McCloud’s concepts and come to have a greater understanding of how the medium works.  If I were teaching a straight comics class (this is a history class), I’d assign Neil Cohn’s essay “Undefining Comics” from the International Journal of Comic Art, and Thierry Groensteen’s The Impossible Definition reprinted in A Comics Studies Reader, and I’m making both of them available to the students on reserve.

The point is that the expansion of comics courses will inevitably expand the understanding of comics (yes, this seems axiomatic) not only among students but also among faculty and comics scholars.  I imagine that the same sort of expansion of understanding of the medium happened with every new field as courses were developed.

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3 Comments on “Understanding “Understanding Comics””

  1. I’ve been using Understanding Comics for a few years as fodder for argument-construction in my first-year academic writing course. The current syllabus is open access: http://members.cox.net/trout7/09fall/. If you look for the Project 1 link, you’ll see the assignment. See also my website (above) for student work, which I’m just getting off the ground (some formatting still to be done). Members are invited to leave comments there.

    • comicsstudies Says:


      That’s a very nice assignment. I like the link to http://forcomicsscholars.org/, I wasn’t aware of that site. Nice one.

      I’ve got a Watchmen assignment that I might use this term. We’re going to look at Watchmen from three angles. First just as a graphic novel. Second, as commentary on the superhero genre. And third, as comics. For the comics aspect I might use an assignment I devised for a freshman seminar class years ago in which the students trace a cover image’s repeated appearances throughout Watchmen and explicate the different meanings it has in the different contexts of the chapters. It worked very well for the freshman seminar (sort of, only one student of 18 really understood the assignment, but it was a success because of the way it pushed the students to do comics-based visual analysis and not discuss the literary aspects of Watchmen).

  2. Yes, I find you have to give explicit constraints (e.g., no plot analysis) in order to get them working more self-consciously w/ the visual components. (One of the goals of my course is to introduce them to the ideas of disciplinarity, which always entail uptake of new terminology and methodology.) I like your idea of doing three separate and therefore quite self-conscious styles/modes of analysis.

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