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The Evolution of Storytelling: Comics as a Revolutionary Narrative Form in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

AnnaP's picture

In Anne Dalke’s and Paul Grobstein’s course, “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories,” we have moved on to talk about the latter half of the course title and we are currently taking a critical look at potential new ways of storytelling such as graphic novels and films. Personally I have become extremely interested in comic books as a new and evolving narrative form, and I am interested in how graphic novels and comics are becoming increasingly recognized in academia. How can the unique form of comics continue to evolve to create space for newer and more exciting ways of storytelling? Scott McCloud answers this question in his meta-comic book Understanding Comics, in which he uses the medium of comics to explore the revolutionary potential of comics in storytelling -- an exciting potential that has yet to be largely realized. What I offer here is a glimpse into a few facets of McCloud’s vision of comics that is by no means a comprehensive look at every part of his book, so I urge you to take a look at it on your own!

Scott McCloud starts off his book by attempting to define comics. Riffing off of Will Eisner’s definition of comics as “sequential art,” McCloud expands it to be “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9). Yet perhaps more important than what his definition does say, McCloud emphasizes what his definition does not say; it says nothing about artistic genre, subject matter, materials, or style of artistic representation, and thus is expansive enough to include a hugely diverse body of work. McCloud uses this definition as a catalyst to urge people to think about news ways that they can make comics; he frames Understanding Comics as an attempt to shed some light on the world of comics “as it is,” but continually urges the reader to think about new ways of creating comics beyond what he discusses in his book (23).

page 23

In expanding his definition of comics, McCloud also makes a distinction between comics and cartoons, as is conscious of the fact that when many people think of comics, they automatically think of cartoons. Cartoons, he points out, are “an approach to picture-making” whereas comics are “a medium which often employs that approach” (21). While comics certainly are not restricted to the style of cartoons, there is nonetheless a lot of overlap; why is this style so popular? McCloud explains the power of the cartoon in part as a power of identification; when the reader sees a detailed face that looks like a real person, they are more likely to perceive them as a separate and specific character, whereas a simple, cartoon-like face is more universal and easier to identify with.

McCloud examines not only at how the style of images affects how they are perceived, but also how images and words work differently to evoke a response in the reader. Interestingly enough, as images get simpler and simpler (more and more cartoon-like), they actually require more attention and imagination to be understood – just like words usually do. Conversely, when words are simpler and more direct, they don’t need as much attention and are more easily understood, making them more like pictures.

page 49

Thus, by using different artistic and writing techniques, comics overturn our standard ideas of what words and pictures are supposed to do.

McCloud then works to provide the reader with a vocabulary to understand what comics usually seeks to do versus what they are capable of doing. Ultimately, he defines comics as belonging somewhere in or in between three different categories: 1) reality, 2) language, and 3) what he terms “the picture plane” (51). Comics in the “reality” category attempts to accurately depict real life, somewhat like photographs. Comics in the “language” category tends to simplify images to make them universal, like the simple “two dots and a line” face in the panel above. McCloud introduces the idea of the “picture plane” to create a category of images similar to what we imagine to be abstract art; images that do not easily correspond to reality and that we might see and think, “What is that supposed to be?” (51).

page 51

McCloud points out that, thus far, many comic artists have used techniques that linger somewhere between reality and language, with fewer and fewer comics venturing into the realm of the picture plane. But McCloud reinforces that this is only one approach to comics; by taking advantage of all of the different ways of perceiving words and images and combining them in new and exciting ways, we could do so much more than has already been done!

Taking a look at different artistic styles is only one way, however, to take advantage of the power of comics. Comics is a medium that uses one sense—sight—to represent all senses; ideally, the pictures and words come together to create more than a merely visual experience. Part of the way in which comics achieves this is not through what is present in the comic, but also through what is absent (89). Different types of panel-to-panel transitions impact what the reader sees and does not see; while it may seem that the reader is focusing only on what is shown in each panel, he or she is actually filling in the gaps between each panel with his or her own imagination (74). Comics are fairly unique because of the ways in which they require the reader to take an active part in what they are looking at.

page 92

What is outside of the panels actually comes to greatly alter each reader’s personal experience of comics. Furthermore, the panels themselves become an integral part of comics in that they affect the reader’s perception of time. Stretching the panels out over the page or shortening them into narrow boxes gives the reader an impression of longer or shorter passages of time (101). The relationship between time and space is very palpable in comics in a way that comics have only begun to explore; people tend to read panels left to right (or right to left, depending on the country), following time through a series of linear panels. But who says that each panel has to follow the other panels to read left to right, page after page? McCloud points out that eyes can change direction, and that new comics can allow even more reader imagination and participation by playing with time spatially and opening up more possibilities. In the image below (which is only part of the original image), McCloud shows us what it might look like for a comic to be read in many different ways at once, and with many different possibilities and more active reader engagement:

page 105

McCloud’s whole project seems based on the possibility of unifying word and image in ways as yet unknown to us; having more text or more pictures changes the dynamic, and ideally both work together to create a sort of harmony. If the comic creator relies more heavily on words for the plotline, then he or she will be more free to explore using pictures; if the comic creator, however, relies more heavily on pictures to convey information, then words can do more exploring. McCloud asserts that, at its best, comics uses words and pictures interdependently to convey a message together (157-159).

page 55

In providing the reader with a vocabulary through which to understand comics, and in explaining the different properties that words and images can take on both separately and in conjunction with one another, McCloud gives the reader a critical framework through which to imagine what comics might become, and what new stories might be told.

I think that McCloud adds a lot to Professor Dalke’s and Professor Grobstein’s discussions about the world of storytelling, different mediums, and the agency of both the creator and the reader. Are there new forms of storytelling, or are we merely telling the same stories over and over again? Without directly stating whether the stories themselves are changing, McCloud at the very least suggests there are new and exciting ways of telling existing stories that will hugely impact the reader’s experience. As far as comics is concerned, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. As McCloud states at the beginning of his book, he is shedding light on the world of comics as it is, but we should keep in mind that “this world is only one of many possible worlds!” (23). In a sense, McCloud gives the reader not only a revolutionary perspective on comics’ potential, but also an evolutionary perspective, since he spends so much time urging readers to take matters into their own hands and continually change and modify existing practices. I hope to take McCloud's exciting new ideas with me as I envision my final project for the course, and I welcome any ideas or suggestions!

page 212


Works Cited

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

In order of appearance the above images come from the following pages: 23, 36, 49, 51, 92, 105, 155, 212. (I apologize for putting these numbers at the end, but I wasn't sure of a better place to put them without further breaking up the text.)

If you would like to learn more about Scott McCloud's work, visit his website and read his web comics at


Anne Dalke's picture

Making revolutionary literature

following up on Doug's query, below--this is a great review of McCloud's great review of what comics do, and how they do it: you give a magnificent (and magnificently illustrated!) inventory of "new and exciting ways of telling existing stories that will hugely impact the reader’s experience." But next comes the rub: so what? What's the payoff? If "the stories themselves are [not?] changing" (and you say McCloud doesn't address this question) then... what really matters here? That we perceive them more fully, perhaps? Or differently? And from such alterations in perspective....


Interestingly and appropriately, the NYTimes just reviewed today
a new book on what makes literature literature, by Harvard literary scholar Margerie Garber. “What once wasn’t literature,” Garber says---television, cinema, comic books, biography, Renaissance drama, the novel -- “is now at the heart of the canon.” To Garber, literature is “a status rather than a quality. To say that a text or a body of work is literature means that it is regarded, studied, read and analyzed in a literary way"-- which her reviewer terms "a narrow, naïve insistence that the most 'literary' questions are 'questions about the way something means, rather than what it means, or even why.' To begin with, it assumes an easy distinction between how and what that rarely exists in practice.... After documenting the protean history of the term, she ends by wanting 'literature' to mean only one thing."

What I've been learning, and re-learning, during our work together this semester is the infinitely expansive nature of the "literary," as well as the mistake of confining it to known forms (not to mention the mistake of confining the study of it to its forms!). And what I'm on the edge of my seat, now, to learn more about from you, as you turn your attention to some very particular French comics, is what difference a difference in form makes, in terms of meaning. In what ways does altering form alter content (and, of course, vice versa)? Altering "just" form may count as "evolutionary" (we might even be able to define evolution as the alteration of forms)--but is it really "revolutionary"?

P.S. Check out ewashburn's Comics Conundrum.

Doug Lipman's picture

Nice - can you say more about story?

You've picqued my interest in McCloud's book. You say little that impacts narrative, though, except for the fascinating idea of readers choosing among possible directions in which to read a comic.

Is there more that specifically affects the realm of story and, as your title promises, its evolution?

Doug Lipman