Chris Mueller – Visualmotive

Thoughts on maps and visualization

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

The process of writing comics

The process of writing comics

What follows are notes and quotations from Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics. The book describes the art of comic books, but most of the lessons are also applicable to other types visual communication like charts and maps.

Definition: “Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Comics use iconic images: sparse representations of reality. Used to allow the reader to inject himself/herself into the narrative.

McCloud's triangle of communication. Photographs on the left, written word on the right, abstract icons on top.

McCloud's triangle of communication types. Photographs on the left, written word on the right, abstract icons on top.

Most comics are along the bottom axis of the triangle (above), but there are examples of comics that fill the whole space.

Comics allow people to identify with roles and characters. “People in the 20th century don’t want goals, they want roles,” by McLuhan (1970?).

Closure: observing the parts, but perceiving the whole. Like seeing a character’s torso and knowing he has feet. For example: videos are a rapid sequence of stills, or rich color photos that are a bunch of little dots (like newspaper prints or Roy Lichtenstein).

The gutter: space between panels where the imagination works.

Visual icons are vocabulary, closure is the grammar.

Types of transitions:

  1. Moment to moment (same character and scene)
  2. Action to Action (single subject)
  3. Subject to Subject (same scene)
  4. Scene to scene (different characters and scenes)
  5. Aspect to aspect (different aspects of a place or idea)
  6. Non-sequitur (no relationships whatsoever)

How time works: divided panel by panel:

  • Panel shape influences perception. Longer panels seem to occupy more time.
  • Timelessness: long, lingering time. Usually borderless panels or those that bleed off the edge.
  • Passage of time can be shown with “zip ribbons” (swish of motion).

How lines influence communication:

  • Different types of lines can have different emotional and sensational qualities: passive and timeless, proud, dynamic, severe, gentle, etc.
  • Subjective motion (subject is static, looks like the background is moving)

When thinking about the interplay between words and images in comics, there are several Word + Image combinations to consider:

  • Word specific (words are dominant)
  • Picture specific (pictures are dominant)
  • Duo-specific (both words and pictures convey the same meaning)
  • Additive (words add significant meaning)
  • Parallel (words and pictures tell different but parallel stories)
  • Montage (words are integral to the picture)
  • Interdependent (both work together to tell a story neither could tell alone)

Process of creating comics (see image at the top of this post):

  1. Idea/Purpose
  2. Form
  3. Idiom/style
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

What about Color? Color symbolizes certain characters (eg. Batman is always blue-gray). Flat colors emphasize the shape of an object (Herge’s TinTin comics used all flat colors) to promote a democracy of form in which no shape is any more important than any other.


Those are my notes. If this sounds interesting to you I highly recommend reading the entirety of Understanding Comics. It’s delightfully crafted and a pleasure to read. Also, Scott McCloud writes on Twitter and on his blog.

Dec 9, 2009

Category: Visualization

Tagged: , , ,

Comments are closed.