Cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud has been making and thinking about comics for decades. He is the author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. This classic volume explores formal aspects of comics, the historical development of the medium, its fundamental vocabulary, and various ways in which these elements have been used.
Scott McCloud breaks down some of the universals in comics and guides us through some of the comic books that pushed the art form forward. Then we use that lens to look at graphic communication in the world at large.
Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars,
and this is got Macleod, my name is sir,
Macleod, I'm a cartoonist, an author and I've been making comics for a few decades, now, probably best known for nonfiction comics, especially buckled understanding comics, where I expect
how comics Workin comics form
but I've also done fiction work and I have a lot of different interests and I'm very easily distracted Scots book
understanding comics, which is twenty five years old. This here is a seminal deconstruction of comics as an art form an mode of communication, a little car,
Scott jumps between panels of the two hundred fifteen page book, explaining how
pictures and words in combination
a new language for telling stories and describing world. The book was
the culmination of a bunch of ideas that had been swirling around Scots head for years, everybody knew or they thought they knew what comics were, and it was a very limiting idea. I see
video games and other media dealing with the same problem today? Maybe them podcast is that the people have
had. This idea that comics were just for color cheaply printed cheaply made
comics about an almost all superheroes or funny animals that they were
spousal entertainment dad
either. The writing, nor the art was anything that was going to last or be significant, and even though
I saw a lot of comic said you know conform to them.
Definition I mean there were certainly plenty a bad comics out there to me.
It was just an art form. It was an art form that was capable of so much more, and
I felt like the first step,
wiping the slate clean and trying to approach it from almost a clinical.
Value, neutral, sort of standpoint, where's disciple. What one of the essential elements and the essential elements of comments are just putting one picture after another, and so
so tooting space for time. You just saying that, as we move from one space to the next, your moving from one moment to the next and
good idea to me: had just limitless applications and drew a boundary around it
continent of possibilities that, as far as I was concerned, with only just begun to explore, when you wipe the slate clean and started with,
a new definition comics or at least a refined definition of comics. Can you read it off the top your head? What the definition was from the book? Oh yes, because I you know
my mentor will Eisner had used the term sequential lard night, and I said you know for the most part most ninety percent of the time you can just say sequential our people get it, but then
away they'll, say things I got well what about animation at sequential are so I had to come up with the longer definition that erased as many loopholes is possible, and what I came up with was
Suppose pictorial in other images and deliberate sequence, which it which is just for,
fine, I get a you know like like really
narrow it down. Just in case you didn't.
Absorbed that definition, its juxtapose pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence. Some people thought that you know,
stop, calling them comics and start calling them juxtapose pictorial and other images and deliberate sequences. And now that's it. You just do you do that once and then you go back to calling them come people put a lot of value on labels and a lot of folks,
but they get all up in arms that oh they're, calling them graphic novels. These days are putting on airs amidst like no, no, no, you can call it comics. If you want
I was just saying that that you know comics. We need to allow the word to take on new meanings and every art form has different modes of drought,
right. You can read about something and film comment, and then you can go to the academy of motion, pictures to see the away
ceremony and then you
go out and see a movie the next day, Maggie it using these different words as different way,
of illuminating the different functions, the different styles, the different modes that that come out of that art form. But it's ok! You can still call the movies. You can still call.
Comics. Mrs, what term do you like? I like comics, because actually ice?
gets fairly dry. I think that it's been a long time
I'm since people thought that all comics had to be funny
when I was growing up day
but that all that all comics were muscle bound guys and skintight suits beaten the crap out of each so
so we had already lost the original meaning and that that rendered it just this try little bundle of sticks, this little collection of phonemes that you could pretty much stuff any meaning into, and also its
it's it short to syllables. So if I were the bigger, become a book or in terms of comic section of a newspaper,
other certain things that UK
teach me like how to decode comics in a certain way that, like girl, you get.
Like all the artist is trying to do this when they do this. What are little load,
take home facts about decoding comic, while the first thing, the universals, that is, if you're looking at a comic strip or comic book or graphic novel, their few things, everybody has to do whether they want to or not. These are, the obligatory
decisions that they all make and where the first decisions they make
is choosing their moments, no matter what your breaking
the world into moments
It's a non trivial problem is an engineer would say: I'm I'm on son of an engineer and either because, if you think about it, any kind of narrative that you want to tell can be broken down in an infinite number of ways. You know I could do a ten thousand panel graphic novel of me taking a spoonful of cereal from a bowl.
And just lifting up to his mouth? If you want, I could just break it down by micro seconds by nanoseconds or
I could do you a two panel sequence of the entire history of the universe. Right, big banks, heat death, you're done
so that means that you can sign up anyway, you like, and yet if I asked you hey, what did you
Who yesterday there's a part of your mind that,
immediately leverages this tremendous now
a horse power too,
deciding what matters in a we. Have these wonderful,
Alien see filters that choose the moments quite naturally, and most cartoonists choose them pretty. Naturally, they
I have a story to tell they know what moments matter, but they have to make that decision, even if they're not making a consciously and then from that point you have to choose the the angles. The framing, how close are you going to get to that thing? You want to show how far away are you going to be? What angle is it going to be warm, so I view eagles view. Are you going to have to establish the same by plant way back and then all those decisions about how you draw the things? How do you draw so it's recognizable? How do you do
So it's expressive. How do you draw so that its visually interesting? How do you balance out dynamics versus clarity all of these things and then, of course, the the mixture of words and pictures and the way it flows? And it's just
it's an endless series of decisions, but these are decisions we all make. Whether we do them consciously or not.
So every medium has its strengths and weaknesses.
In your mind, we're the best kind of ideas that comics are best
convene, and maybe what are some ideas the hardest to convey in comics when it comes to visual explanations, I found that comics a really good at the intro,
level when you're getting down to a really granular level like, for instance, if you wanted to use comics to explain the latest congressional budget bill or something like that. That can be a problem because their time intensive it takes a long time to put them together and something like that is better and tax. But if you wanted to explain in a part of
Physics, war, some, you know engineering principle or something like that, something that's gonna, stick around it's a wonderful entry to almost any subject, and I've done a bunch of things like that. I recently did a year a comic explaining cuban eddies witches
this was for Google, what's its away of orchestrating container ized applications, if that something you're planning to do tomorrow.
There's a comic than will explain how to do that. But what I mean
well to do as I am able to lay out the map, I am able to give you a sense that you had. This is what the neighbourhood looks like. This is how everything is interrelated. This is the shape of the subject. Comics are really good at that, but the the flip side of what comics are good at its tricky, because I'm always reluctant to to say that them,
The aim is inherently good at something because that immediately beggars the question as it as you ve already asking: what what's it, maybe not so good at, and the thing is whenever I think comics are not capable of something somebody always proves.
Wrong with an example of that, will I card math in up some people have actually given it a run it like where they using comics, to explain mathematical concept, something that I thought would probably just you know, be a non starter and it turns out now. Actually, you can give that a try and and of course, when I began
it was all superheroes. It was all spectacle, it was all sensationalism and there are many people who felt the comics were inherently good at that, but pretty
into my career even before I became my career formally, I discovered japanese commerce and they do. They were doing comics about everything. They were fishing Commissar module comics there were comics about romancer comics about ninjas, it didn't matter, they could be about anything. But if you grew up in America, you might mistakenly think that the medium was somehow built somehow inherently constructed in such a way that the love affair between comics had superheroes were somehow inevitable, just like in nineteen sixty two somebody could think
Goals was inevitable. It wasn't there was nothing. There is nothing that said the movies had to go in that direction. It just that's just the cul de sac that they wound up with what I love to look at when it comes to refer everyday objects that people were familiar with. Is I like to look at them in and
look at when it comes to sort of everyday objects that people were familiar with. Is I like to look at them in and for reckoning
is that they represent choices, and maybe they were forces so long ago that we forget that there,
and choices so, for example,
I was thinking about the speech bubble in the council
and realizing how,
If you really think about it. Yes and other things like that,
These little revolutionary visual represent
since the things that you can rely,
like us through. Maybe who did them winded this change? When did it go from
in the box to being in the bubble, Lena Lik words, anything about the evolution of of comics,
represent these revolutionary little punctuated equilibrium
but our so built into the way we perceive the world that we don't mechanism is choices. I'm gonna pull a one. Eighty,
here and say that actually, this is a good example of something that may be is intrinsic to the medium is kind of inevitable,
when, when you do some on one of those, usually the first evidences TAT had happened. Early and speech bubbles happen as early as certain european broadsheets, and they are
speech bubbles. There is no question about it. You know. I could show you something
sixteen hundred fifteen hundred where there are there in the
it thus girls, but they are dialogue coming out of people's mouths
so as soon as you start squaring off things into panel borders, which they were also doing in those days those rectangular panel borders. Yeah, you start to have that. You start to have speech bubbles. You can even see sort of equivalent things and things I pre colombian picture manuscripts
some of this stuff. I think there's some dialogue in the Bio tapestry, so so yeah this was done.
Happen. No, no matter what, because dialogue speech, it's part of life and anything that purports to represent life in any kind of artistic narrative, medium. It's gonna have to account for that and in some way, shape or form. That said, I think it's it's what it is kind of what what will I called a desperation device in the in the sense that, because we had a soundless medium for most of our history, we were kind of stock and it does feel a little bit like a hack. I think there's a little,
part of every cartoonists, heart sinks, a little that that we have to use this. This shape was calling voiceover in in movies Loggia near it feels
building a cheat like Israel? Show it and not tell her it does if
like a cheat- and I think, that's that's why I think, when Comic Sir Simon
When you have the silent sequences, some cartoonists do nothing but silent commies for most of us will do them. Occasionally it feels more like pure comics. You know there's that little
purist gene and each of us that rebels a little when we can dispense with,
not not good news for writers,
of this term, silent comics. So strangely absurd, but I totally it only makes sense that it is strange that you have this.
presentation that still feels so multimedia that we think of it as having sound and time and a depth to it. Exactly we, it's very easy to forget. The comics is, is relegated to just one
the five cents for traditional. You voted out. That's beginning to change. A little bit with the with various mutations online and what not but
yeah it's it's strange because it didn't really doesn't feel that way. It does feel multimedia and that's, of course, that's partially, because many feel that it's this a combination of of words and pictures,
even though that tends to be true, I dont think of that is the essential character of comics. I just think of that of that is one of comics options, but you can you can get some other comics scholar in here to argue,
neither but but yeah that the evolution of those symbols, though I mean we're, balloons, are certainly the most visible but the other ones. I do find very interesting. I talk and understanding comics about things like sweat, beads and how you can see the evolution of written language even in the pictorial symbols and the fact that a sweat bead is a pictorial symbol that gradually drifted so that, rather than a little sweat beat on cheek, you would see a sweat be drawn beside a face so that it began to emanate from the face to the extent that it became a symbol that simply indicated the interstate, and now you can find manga where robots will have sweat beads on them and it simply a signifier of emotion and in a lot of ways that drift is the exact same drift. You had in many pictorial based written languages, especially in the Far EAST, where something would begin as simply a drawing of a chair or drawing of a horse,
and that over you know, decades or even centuries of writing. They would become more and more abstract. That's exactly what's happening in comics. So if you will give you a twenty five year posed understanding syllabus to the listeners of nine p, I
what are the essential comics, maybe
You know that show a change in former something and kind of like what they are and just a little description of like
What is it doing? That is particularly remarkable to you. If I just had a few, I would probably start with Chris, whereas building stories, which is a giant box like a Milton Bradley Game Box, which has comics in a million different shapes, because at that definitely sets the mind going, I would throw in a couple of crazy web comics where you can go in any direction. I would have at least one silent comic from Jim would ring. I would include Persepolis, because I think Persepolis really was a tuning fork for a lot. The came after in what way, when you mean it well, in terms of voices,
One of the beautiful things about comics is the way that commerce can offer you a very intimate and credible voice from somebody who could just be making it up. But you know that they're not. This is something.
A comic Joe Sacco took advantage of? He would do things like spend,
months or even years, in a place like Palestine or the Balkans, and he would talk to people interview them and then he would do these painstaking drawings of the area
You know that a human hand took the time to make this, and with that labour intensive devotion came truth, there's something very convincing about it even owed. Technically, it's a lot easier to fake something in a drawing than in the photograph. You know that it's true and that that was true. Persepolis too, is that margin saw trapeze experiences in a ran during the revenue
true and that that was true of Persepolis two is that Marshawn Satrapi's experiences in a random in the revolution in the war with Iraq in the coming to Europe? In all of these things, they just feel so credible, so personal and they open a door to another experience and movies can do that. Books can do that, but the the contact with the paper they the notion that a human hand druid
It makes it more intimate. It makes it that it did. Their entire world is seen through their lines and that's that's really exciting
anything else in the syllabus that we can just throwing their o the arrival by Sean TAN, a wonderful book. It looks so so like a kid storybook sort of like a Chris VON Allsburg,
beautifully, illustrated silent story, which is
cereal is meditation on what it's like to be an immigrant in a strange new place, Sean ten moved from. I believe it was Malaysia to Australia when he was just a kid and he
and he really makes you understand what it is to go to such a new and alien place. It does it beautifully, but also its really terrific, to approach comics without words the to pick something without words through your first encounter, because then you have to recognise the degree to which pictures are text pictures are meaning. Then
just illustrations. The pictures do the talking and you know it's still in popular culture because of although in a marble movies and such the the
superhero is dominant form in comics
Is there something that you
find that you enjoy in them like way. Is it? Is it something lost to you at this point? What is your feeling about them right now? I've lost
some of the joy that I had when it was first reading, superhero comics? But I still I liked the meeting. I think the medium has an important part to play in comics culture, but still I'm gonna happy that were becoming a little bit more like Japan were starting to see more see come in. One of the big revolutions now is in kids, comics in fact, the best selling cartoonists in american hours in Togo. My who does
ah mix for kids and those comics don't have any superiors in them to her biggest one was smile, which was just about when she was a kitten. She lost her too from two of our front teeth and had learned of surgery. Solid is, but it's just fantastic stuff. You know we're
much more diversity. I just got a wonderful crabbed, funded book called bingo love, which assisted about two women of color who who fall in love is kids. You know in a bingo parlour and both of their families, just don't approve and they don't really get together until their own,
so far cry from the amazing spiderman. But some of the things we love the most about spider man, I gotta say, were just the small moments: the everyday moments, the real moments. So there
maybe there was a seat of that even in those days I know you
sit in graphic communication in the world at large beyond comics, but how did
undertaking, comics and all the thoughts you put into this as a study.
Change the way you decode graphics in the world at large, like what is something that you get points
as an example of that ties.
This medium that you get help people like decoders their walk into a city. Well,
looks like a fire safety signs. Oh my god, it's driving me crazy. There's, there's a really classic little messed up fire safety. Graphic you'll, see it all around the country, often on the inside of hotel room doors, which is it's got to,
different little flames. It's got this little tiny elevator, and then it's got this very big guy who's, going right to left down the stairs towards the flame and about to trip over the elevator.
He d like all they did was they found the symbols and they filled the available space with the symbols. It didn't even occur to them that the way the guy was facing or the relative size of the guy in the flames, the guy's much bigger than the flames, the flames somewhat particularly
and why are there two of them? You know I all of these things they didn't considerate at all, because they weren't thinking that maybe every visual decision has consequence every day.
What decision as collateral, meaning? And so I started re mixing these things and turning the guy around and changing the sides relationships and changing the the,
proximity and making sure that each individual element had its own space to breathe, and I was able to come up with like three different alternatives that I think work better than I am I'll, probably going a crusade to fight apartments around the country.
But but now I see, I see these things everywhere. I may like maps, for example, you know ninety agree. Rotation is hard. Mental ninety degree rotations very hard, and it actually upsets me when I see floor plans telling you how to get out of your burning building and their rotated they're not in the same orientation, is the way that you're standing, because they have won map orientation for the whole building, only map
right, but you know you are building- is on fire. You're gonna die any minute now and you ve got it
stand there and cannot just sort of imagine. If you
we're facing the other way, any return this way and weight, which always there these two and now, instead of a clear as day, here's the thing. I think that good visual communication should speak.
Be silent. What I mean by that is that that there are many kinds of visual communication,
There are clear enough: you can figure it out that as you can, you can piece together,
but they still kind of mumble as they walk away. Like the bike paths sign you know it's all. It is the bike
signs they're everywhere, right, maybe just a picture of a bicycle and then the word bike and path. Underneath the bicycle and often times the word bike and power
they're, separated and there's more space between bike and path, then there is between the words by
PATH and the wheels of the bicycle, nobody will be confused by this.
Everyone on earth knows that if they can read English, they know that
spite path. They know what it means, but I say
it's still a pox on ever
damn one of them, because, because what it does is it
the lights, the rows of proximity, so that its, like the words
they can path or married there a couple and they theirs
whereas infidelity going on there, because their flirting with the wheels right away
Creating this visual grouping of wheel and and word that completely
relevant to the message. Nobody will be confused by this ivy. My wife just tell him.
Let it go, let it go. It's fine. They needed from the state needed from for the little bolt to go, and that's all it is they did. They were just making room for the bolts, Scott, just just let it go
but I am telling you inside
I'm just saying. Bypath like it was supposed to it. Sang bike
ass, a man and your like wait. What did you say and, as I said, bike path as like? None are not after Bypath. What did you say? I didn't say anything. I just said bite path.
There. You did it again. He said murmur what they always that it's like it's it's killing off, irrelevant
visual information- and I see it everywhere- and it's driving me nothin-
is there an analog in comics where you feel like there has to be
type of precision in the presentation of the narrative, or do you allow for
a bit more mumbling. That's a good question because I think in comics people embraced the mumbling people embrace the imperfections in the cartoonist line. They actually fall in love with the things that make a cartoonist a little clumsy, a little crowded a little strange, because those are the things that only they do
and there are certainly there are craftsmen in comics who know just how to make it sing and an compose it. We
great precision and orchestrate the line so that their
snow mumbling, so that there is no noise, and I love them too. But the imperfections I think are part of what people are drawn to. In my medium. It is an imperfect medium because it is the creation of an improved
species, and the idiosyncrasies of cartoonists, like you know, save Robert Chrome, more or Charles Schulz. These are the things that and then I think people come to embrace
what is somebody's person obsessed with the second, the world of visual communication, relate to close family members who are blind. Ask that question.
And get a really cool answer from Scott Macleod or right after this
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You really taken the world with a lot of attention to the visual cues and in graphic interface, and do you happen to have a blind father, EVA Blind daughter? How is that
affected the way you perceive the world and even like how you
You know relate to them. The condition that that both my father, whose
indices for some time and my daughter have is called Starbucks diseases say it's an inherited condition: it's a form of macular degeneration, so they're their central vision is what was wasn't affected and my daughter being twenty four living in Portland wearing doc. Marten boots
listening to airplane over the sea on final is, is more than happy to tell me the ways in which I'm able list and and the different
problems in my focus on visual communication, because there are people for whom visual communication has some pretty severe limits, and we ve had some wonderful discussions about accessibility and just very recently, actually at a bit of an epiphany
Was talking to her about this? Her name is sky and sky, we're talking about
traceability- and I had been complaining- I've been you know, bitching about one of some bit of bad design that effect
that affects me, and I realized that we were talking about the same thing to the idea that there is
it is a human right. Information is a human right and between the information and
and the person who can use that information. I think we're talking about fire maps actually in the recent fires here in southern California and
limitations of the different displays that went out problems of type problems of the size of the types
I tried looking to see, even though she wasn't in our area. She was up important, but she was
came to see where the old neighborhood you know where the fires were, and she couldn't she was unable to access it, and I really
I said I had come upon obstacles and trying to access information, and she had come upon obstacles drawing to access that information
and it really illuminated the fact that, though they were different obstacles, that the principle was the same, that bad design
is committing the same moral sin as a lack of access for those with disabilities. In fact, really good. At the end of the day, we all have disabilities. We all have cognitive limits. We all have limits of our senses and in a failure to wreck.
I the multiplicity of barriers that stand between us in what sometimes is life. Saving information is an urgent public work that needs to take place
The other aspect I should mention in where skies concerned is that people with starts disease is very interesting cause. I I've run into others with starts. In my
travels. If you ever see somebody with sunglasses on maybe a dog and a cane and walking very fast, it may confuse you. You may wonder why this blind person walk
very fast will, as I've been studying, visual cognition. One of the things that come up is optic flow, and this notion of the way in which we perceive depth not just by stereotypes, is not just by combining the image
our two eyes, but also in the way in which the entire visual field moves bias at different speeds. Nearer things you know
like when you are on the road, for example, and you notice that the telephone calls are going by faster in your field of vision, then say a distant house or distant mountain that sort of thing, or even just the
an usher in your your living up, what what you're doing your building a depth map of the whole visual field, the whole visual world and you're doing it with motion parallax rather than with steady, Optus Rand. This is this helps to give you a sense of where you are well skies. Peripheral vision is fine. She sees the car coming round the corner. She just can't read because she lost her central vision, but the faster she moves, the faster she walks, the more complete the picture of the world that she lives in is one and so you'll, see them and and a lot of people think that people with starts disease and other forms of macular degeneration. They think they're faking it. They think they're, not blind at all
ah, but now there just their seeing with a different part of the visual field. That's amazing. Ninety nine percent- invisible is Emmett Fitzgerald, who helped me, along with this interview, a breach of mature if use of turn, Massa composer, Sean Rio, senior producer, Katy, mingled, senior, editor, Delaney Hall, Digital Directorate, critical stead and me roman Mars.
Your product of many one point: seven K, L W in San Francisco and produced on radio road in beautiful downtown
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Transcript generated on 2020-02-14.