Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Greatest Book Ever Written

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but if you ever lack for creative inspiration, the best book ever written has to be Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Creativity is a sticky wicket, and it seems to need as much prodding as you can give it. This book, which purports to be about the production of comics, is really about the philosophy of creativity. I wonder if McCloud knows that? 

Anyway, it is a brilliant book because he describes in deceptively simple prose, through the medium of a comic book, how we perceive and conceive reality through words and images. This makes it an epistemological text, which is fascinating because of the meta-awareness it brings to the creative act. McCloud shows you, through a discussion of postmodern gaps and fissures, how the brain expects something called 'closure,' which it uses to create stories. Essentially, the brain takes each image provided by the artist, and creates the story it expects to see, providing the answer, or 'closure' the brain needs to know what to expect. Obviously, if you analyse that thought, you realise the difficulty, as McCloud discusses: we tend to create the version of reality we draw, or imagine, for ourselves, through our brain's need for 'closure.' This has its limitations.

Using the metaphor of comic books, the reader takes an illustrated, clever, and witty tour through the history of art, and sees how the artist's rendition of 'reality' morphs to fit our needs for simplicity through what McCloud calls 'universal identification.' This ultimately involves the creation of the comic image. He asserts that humans remember each other's faces in the simple lines that can easily become a cartoon, and that this is part of how we think about one another, and the world around us. 

The most compelling part of his argument lies in the notion that comics is a "mono-sensory" medium, and that only one of our senses is engaged when we read a comic: our eyes. However, that makes what happens between the frames absolutely crucial to the other senses, and his assertion is that what happens between the frames is key to our individual representation of reality. He also makes a highly cogent argument that all other art has this effect as well, in that all art engages the imagination, and compels the mind to create a story. 

Therefore, he not only discusses art, art history, and the importance of the comic book to the world of design--he also paints, step-by-step, a fascinating explanation of how creativity works. This is a very rare ability, because I certainly have never seen a book so entirely focused on how the individual artist goes through the steps of creation that is not then a boring "how-to," which this is not. Now, creation is a process so steeped in wreaths of mystery, that finding someone who explains the process so cleverly.... is a god, of course.  

There aren't a lot of books that thoroughly explain the creative process. There is Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, which is an explanation of the psychological realm of creativity.  Although Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way is inspirational for many, it is not really an explanatory breakdown of how creativity works (but she has since published Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity, so I am going to have to check that out, since it looks like it addresses many of these issues). I don't know of anything else written about creativity that has Scott McCloud's marvelous sense of humour, though, and that alone makes reading this 215 page comic book so wonderfully fun. He has a series of books now, too, although I have it on good authority that Understanding Comics is probably the best of them.


  1. Hahahahaha!! Well, as I said to someone else who commented on this today, best not to follow Alice down this particular rabbit hole!

    I am updating even as I speak/type.


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