The book Understanding Comics, published in 1993, was comic writer and artist Scott McCloud’s attempt to deconstruct, demystify, and lay out the magic of the sequential art form. Written in the form of a comic itself, it was one mechanism by which comics rose from the shadows of culture to become a more accepted art form.
What McCloud didn’t anticipate was that video-game developers would adopt Understanding Comics as an instruction manual for their industry.
“There was this notion of the struggle for respect and the fulfilling of potential in regards to comics,” said McCloud, on his cellphone en route to Omaha, Nebraska. “That was something that was echoed by gamers who felt their art form had been relegated to this trash-culture status.”
Comics, McCloud said, are interactive because they require the reader to fill in the gaps between panels, to create a sense of motion and time out of a sequence of still images. Conversely, while video games can’t exactly be considered sequential art, there are a few comic principles that apply to tem, which might explain why so many in the video-game industry make reference to McCloud’s books.
The first principle is that of simplicity. In comics, McCloud said, a “simple, conceptualized drawing like Charlie Brown” can travel between panels more seamlessly than extremely realistic images, which McCloud calls “retinal art, which resembles what the retina sees”. As the visual fidelity of video games improves, some developers in the industry are naturally asking why that’s so. Making games more photorealistic does not necessarily make them better gaming experiences, and McCloud’s work has helped game creators understand “the degree to which people identify with simpler forms”.
The other dimension of McCloud’s work that creators have seized is “some of my ideas about why we identify with and are able to step inside those simple cartoon images”. Because some video games require players either to become a character (as in first-person shooters like Doom) or to manipulate a character (as in third-person adventures such as Tomb Raider), developers are constantly looking at how to ensure that players identify with their characters. Call it the avatar effect.
Where Understanding Comics was “trying to work out the DNA of comics, trying to figure out those first principles”, McCloud’s newest book, Making Comics, relates some of the secrets of storytelling. So there is every reason to expect that creators in other media will find applicable lessons.
“When I wrote Understanding Comics, I wasn’t thinking at all about game developers and Web developers and interface, or semiotics, or anything like that,” McCloud said. “I was just writing about comics.” That didn’t stop other creative types from drawing parallels and finding ways to apply his ideas to their media.
Filmmakers and dramatists and television writers have all told McCloud that the new book is just as relevant to them. “I haven’t heard as much from gamers. But we’ll see.”
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