Scott McCloud: Understanding comics

Scott McCloud: Understanding comics

Of the five senses, vision is the one
that I appreciate the most, and it’s the one that I can
least take for granted. I think this is partially due
to my father, who was blind. It was a fact that he didn’t make
much of a fuss about, usually. One time in Nova Scotia, when we went
to see a total eclipse of the sun — (Laughter) Yeah, same one as in the Carly Simon song, which may or may not refer
to James Taylor, Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger; we’re not really sure. They handed out these dark plastic viewers that allowed us to look
directly at the sun without damaging our eyes. But Dad got really scared;
he didn’t want us doing that. He wanted us instead to use
these cheap cardboard viewers, so that there was no chance at all
that our eyes would be damaged. I thought this was
a little strange at the time. What I didn’t know at the time was that my father had actually
been born with perfect eyesight. When he and his sister Martha
were just very little, their mom took them out
to see a total eclipse — or actually, a solar eclipse — and not long after that, both of them
started losing their eyesight. Decades later, it turned out
that the source of their blindness was most likely some sort
of bacterial infection. As near as we can tell,
it had nothing whatsoever to do with that solar eclipse, but by then my grandmother
had already gone to her grave thinking it was her fault. So, Dad graduated Harvard in 1946, married my mom, and bought a house
in Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first shots were fired
against the British in 1775, although we didn’t actually hit
any of them until Concord. He got a job working for Raytheon
designing guidance systems, which was part of the Route 128
high-tech axis in those days — so, the equivalent
of Silicon Valley in the ’70s. Dad wasn’t a real
militaristic kind of guy; he just felt bad that he wasn’t able
to fight in World War II on account of his handicap, although they did let him get through the several-hour-long army physical exam before they got to the very last test,
which was for vision. (Laughter) So Dad started racking
up all of these patents and gaining a reputation as a blind
genius, rocket scientist, inventor. But to us he was just Dad,
and our home life was pretty normal. As a kid, I watched a lot of television and had lots of nerdy hobbies
like mineralogy and microbiology and the space program
and a little bit of politics. I played a lot of chess. But at the age of 14, a friend
got me interested in comic books, and I decided that was
what I wanted to do for a living. So, here’s my dad: he’s a scientist, he’s an engineer
and he’s a military contractor. So, he has four kids, right? One grows up to become
a computer scientist, one grows up to join the Navy, one grows up to become an engineer … And then there’s me:
the comic book artist. (Laughter) Which, incidentally, makes me
the opposite of Dean Kamen, because I’m a comic book artist,
son of an inventor, and he’s an inventor,
son of a comic book artist. (Laughter) Right? It’s true. (Applause) The funny thing is,
Dad had a lot of faith in me. He had faith in my abilities
as a cartoonist, even though he had no direct evidence
that I was any good whatsoever; everything he saw was just a blur. Now, this gives a real meaning
to the term “blind faith,” which doesn’t have the same
negative connotation for me that it does for other people. Now, faith in things which cannot
be seen, which cannot be proved, is not the sort of faith that I’ve ever
really related to all that much. I tend to like science, where what we see and can ascertain
are the foundation of what we know. But there’s a middle ground, too — a middle ground tread by people
like poor old Charles Babbage and his steam-driven computers
that were never built. Nobody really understood
what it was that he had in mind except for Ada Lovelace, and he went to his grave
trying to pursue that dream. Vannevar Bush with his memex — this idea of all of human
knowledge at your fingertips — he had this vision. And I think a lot of people in his day probably thought he was a bit of a kook. And, yeah, we can look back
in retrospect and say, “Yeah, ha-ha, it’s all microfilm — (Laughter) But that’s not the point;
he understood the shape of the future. So did J.C.R. Licklider and his notions
for computer-human interaction. Same thing: he understood
the shape of the future, even though it was something
that would only be implemented by people much later. Or Paul Baran, and his vision
for packet switching. Hardly anybody listened to him in his day. Or even the people
who actually pulled it off, the people at Bolt, Beranek
and Newman in Boston, who just would sketch out these structures of what would eventually
become a worldwide network, and sketching things on the back
of napkins and on note papers and arguing over dinner
at Howard Johnson’s — on Route 128 in Lexington, Massachusetts, just two miles from where I was studying
the Queen’s Gambit Deferred and listening to Gladys Knight & The Pips singing “Midnight Train to Georgia” — (Laughter) in my dad’s big easy chair, you know? So, three types of vision, right? Vision based on what one cannot see, the vision of that unseen and unknowable. The vision of that which has already
been proven or can be ascertained. And this third kind, a vision of something
which can be, which may be, based on knowledge
but is, as yet, unproven. Now, we’ve seen a lot
of examples of people who are pursuing
that sort of vision in science, but I think it’s also true
in the arts, it’s true in politics, it’s even true in personal endeavors. What it comes down to, really,
is four basic principles: learn from everyone; follow no one; watch for patterns; and work like hell. I think these are the four principles
that go into this. And it’s that third one, especially, where visions of the future
begin to manifest themselves. What’s interesting is that this particular
way of looking at the world, is, I think, only one
of four different ways that manifest themselves
in different fields of endeavor. In comics, I know that it results
in sort of a formalist attitude towards trying to understand how it works. Then there’s another,
more classical attitude which embraces beauty and craft; another one which believes
in the pure transparency of content; and then another, which emphasizes
the authenticity of human experience and honesty and rawness. These are four very different ways
of looking at the world. I even gave them names: the classicist, the animist,
the formalist and iconoclast. Interestingly, they seem
to correspond more or less to Jung’s four subdivisions
of human thought. And they reflect a dichotomy
of art and delight on left and the right; tradition and revolution
on the top and the bottom. And if you go on the diagonal,
you get content and form, and then beauty and truth. And it probably applies just as much
to music and movies and fine art, which has nothing whatsoever
to do with vision at all, or, for that matter, nothing to do
with our conference theme of “Inspired by Nature,” except to the extent
of the fable of the frog who gives a ride to the scorpion
on his back to get across the river because the scorpion
promises not to sting him, but the scorpion stings him anyway
and they both die, but not before the frog asks
him why, and the scorpion says, “Because it’s my nature.” In that sense, yes. (Laughter) So this was my nature. The thing was, I saw that the route I took to discovering this focus in my work and who I was — I saw it as just this road to discovery. Actually, it was just me
embracing my nature, which means that I didn’t actually fall
that far from the tree, after all. So what does a “scientific mind”
do in the arts? I started making comics, but I also
started trying to understand them, almost immediately. One of the most important things
about comics that I discovered was that comics are a visual medium, but they try to embrace
all of the senses within it. So, the different elements
of comics, like pictures and words, and the different symbols
and everything in between that comics presents, are all funneled through
the single conduit, a vision. So we have things like resemblance, where something which resembles
the physical world can be abstracted in a couple of different directions: abstracted from resemblance,
but still retaining the complete meaning, or abstracted away
from both resemblance and meaning towards the picture plane. Put all these three together,
and you have a nice little map of the entire boundary
of visual iconography, which comics can embrace. And if you move to the right
you also get language, because that’s abstracting
even further from resemblance, but still maintaining meaning. Vision is called upon to represent sound and to understand
the common properties of those two and their common heritage as well; also, to try to represent
the texture of sound to capture its essential
character through visuals. There’s also a balance between the visible
and the invisible in comics. Comics is a kind of call and response, in which the artist gives you something
to see within the panels, and then gives you something
to imagine between the panels. Also, another sense
which comics’ vision represents, and that’s time. Sequence is a very important
aspect of comics. Comics presents a kind of temporal map. And this temporal map was something
that energizes modern comics, but I was wondering
if perhaps it also energizes other sorts of forms, and I found some in history. You can see this same principle operating in these ancient versions
of the same idea. What’s happening is, an art form is colliding
with a given technology, whether it’s paint on stone, like the Tomb of Menna the Scribe
in ancient Egypt, or a bas-relief sculpture
rising up a stone column, or a 200-foot-long embroidery, or painted deerskin and tree bark running across 88 accordion-folded pages. What’s interesting is,
once you hit “print” — and this is from 1450, by the way — all of the artifacts of modern comics
start to present themselves: rectilinear panel arrangements, simple line drawings without tone, and a left-to-right reading sequence. And within 100 years, you already start
to see word balloons and captions, and it’s really just a hop, skip
and a jump from here to here. So I wrote a book about this in ’93,
but as I was finishing the book, I had to do a little bit of typesetting, and I was tired of going
to my local copy shop to do it, so I bought a computer. And it was just a little thing — it wasn’t good for much
except text entry — but my father had told me
about Moore’s law back in the ’70s, and I knew what was coming. And so, I kept my eyes peeled to see if the sort
of changes that happened when we went from pre-print
comics to print comics would happen when we went beyond,
to post-print comics. So, one of the first things proposed was that we could mix
the visuals of comics with the sound, motion
and interactivity of the CD-ROMs being made in those days. This was even before the Web. And one of the first things they did was, they tried to take the comics page as is and transplant it to monitors, which was a classic McLuhanesque mistake of appropriating the shape
of the previous technology as the content of the new technology. And so, what they would do
is have these comic pages that resemble print comics pages, and they would introduce
all this sound and motion. The problem was that if you go
with this basic idea that space equals time in comics, what happens is that
when you introduce sound and motion, which are temporal phenomena
that can only be represented through time, they break with that continuity
of presentation. Interactivity was another thing. There were hypertext comics,
but the thing about hypertext is that everything in hypertext
is either here, not here, or connected to here; it’s profoundly nonspatial. The distance from Abraham Lincoln
to a Lincoln penny to Penny Marshall to the Marshall Plan
to “Plan 9” to nine lives: it’s all the same. (Laughter) But in comics, every aspect of the work,
every element of the work, has a spatial relationship
to every other element at all times. So the question was: Was there any way to preserve
that spatial relationship while still taking advantage
of all of the things that digital had to offer us? And I found my personal answer for this in those ancient comics
that I was showing you. Each of them has a single
unbroken reading line, whether it’s going zigzag across the walls
or spiraling up a column or just straight left to right, or even going in a backwards zigzag
across those 88 accordion-folded pages, the same thing is happening; that is, that the basic idea
that as you move through space you move through time, is being carried out
without any compromise, but there were compromises when print hit. Adjacent spaces were no longer
adjacent moments, so the basic idea of comics
was being broken again and again and again and again. And I thought, OK, well, if that’s true, is there any way,
when we go beyond today’s print, to somehow bring that back? Now, the monitor is just as limited
as the page, technically, right? It’s a different shape,
but other than that, it’s the same basic limitation. But that’s only if you look
at the monitor as a page, but not if you look
at the monitor as a window. And that’s what I propose, that perhaps we could create
these comics on an infinite canvas, along the X axis and the Y axis and staircases. We could do circular narratives
that were literally circular. We could do a turn in a story
that was literally a turn. Parallel narratives
could be literally parallel. X, Y and also Z. So I had all these notions. This was back in the late ’90s, and other people in my business
thought I was pretty crazy, but a lot of people then went on
and actually did it. I’m going to show you a couple now. This was an early collage comic
by a fellow named Jasen Lex. And notice what’s going on here. What I’m searching for
is a durable mutation — that’s what all of us are searching for. As media head into this new era, we are looking for mutations
that are durable, that have some sort of staying power. Now, we’re taking this basic idea
of presenting comics in a visual medium, and we’re carrying it through all the way
from beginning to end. That’s that entire comic you just saw,
up on the screen right now. But even though we’re only experiencing it
one piece at a time, that’s just where
the technology is right now. As the technology evolves, as you get full immersive
displays and whatnot, this sort of thing
will only grow; it will adapt. It will adapt to its environment;
it’s a durable mutation. Here’s another one. This is by Drew Weing; this is called “‘Pup’ Ponders the Heat Death
of the Universe.” See what’s going on here as we draw these stories
on an infinite canvas is you’re creating a more pure expression
of what this medium is all about. We’ll go by this a little quickly.
You get the idea. I just want to get to the last panel. [Cat 1: Pup! Earth to Pup!
Cat 2: Come play baseball with us!] (Laughter) [Pup: Did either of you realize that eventually the universe
will be nothing but a thin, cold gas spread across infinite, lonely space?] [Cat 1: Oh …
Cat 2: We’d better hurry, then!] (Laughter) Just one more. Talk about your infinite canvas. It’s by a guy named
Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, in Britain. Why is this important? I think this is important because media — all media — provide us a window back into our world. Now, it could be that motion pictures
and eventually, virtual reality, or something equivalent to it,
some sort of immersive display, is going to provide us
with our most efficient escape from the world that we’re in. That’s why most people turn
to storytelling, to escape. But media provides us with a window
back into the world we live in. And when media evolve so that the identity of the media
becomes increasingly unique — because what you’re looking at
is comics cubed, you’re looking at comics
that are more comics-like than they’ve ever been before — when that happens, you provide
people with multiple ways of reentering the world
through different windows. And when you do that, it allows them
to triangulate the world they live in and see its shape. That’s why I think this is important. One of many reasons,
but I’ve got to go now. Thank you for having me.

David Anderson

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72 thoughts on “Scott McCloud: Understanding comics

  1. ozjthomas says:

    Awesome. I love these books. So awesome to see his speech. This guy is a genious.

  2. Better With A Drone says:

    Isn't Scott McCloud the "Space Angel"?

  3. phenothiazine says:

    Nice video! Where i can get "pop contemplates the heat death of universe" and the other?

  4. MasterHook says:

    on scott's website. He has a page with links and that is one of them. Look for the "Drew Weing" link

  5. Bobgrey says:

    His first book is holy dogma, as far as I'm concerned.

    Though I think his predictions for webcomics were a little off. But hey, thats the gamble when you talk about the future.

  6. Bobgrey says:

    I agree entirely except for the inclusion of the word "fantasy." I'm purposely misreading what you meant because thats how people unfamiliar with comics would interpret "fantasy": either as "light fiction" or "dungeons and dragons."

    I think its always important to stress (like the point made with "childish") that comics are a medium, and that medium can encompass all genres. I can only imagine the shock an unassuming person must feel at reading a Chris Ware comic for the first time.

  7. sheepwshotguns says:

    i miss calvin and hobbes…

  8. Oscar Evans says:

    Rubbish if you ask me, and totally wrong in his predictions (other than the arthouse self-fulfilling prophecy type). Infinite canvas? I dont think so.

  9. ratholin says:

    I remember when marvel came out with those CDromix. They were actually really fun. Way better than having someone else show you a comic.

  10. BurtBenz says:

    "Total eclipse" isn't Carly Simon. That's "You're so vain". Bonnie Tyler sang about the eclipse.

  11. egis27 says:

    lol….so did i

  12. kajicarter says:

    Duh…when he talks about the total eclipse and Carly Simon he's referring to lyrics in the song 'You're So Vain'. *sigh*

  13. Teabonesteak says:


    Hahaha!! Johnny Rotten!! Bottom right!

  14. Rantandreason says:


  15. KeriOwen says:

    anyone who can incorporate Ed Wood's film 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' into a talk gets my vote!

  16. Юрий Корсаков says:

    I think that actually was pretty interesting

  17. linuxlist2000 says:

    Niiiiiiice, great presentation.

  18. Slance1Himself says:

    Wow… At the bottom right at 06:53 it's my biggest idol – Johnny Rotten, this made the video even better! 😀

  19. Slance1Himself says:

    To Teabonesteak: dude! Are you a PiL fan? Or at least a Johnny fan? 😀

  20. BodaciousBurnley says:

    Can anyone give me some insight to the "McLuhanesque mistake" he refers to around 11:00? Who was this man and what did he do that caused him to be associated with the inefficient application of established rules to new paradigms? I thought that maybe he was talking about Herbert Marshall McLuhan, but the "medium is the message" philosophy doesn't seem to be quite what McCloud is talking about. Any facts from those more knowledgeable than I?

  21. Teabonesteak says:

    Damn right I'm a Pil/Sex pistols/all around johnny fan!

  22. Slance1Himself says:

    Niiiiiiiiiiice 😀 This is what you want… this is what you get… Dude I freakin LOVE John! 😀

  23. Vera Kan says:

    Brilliant presentation!

  24. HigherPlanes says:

    No, that would be virtual reality.

  25. Kenny says:

    "Scott McLEOD is my uncle".

    yeah, but what does that have to do with scott McCloud?

  26. rubbermuck says:

    Alan Moore played a lot with panel layouts, especially in Watchmen. It may be true that comic makers are stuck to a certain size of the page and pivotal moments really only happen at the turn of a page(for surprise), I don't know if it's a limitation immediately. It is interesting to follow these computer-comics though. An interesting one I read was "A lesson is learned but the damage is irreversible".

  27. Caleb Garcia says:

    Scott McCloud real name is Scott McLeod

  28. Idude893 says:

    This guy's book was like my personal Bible.

  29. hari prasada says:

    traduzcan esto al español

  30. Brooklyn Levo says:

    will be writing an exam on understanding comics on monday in seminar named the same as the book

  31. frank wolftown says:

    Scott McCloud never ceases to amaze. I hope he draws forever.

  32. A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A says:

    @rubbermuck Does Alan Moore really design page layouts for his stories? I was under the impression that he just writes highly detailed descriptive scripts.

  33. WaveHello says:

    @BlacknWhitesAlright Starting from Watchmen, Moore used 3×3 panels inspired from Steve Ditko
    Later on he was more flexible e.g. Promethea

  34. Ryan Hartwell says:

    Scott McCloud is like the Carl Sagan of comics. Exploring the comic universe, and analyzing them in great detail with meaning and possibilities.

  35. Rodeen says:

    His book is a comic book Bible

  36. Elgin Subwaysurfer Bolling says:

    Scottsdale gift to the comics world Is giving a cognitive way to talk about the medium intelligently with others who look down on the medium, as well as giving creators a roadmap for understanding and finding their own style.

  37. Elgin Subwaysurfer Bolling says:

    You can't zone out a Scott cloud lecture. Unless you really pay attention, you will be loss. My only complaint about Scott, is that he dent "dumb it down enough" a strange thing to say, I know, but sometimes his lectures are so conceptual that your mind NEEDS a break!…

  38. Yitz Jacob says:

    it's so weird to watch a TEDtalk like this after the iPad already exists..

  39. Viral Video Shopping Network says:

    any ted talk is always good!

  40. Alex Laferriere says:

    so true.

  41. FijneWIET says:

    that bad huh?

  42. samala51 says:

    Without fail

  43. Mort Schubert says:

    Everybody reacts when they see the picture of the cat.

  44. Ginger Parsons says:

    Very interesting comic analysis.

  45. michael feher says:

    I honestly feel that breaking down and super- analyzing an art-form like this
    is NOT conducive to a progress in that field whatsoever.

    in fact, i'm sure that, people READ INTO comics, art, visuals, stories,
    what they themselves wish to see, feel, hear, understand, relate to.
    Art is a VERY personal matter,
    and shoulfsd not be approached scientifically because there's no AUTHORITY in any field of Art,
    it should be left open to natural progress, creativity and "what is beautiful" to the viewer.

  46. IndecentTrees says:

    Vertical comics are a thing, so what this guy is proposing already exists.

  47. Soekell says:

    I saw him in Vienna, and he talked way longer than here- for free. It was really cool and personal. I don't know what this TED-stuff is all about..

  48. michaelfehr95 says:

    this brief 17 min talk is surely WAY over the heads of the  participants in the Audience…

    he wrote THREE full graphic Novels to cover these ideas,

    and trying to Synopsize it into a 15-20 Min., PowerPOint Demonstration.

    If I was in the Audience I'd be like "HUH?? WTF???"

    but because I have read all 3 books, I can follow his concepts and train of Thought.

    Anyone interested in what he's trying to get across,
    read these three Graphic Novels:

    1 Understanding Comic
    2: Re-INventing Comics
    3. Making Comics

  49. Micah Buzan says:

    The man is a genius. His books "Making Comics" and "Understanding Comics" are required reading for anyone who wants to give comic book making a try, and also for anyone who reads comics because these books will give you an in depth understanding and hence appreciation of this sometimes overlooked art form.

  50. Rishikeshmani Tiwari says:

    Mangastream brought me here 🙂

  51. James Abell says:

    I loved his books. I also am going to try his 24 hour comic concept next month in August 2014. I want to do this challenge and add another layer, where the comic will be optimized for the Kindle and released onto the Amazon marketplace within that time frame too. Anyone else interested in this idea?

  52. PUSHPANATHAN S says:


  53. Hoto says:

    nothing meaningful in this video

  54. Nick Tartaglia says:

    What is this like seriously james grey agrees

  55. Laura Burgett says:

    I've never seen so many intuitive leaps between so many disciplines–from physics to psychology to archaeology and anthropology to visual art to neurology, and beyond.  Wow.  I suppose I will spend the next few months unpeeling the layers of insights that McCloud has presented to me in this video.  Thank you!

  56. Jeffrey Danese says:

    I nominate this TED talk as one of the best I have seen. I reviewed it to see if I should refer it to a friend of mine who is into comics and discovered the clearest description of the power and potential of communications that I have ever heard – and told with a personal story that adds the dimensions just as he describes them. Brilliant. This belongs in every humanities course and I intend to use it in my psychology and religious studies courses as well.

  57. turbine master says:

    You know, this is freaking incredible. This is something I've been thinking about a lot too, but from a slightly different perspective and motivation. Comic books in general, even with the movies, have been falling in popularity. But what do movies have that comics don't? The usual answer would be you don't put effort into watching a movie. But I think the real reason is that movies bring a world like none other, and books bring a world much like comic books. But if we could expand that, make the comic panels become somewhat of a world, it would be incredible.

  58. cetacious says:

    what a random begening. I like the last 11 min. the most!

  59. Thomas Johnson says:

    Anyone else thinking of Awful Hospital or, more likely, Homestuck when he talks about the future of comics? Because, both o those do some amazing things with space, though the former does show he was a bit mistaken when he dismissed the possibilities of interactive comics.

  60. Quinn L'incurvée says:

    It's a sport car

  61. Andrew Whitehead says:

    Scott McCloud was right about so much, but his ideas on how to present comics in the digital age was so, so wrong. Scrolling through panels in all directions? I mean even the way he presents it looks awful. I know this talk was 8 years ago, but even then websites designed that way sucked. When it comes to print, he totally gets it. Digital, not so much.

  62. narayantx says:

    Genius even in 2017.

  63. william zerkle says:

    i'm watching this in 2018, and i love this mans book "understanding comics" i think that any art teacher who really loves art and all its uses should read it. I'd recommend it to even art history teachers!! or any teacher of an art related subject!

  64. Lucas Bruni says:

    Does anyone know the name of Jason Lex's comicbook and where to find it?

  65. F.N.S. says:

    This guy seems a little too self- important and long winded. He doesn't actually talk about comics until halfway through the fucking lecture.

  66. Bitta Chowdhury says:

    i hate that thinks like this are 9 years ago

  67. Henry Chamberlain says:

    We all love Scott McCloud for his insight. I share here an in depth look at contemporary comics:

  68. all idols deserve respect says:

    Webcomics!! 🙂

  69. johnmburt1960 says:

    Right now I'm at a meeting of the Corvallis Graphic Novel Club in the basement of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, discussing Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

  70. lila 123456789 says:

    Ignore this comment as this is a personal msg for someone

    For Michael

    Its ok if we can't be together for now. Im not sure about the reason why but im sure that there must be a reason for that.

    Of course, i would want to be w/ you, have fun with you, to gradually uncover our true selves with each other but I'm sure theres a reason why it cant happen now.

    In every desire that i have, your presence is always included there.

  71. Sky says:

    Wow, so that’s what Scott McCloud looks like?

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