Terms and Concepts for a Comics Newbie


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A first step in studying comics literature is to learn about arranging visual language and written language to tell stories (Cohn, 2013, pp. 2, 13; Eisner, 2005, p. 7; Eisner, 2008, p. 7; McCloud, 1994, pp. vii; Wolf, n.d., as found in Eisner, 2005, pp. 1, 8).

Will Eisner explains in Comics and Sequential Art that depictions and words together in sequence can produce both meaning and aesthetic impact (2005, p. 8). Eisner’s remarks and comics examples (from his mid-twentieth century work) are highly detailed and mesmerizing. The presentations are academically complex, and visually powerful due to illustrative intricacy and copious tone gradients of black and white. As such, Eisner can – to the point of ‘brain-strain’ – sate a student’s wish to understand mechanisms that function within comics. (Pushing through any intellectual fatigue, however, is worth it because the result is utter fascination.)

Neil Cohn’s introduction to visual language in comics (2013) leads the reader down sophisticated linguistic lanes, winding through the use of tools such as modality [e.g., visual markings], meaning [e.g., abstract or practical suggestions], grammar [e.g., a system of rules for visible presentations], and sequential units [e.g., frames and placement] (pp. 4-8).

Moving forward in Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art to a chapter on “The Frame,” there are presentations more accessible to a comics-neophyte, including encapsulation of events and flow of the narrative (p. 39). There is more text than illustration in these lessons, with step-by-step commentary about the creation of panels (pp. 42-44, 64-89), borders (p. 44), outlines (pp. 53-60), dimension (pp. 50-52, 54, 59), illustration as narration (pp. 45-50), and perspective (pp. 92-101). These presentations elicit feelings of curiosity and awe concerning the mastery needed in order to create comics that speak to readers.

(Please note: Eisner presents R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America” [which depicts a geographical location over time] (2005, pp. 46-47], a grand example of subtle content and panel sequencing which make it almost effortless to read the images. Crumb’s panels bring to mind the visual impact of Virginia Lee Burton’s splendid Caldecott-winning picture book, The Little House (1942), which tells the poignant story of the House’s evolution from rural-to-urban-to-rural.)

Scott McCloud’s ‘gift’ to comics newbies, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994), encompasses the concepts above and shapes them firmly into an effective foundation for the study of comics. This is the text that brings together Cohn’s and Eisner’s lessons (and surely others) for the neophyte! McCloud’s presentations are bold and contain a wide variety of pedagogic examples; there is a targeted “Introduction” on page viii and a logical, enthusiastic development of comics-creation processes on pages 2-23. After studying Chapter 1: “Setting the Record Straight,” the reader will shout a literary “Hallelujah!” because they will understand that comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (p. 9).

McCloud also enlightens with a helpful lesson in similarities and differences between film and comics: Visual animation contains a procession of filmed images on one screen in prearranged time, and comics contain a procession of images in spaces, which readers explore in their own time (1994, pp. 7-8).


Burton, V. L. (1942). The little house. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Cohn, N. (2013). The visual language of comics: Introduction to the structure and cognition of sequential images. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Eisner, W. (2005). Comics and sequential art. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse.

Eisner, W. (2008). Graphic storytelling and visual narrative: Principles and practices from the legendary cartoonist. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

2 thoughts on “Terms and Concepts for a Comics Newbie

  1. youthreadingmedia says:

    I hope that by now you know that we will discuss McCloud’s definition; perhaps not in the length that would be necessary -since the class is not a narrative theory class- but we will. So do not get comfy with that definition! If you would like to read more about definitions, use this article as an starting point: Meskin, A. (2007). Defining Comics?. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65(4), 369-379.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Defining “comics” is constructive, but perhaps only to a point? I’m gaining more understanding from “identifying characteristics,” which was of great help in our Week 2 class.


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