What Every Collector Should Have On Their Shelf: 'Understanding Comics'

By Michael R. Murray,

I have recently taken on the idea to submit ten essays, one per week, taking an in depth look at what I think are some of the finest examples and collections of comic book stories around. By no means have I read everything ever printed and don’t claim to know it all. I have read and own everything on this list as well as a large amount more. This is an eclectic collection that I, personally, think would please not just hardcore collectors, but casual fans as well. And that’s the most important criteria in forming this list; I looked at complete stories, easily accessible, without too much history to learn. Something that a casual fan, or even non comic fan can pick up and possibly enjoy. Last week featured Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley's The Dark Knight Returns.

Number four: Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: An Invisible Art, $22.99, Harper Collins Publishers.

Now this is a book that's left an indelible mark, "Do you hear what I'm saying?"  This has had an impact on not only how I read and appreciate comics but on my daily life.  It's absolutely perfect in it's presentation and even though it's a 'How to' it doesn't come across as a text book.  It was enjoyable and memorable and defined and addressed the art of comics completely.  My own wife, Ann, was so impressed with the ease of reading this book, and just how much she enjoyed it, that we'd agreed that if we ever obtain more money than we currently have we would buy 50 copies of this to donate to a high school art teacher.  While she's read a respectable chunk of my library she's not the comic aficionado that I am and looked at this from the perspective of the casual or non-comic fan and still enjoyed it and even discussed it with other people.  It's that good!

It's the winner of both the Harvey and the Eisner Awards and the Alph'art Award at Angouleme and a New York Times Notable Book.  It's all well deserved!  A 12 time Harvey and Eisner Award nominee, McCloud uses a comic book to explain and analyze the medium of comic books themselves.  This ultimate book about comics dissects the art form and shows how words, lines, colors, symbols, panels, and pictures all come together to create a unique and one-of-a-kind storytelling experience.  George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) has publicly stated that comics offer something and have a strength of storytelling that film and prose can't match.  Here it is utilized in it's best light.  It's broken into several sections that include:

- Definitions, History and Potential

- Visual Iconography and it's Effects

- Closure, reader participation between the panels

- Word-picture dynamics

- Time and motion

- The psychology of line styles and color

- Comics and the artistic process.

More than the awards, this work has received high public praise from nearly every big name creator you can think  of including but not limited to,  Matt Groening (The Simpsons),  Neil Gaiman (Coraline, American Gods), Art Spiegelman (Maus), Alan Moore (Watchmen), and Andy Hertzfeld (co-creator of the Mac).  Some of the terms that Scott has used here, such as "Iconic art" or the idea of 'closure' between panels, have even become common reference discussions on the medium.

Understanding Comics is currently in print by Harper Collins but has been reprinted, after it's initial publication by Tundra Publishing, by Kitchen Sink Press, DC Comics' Paradox Press, DC's Vertigo line, and HarperPerennial.  It has been translated into 16 languages.


Michael R. Murray read his first comic and has been buying and collecting for over 35 years.  At one point his collection included two copies of Amazing Spider-man #1, and one copy each of Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #2, Avengers #4, Showcase #22, and dozens more high grade and key issues.  The collection has grown to include original art pages, as well as statues and busts, with the current emphasis on collecting original drawings from appropriate artists on the inside of his hard covers.  His personal collection of graphic novels consists of over 2,000 hardcovers and trade paperbacks.   He has attended all of the Boston and New York Comic Cons and experienced Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Diego.  He has championed comic books in the local schools and was very proud that both of his children read at least three years above their grade levels, due nearly exclusively to comics.  He’s quick to point out that none of this makes him an expert, but that his love of comics is most enjoyable when he can share it.  Follow on Twitter at mycomicstore001 or like his Facebook page.



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