I was a pretty big comic book geek in my youth, but the eighties and the nineties were a long, dark time for popular commercial comics, and frankly, I just gave up. Obviously, I could have switched to some of the indie books that were starting to rise up in that era, but Marvel and DC had their hooks in me pretty deep and to me at the time, those other books just looked like cheap knock-offs of the 'good stuff'.
I know now that I was way off base, but likely I won't ever go back to comics.
In any case, I'm very glad to have picked this up. It's an excellent overview of the medium of comics/sequential art, and it's full of interesting insight into how comics actually operate and how audiences engage them.
In particular I was fascinated with his analysis of time in sequential art. The way panels can be broken up to separate time, or the way a continuous time can be contained in a single panel. It made me revisit some thoughts I had had last year when thinking about the odd way that time functions in games. Time in games is a really bizarre concept that could probably fill a book itself - though it might not be terribly practical.
I also liked his overview of the six stages he identifies for the 'artist's journey'. It certainly helped me understand some of the issues I am having as I transition from being a very hands-on designer and content creator to being a Creative Director who has to work at a higher level. It's a tough transition that I've talked to a number of colleagues about. Everyone who makes that leap is going to wrestle with it. This section of McCloud's book really gave me some insights and in many ways put some of my concerns to rest.
I did think the chapter on color was unnecessary though. Simply because almost the entire rest of the book is devoted to a formal discussion of things that are universal to comics, and color is clearly not one of those things. Obviously it's important to many comics, and it gives the artist a powerful additional tool to use, but it's still not universal. Nonetheless, he kept the chapter brief and to-the-point so it didn't wreck the experience or anything.
Another thing I really loved - and that I think is perhaps the most relevant to the game industry - is his notion of 'Amplification through Simplification'. Basically stated, that's the notion that the more iconic or 'cartoonish' a representation, the more general its domain of applicability. A photographic representation can be one person, an accurate drawing can represent a few. A sketch could represent many, and ultimately a simple line doodle can effectively represent anyone. The more simplified the rendering, the more universal. There is power in this notion clearly. In games - where we often work so hard to simulate things perfectly and accurately, this notion is something we need to be more familiar with, because we use it all the time.
Pong was a systemic simplification of the rules of a number of racket-based sports. Thirty-four years later, Rockstar Table Tennis has complexified the rules considerably. Now it cannot represent tennis, squash, 1 vs 1 volleyball, or any other racket-based sport... it represents ping pong. Period.
Imagine if Pong had been called 'Argument'. And instead of squares for paddles, they were shaped like faces in profile. Imagine if instead of a moving square, the 'ball' was a comic-style speech bubble with the word 'Yes' written in it when one player returned it, and the word 'No' written in it when another player returned it. No rule changes. The words 'Yes' and 'No' would be bouncing back and forth from the mouths, occasionally slipping by and not being responded to. It's clear, then, that this simplification of systems represented by Pong could have been about any number of things aside from a racket-based sport. The rules were simple enough that they could in fact represent a huge range of things. If Pong had been called 'Argument', what would its successor look like 34 years later?
Look at the procedural dynamic gang-war system in GTA:SA. Its rules are incredibly simple. About as complex as a game like Reversi, Connect Four or Dice Wars (here). But in GTA:SA it's called a 'Gangwar'. What will its successor look like in 34 years? Or 10? Or in 17 months? The simplification of the rule system can be painted up as anything. Th designers choice of what to call that system and how to dress it up gives it a flavor. The more robustly we simulate it, the more precisely it will represent the thing it claims to be. By enriching that representation - by complexifying it - the designer has 2 choices, really. He can decide to simply simulate it as accurately as possible, or he can make choices about the structure of the rules and create a gang war (for example) that tells us something meaningful about gang wars through his choice of systems. Anyway - this is a huge topic, and I'm sure I'll formalize my thoughts on it in much greater detail soon.
Back to the book - clearly a number of the statements McCloud makes about the importance of his medium, and about its role in culture and the arts in general are eerily close to thoughts that many of us have about games. It's a tough time for our industry with all the political attention we're getting. Many of us feel disempowered and see that our right - and in fact in many cases - our obligation to be creative and expressive in our medium is very much in jeopardy. I wish the game industry had a book like this, and I doubly wish the meddling, middling democrats who are functionally illiterate in the medium of 'expressive systems' would read such a book. They wouldn't though. I'm starting to get the impression that they don't really give a shit about whether games are potentially harmful, they just want to create and then feed off of a hysteria in order to pull a few fence sitters over to the Blue team before the next US election. Maybe the game industry gets to be a sacrifice, tossed on the bonfire of democracy. Maybe in the current social, economic and political climate, freedom of expression is less important than disagreeing with the other guy over something - anything - in order to get elected.