Like most people who grew up reading and loving books in the 90s, my main source of literary income was the local library. Despite the annoyance of having to drive up a steep, winding hill in a van whose motor might have been better suited for a ride-on-mower, my mum made sure that we made at least two trips each week. It speaks to the somewhat counter-intuitively progressive nature of libraries - and the open mind of my mum - that even at a primary school age I was allowed to run upstairs to the young adult section and start flipping through the comics they had there. And these weren’t your everyday comics, no no. Libraries, progressive or no, couldn’t buy issues one-by-one as they came out, so only the kinds of comics that came in nicely-bound trade paperback format would get the nod for purchase. And so it was that little Phill would sit in a beanbag and read The Sandman, Swamp Thing, some random collections of X-men and Batman, and the somewhat blasphemous The Death of Superman, over and over again. The subject matter of the first two, for anyone who hasn’t read those titles, might be considered a little dark for someone who hadn’t gone through puberty yet. It probably explains a lot. Nevertheless, I loved comics from an early age. Not so much to become consumed by them - the obsessive valves of my heart already belonged to video games - but enough to consider them a very viable alternative to plain old text on a white page.
I read comics at the same rate as regular books throughout my teenage years. I have a lot of fond memories of coming home from the beach to read through an inherited collection of British 2000AD featuring Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, and Strontium Dogs. But it wasn’t until I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art that something clicked and I understood why it was that I loved comics so much. In Understanding Comics the medium is the message; McCloud uses a comic to explain how comics are put together. It’s an inspired premise, and one that inherently shows how nuanced comics can be as an art form and a messenger. McCloud not only manages to define comics as a medium and provides insight into how comics are crafted, but also explore theories of how ideas and information are transferred between creator and consumer. And it was these theories that really made me re-evaluate how I wrote at the time, and how I continue to create throughout my life.
In Understanding Comics, one of the central ideas that McCloud wants to push across is that the only way we can come close to being inside another person’s head is through understanding the forms of communication that they engage in, whether these are words, pictures, movies, song, or games. And the only way to increase the level of understanding that can be achieved through those forms of communication is to take a great deal of care in the way that we craft them, and look for new ways to express ourselves that might do the job better. ‘Take care and try something new’ might seem oxymoronic at first, but it’s not a bad mantra to live a creative life by. You can never know how someone is going to interpret the words or pictures that you put down, but you can take all due care in crafting them and constantly question the tools that you are using to do so.
Revisiting the comics that I had read so diligently in the comfort of my local library after having read Understanding Comics was a hugely rewarding experience. Seeing the ways in which all those artists and writers worked together to create works that fairly pulsed with hidden symbols and nuanced ways of communicating ideas really drove home the insane amount of craft that can go into a comic; once a medium that was thought to cater only to young boys or the uneducated. Understanding Comics has made me want to understand the craft in other media as well, and I’ve tried to take the awareness of the craft and the underlying human intention into reading books, watching films, playing games, and listening to music. Other books have altered the way I approach life emotionally, but as a scientist it’s a rare one that changes the way I approach life in an analytical sense. I can’t recommend it enough if you’re sceptic of the worth of comics, or any fringe medium, as a means of communication.
Phill English is a scientist, writer, and games enthusiast from Perth, W.A. When he's not reading, he's talking at length about video games on his podcast Tim And Phill Talk About Games.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.