Comics always were a part of my life. I still love comics, even though my time for them is scarce. I grew up reading tons of comics at my cousin’s place, which was easily reachable via our backyard. I spent a lot of time there with Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, and many more super-heroes. Of course, at that time comics were seen as a very bad influence on impressionable young minds; at least as bad as computer games today, I suppose. As my cousin also drew comics herself I learned already back then a lot about the structure of comics and what makes super-heroes tick. But it took me over 25 years to actually learn some more about comics. Scott McLoud opened my eyes in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art about a lot of things. This book shows and not only tells, as it uses the same medium it talks about: it itself is a comic book.
Reading Understanding Comics I was astonished how many similarities I found between comics and ontologies, i.e., formal representations of the world. Comics and ontologies represent, each in their own way, views of the world. Comics exaggerate physical and mental abilities, distort laws of nature, and portray extreme characters. Granted. But all is grounded in our own experience and would not work without our experience. For example, often action in comic book scenes takes place only in between the panels, i.e., in the mind of the reader. The artist draws the scene before and after the action takes place, and the reader fills in the blanks. And a kid surely fills in the blanks differently than an adult. I was not aware of my own interaction with the comic.
Comics abstract from the world. They are most of the time intentionally not as photo-realistic as they could be. By stripping away details the artist can let the reader focus on what is important. Scott McLoud presents several techniques used in comics, of which I knew only a few. I was not even aware of most of the others even though I would have argued that I have read comics carefully. Read, yes, but, obviously, not studied carefully.
In another chapter, Scott McLoud addresses upcoming comic artists. He presents a six step process of how to become a comic artist. Again, I was reminded of how to become a knowledge engineer. One needs to master a craft as well as have some talent. Any kind of artist has to decide in which form an idea will be expressed, following some school of art (idiom). Then the artist composes the work, leaving some things in and others out. For crafting the art, the necessary skills and knowledge need to be available. Finally, without some production skills the surface of the art work will not be appealing enough to sell the art work as the surface is the first thing a customer will base the buying decision on. Well, how come that ontologies do not sell, one could wonder.
There are a lot more interesting things to say about this book. Time can flow quite differently in comic books. The triangle of reality, picture plane, and language is discussed in detail. And much more …
After reading Understanding Comics I am able to enjoy comics on an additional level, now having more knowledge about the craftsmanship of comic artists.
I now wonder whether and how some of the techniques could be put to use in developing explanation-aware systems. Any suggestions?