The serious business of comics

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Illustrations by Scott McCloud; video by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe Institute

The world is full of visual stimuli. And the way we experience them isn’t just the stuff of comic book art, but the essence of life itself, according to Scott McCloud. The locally rooted comic artist and theorist, well-known for his 1993 book “Understanding Comics,” drew a capacity house to the Knafel Center for a talk on “Visual Storytelling, Visual Communication.”

Presented by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the talk was introduced by Shigehisa Kuriyama, the faculty director of the institute’s humanities program and a confirmed fan. McCloud’s talk referenced his books and a popular TED talk, but went beyond the comics format to examine the nature of visual perception. Illustrated with a fast-moving backdrop of nearly 300 slides, Thursday afternoon’s talk was by turns whimsical, philosophical, and hilarious.

“Visual communication is a two-way street: We all meet the artist halfway,” McCloud said. He began by recalling his childhood in Lexington, Mass., and his roots as an artist. “When I grew up in Lexington, drawing robots and spaceships and later superheroes, I was hoping someone could figure out what was going on in every panel,” he said. “Then when I went to Syracuse as an art student, I found out that visual artists don’t always trust the idea of pictures sending messages. We expect it to be more inscrutable somehow, maybe even beyond meaning. But every picture is still saying something.”

McCloud’s central point was that there are no neutral visual decisions: Every visual display we see is meant to communicate something, and every artist who creates one has a specific intention. To illustrate this, he demonstrated how people tend to organize images into certain patterns. He began with the most basic of images, a straight line and two dashes. If the dashes are moved above the line, we’re likely to see them as eyes and a mouth, a human face.

Panel from Panel from

Panels from “Understanding Comics.”

Courtesy of Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud.

Scott McCloud speaks at Radcliffe's Knafel Center.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

The University Archives in Pusey Library will display items presented to President Larry Bacow during his installation. The viewing is from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Friday and includes the oldest surviving record book, the College Book 1.