Realistic vs. Iconic Representation

Scott McCloud, a cartoonist and comic theorist, explains realistic and iconic representations as one of the scales of progression, seen in comics, in his work Understanding Comics.

rep to icon 2
Figure 1. The scale of progression from realistic representation (left) to iconic representation (right), as presented in Understanding Comics. Source: Scott McCloud. (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

This scale of progression from Understanding Comics, clearly shows the two sides of representation in comics. Realistic representation is depicted on the far left and can be seen to include images that look like the “real life” representation. In this scale, the face is that of a real person; the reader can put a specific identity to the person, that is not their own. Iconic representation is depicted on the far right and includes images that are not as “real life” looking. In the scale, the face is now just a mix of a circle, two dots, and a line. There is no specific identity that can be given to this face, and in turn can encourages the reader to identify with it. 

Realistic representations most resemble a real-life person, place, thing, or idea. These types of images are very detailed in the way that they have an “identity” and are easier to attribute to a specific person, place, thing, or idea. There is less room for interpretation or for the readers to identify with the image by attributing their own identity to it.

Flash Gordan
Figure 2. Flash Gordon comic strip by artist Alex Raymond, published in 1958, depicting a realistic representation of the characters and the environment. Source: Comics Kingdom. King Features Syndicate, Inc. 2015.

This comic strip from artist Alex Raymond depicts a realistic representation of the characters and the setting in a Flash Gordon comic strip. The faces of the characters are all very detailed and can been seen to be a specific person. The setting is also very detailed in that it represents a specific place that looks like it is “real life.”

Iconic representations are more abstract and are a general representation of a person, place, thing, or idea. McCloud explains that iconic representations, “require greater levels of perception” (p. 49). As opposed to realistic representations, these images have greater room for interpretation and “perception”. They allow for the reader to easily identify with the images by attributing their identity.

Thief of Thieves
Figure 3. Panels from Thief of Thieves Vol. 1 showing iconic representation of the character as he runs away. Source: Kirkman, R. (2012). Thief of Thieves Vol. 1. Imagine Comics.

These panels from Thief of Thieves, illustrated by Shawn Martinbrough, show an iconic representation of the character as he is running away. The character is not very detailed, especially in the face, depicting a more abstract presentation of the character.

Realistic and iconic representations are important because they target the reader. Comics are trying to get the reader invested, and this is done by getting the readers to identify with the words and visuals. The varying representations help the readers become a part of the comic world and make the comic reading experience much more enjoyable.


McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: Harper Collins Publishing.