Understanding Comics

One of today’s many posts is about Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics! This is more of a textbook than a story, so keep that in mind, but it’s quite an enjoyable read if you have an interest in graphic art theory.

Plot: Scott McCloud takes us through a visual journey to understand the history of why comic books are underappreciated as a mainstream medium and how comic books operate.

Initial thoughts: This is a book assigned in many classes teaching about graphic novels, but I didn’t know what to expect, quite honestly. Besides Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, this is probably the most widely read book on theorizing how comic books work. That is not to say that it is a perfect book; McCloud admits, “This book is meant to stimulate debate, not settle it” (216). Many of McCloud’s proposed theories could be critiqued or expanded, such as the triangle diagram of realism and language, the six types of panel-to-panel transitions introduced in chapter three, or the seven categories words and images work together in a panel introduced in chapter six.

Though I had to remind myself not to immediately accept McCloud’s proposals without critical analysis, his attempt at making “comic books,” which is his preferred terminology, professional and serious labor is a brave endeavor. One of the best parts is that McCloud is able to cover so much material in such a short book (compared to all the different things he explores, that is) and that this knowledge is delivered in graphic, cartoon format in such a way that exemplifies the very things he’s explaining. Another wonderful aspect is that McCloud introduces history and global examples of comics (especially manga and the Franco-Belgium comics) to demonstrate that there is a long history and wide variety in comic books.

Overall, this is an important read and anybody who has a serious interest in comic books should read it. Not because it’s 100% right but because it starts important conversation that acknowledges comics and cartoons as sites of critical inquiry and importance.

Itty Bitty Research: So, what do you research when the book you’ve just read is a collection of research? I ask myself, “what is a comic?” Now normally Wikipedia isn’t the authority on such matters, but it’s a pretty good indicator of mass thought, so I started there: Comics is a medium used to express ideas via images, often combined with text or other visual information.” While I can’t dispute that this is something that describes comics, I wonder how this is any different from other visual arts, such as painting or printmaking. Still, I would not dismiss this definition entirely because there are some comics that don’t incorporate words and they are still comics, and some that are a single picture rather than sequential images and are still comics.

Many dictionary definitions, such as the OED‘s, describe “comic” as “Chiefly with reference to ancient Greek and Roman drama: a writer, esp. a playwright, who composes a comedy or comedies (“comic, n. and adj.”). It’s not until the fourth definition on OED that anything related to comic books is even mentioned. This is significant because historically, tragedy has been valued in higher regard than comedy. For a medium that takes its name from an undervalued genre, part of me wonders if this is partly why comics are not considered serious art. Some comic books are tragedies rather than comedies, but the fact that the name takes from the comic instead of the tragic is one way that devalues comic books. Perhaps Eisner’s coining of “graphic novel” in lieu of “comic book” was one way that considerably raised the status of comic books. (The question then remains why graphic novels and comic books are separated and why “comic book” is undervalued.)

In figuring out what a comic is, there is also the aspect of structure. Australia’s Wet Tropics website has a page that describes comic strips as having similar structures to traditional storytelling. This is something rather obvious, but it resonated with me because the undervaluing of comic books seems to stem from the fact there are pictures that help guide the story. Theoretically, the storytelling of comics is not so different from “literature,” so why is there such stigma against comics?

I’m now starting to think it is because of the inclusivity that comics offer. “Literature” has historically been exclusive to privileged people, and those who are known for creating comics do not necessarily fall into that privileged group. As far as readership goes, Comixology points out that the readership of comics is expanding to include young women who were not previously the target audience of comics. This is perceived as a threat and because lower income, non-privileged people have had greater access to consuming and creating comics, it is considered a low medium. But how is this any different from “literature” today, when one can make a WordPress and write down thoughts as they come and go? Perhaps that is getting too meta.

At the end of this supremely unhelpful bit of research, I can only conclude that Scott McCloud is a braver person than I am for trying to answer this question. While it is easy to dispute his proposed definitions, it is nigh impossible to offer a better one in exchange.

Rating: 4.3/5

Works Cited: McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink P, 1993. Print.

“comic, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 19 June 2015.


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