Jenny Swensen and Miles Morales: Let Me Editorialize At You

Spitfire and the Troubleshooters and Ultimate Spider-Man #1 covers.

It's only been 25 years.

I think about Miles Morales and the maligning Bendis and Marvel are taking over his existence, and I end up thinking about Jenny “Spitfire” Swensen.

Miles is the new Ultimate Spider-Man; Jenny was the new… well, she was a new Iron Man. Miles is half-black, half-Latino, a New Yorker who picked up the Spider-Man mantle after Peter Parker’s death. Jenny was a white woman of privilege, an MIT engineering professor who fell into an avenging-hero role after the death of her father at the hands of his business partner.

Miles gets a lot of controversy thrown his way, much of it incredibly, stunningly racist; Jenny didn’t really get any, in her time. But they’re both products of the Marvel alternate-universe machine, that editorial gremlin that creates and destroys worlds in an unending quest for good press and higher sales figures.

Jenny had three chances to make a go of it under those rules– first in the 1986 title Spitfire and the Troubleshooters (also known as Codename: Spitfire), then in a few issues of Exiles, and lastly, as Jenny Swann in the late, lamented Warren Ellis/ Salvador Larocca reboot, newuniversal. As far as enduring popularity, though, she didn’t make the cut. Whatever it is that makes a Marvel hero iconic, Jenny didn’t really have it.

People are already arguing that Miles Morales has the same problem. He’s an alternate-universe hero. He’s a cheap attempt to grab press from the Marvel editorial machine, or the end result of some nebulous Disney-mandated diversity program. He doesn’t “count” because he’ll be rebooted or retconned away in time. In the “endless second act” model of the Marvel Universe, where nothing is certain except reinventions of the same old thing, Miles Morales is a grain of sand on an endlessly reimagined beach, already starting to roll into the narrative undertow.

Here’s the thing, though: so what? Even if all of that were true– and, given Bendis’ own family background, a lot of it isn’t true at all– will any of those theories matter to the people who will eventually read the new Ultimate Spider-Man?

I don’t think they will, and I say that because I was in the same spot with Spitfire in 1986.

Let’s say Miles Morales sustains his own title for… 13 issues. Ultimate Fallout #4 and a year of his own Ultimate Spider-Man title. He has a decent run of it, but it’s nothing exceptional. Maybe they change up his mandate after the first six-issue arc, trying to juice up the sales a little bit. They put out a TPB of the first arc for the trade-waiters, and maybe release a digest version for the kids.

And then, hey, it’s over. Bendis and Pichelli did their best, but whatever it takes to support a long-running Ultimate title isn’t there. Audiences are fickle. Direct-market sales aren’t what they used to be. Whatever the reason, Miles ceases to exist except in retrospect, plucked out of the record occasionally to support a new novelty project but permanently removed from the spotlight.

That’s pretty much what happened to Jenny Swensen in 1986… but here I am writing about her in 2011, because 13 issues of Spitfire were more than enough to cement her in my memory. Jenny was a redhead from Massachusetts, a Smart Girl, the cool professor that all the geeky kids idolized because she’d come up the MIT way, just like they wanted to.

I was a pigtailed, redheaded 10-year-old geek in August of 1986, already getting told that I’d cure AIDS or work for NASA when I grew up. I lived twenty or so minutes’ drive outside of Cambridge; MIT hacks occasionally made the front pages of the local papers. I picked up the first issue of Spitfire on a newsstand, maybe at the Bookends in the Northshore Mall, and there was a redheaded, Massachusetts-native, grown-up female geek.

(In power armor. Years before Gwyneth Paltrow became Pepper Potts, years before Pepper Potts became Rescue.)

Jenny Swensen probably meant nothing to you at the time, if you were around and reading monthly comics in 1986. That’s fair. Not all narratives mean something to everyone who reads them. I read a lot of comics that I appreciate but don’t identify with, don’t adore. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you accept that your experience with a book probably isn’t the same as another reader’s experience with the same work.

And my experience of Jenny Swensen was that she was the first redheaded female geek I’d seen in a comic book. Jean Grey was a redhead, and a heroine, but not much of a geek… and you couldn’t just go to MIT and receive the X-gene on graduation, after all. An engineering degree, though? That was doable, if you were prepared to fight for it and work hard and realize that sometimes academia hates technical women for no reason other than that they’re women in a traditionally male field.

Some images of our future selves are more attainable than others.

As it turned out, though, I didn’t get the X-gene or the engineering degree. I struggled with serious personal and medical problems for years; there was no job at NASA, no cure for AIDS. Intelligent and compassionate scientists who hadn’t had the same struggles I had treated me compassionately and helped me sort out my shit, and I went on to a reasonably normal adult life.

(Albeit some years later than I would have if I’d been correctly diagnosed and treated earlier. Science occasionally has to catch up to the human condition.)

I wasn’t Jenny Swensen after all, but her stories stuck with me while I figured out who I was.

I’m still figuring. I expect that there are a lot of kids out there who aren’t white, who aren’t privileged, who are actively engaged with the task of figuring out who they are, too. It’s not easy, and it takes guidance and courage and investment in your own narrative.

Miles Morales will be there for them, like Jenny Swensen was for me, whether or not anyone believes in the commercial or cultural potential of a biracial Spider-Man who can’t pass for white. One issue, thirteen issues, 160 issues… 25 years later, some guy or girl in a writers’ room or a comics bullpen will say “Hey, like Miles Morales. I fucking love Miles Morales.”

I love that guy or girl already. You should too.

Five Things about SDCC 2010

We are back from SDCC. The run-up to the con was challenging; I came down with episodic vertigo about two weeks before the show, and Chad’s had a crazy work schedule. We weren’t able to come hang out with you guys on the blog, but we’re here now, I have some vacation time, and I’m starting the SDCC recap posts with five things about the first day of the con.

1. The con is better if you’re hydrated.

I know, everyone says this in all the con survival guides. They’re really not joking.

Ten days or so prior to the con, my ENT gave me some new medication and noted that I would have to drink a LOT of water and Gatorade every day to stave off annoying side effects. This was the last thing I wanted to hear, but Chad and I sucked it up, hit REI, and brought home this sexy engine of hydration:

The 2010 Camelbak Lobo

Not quite a Fremen stillsuit, but it'll do.

That’s a Camelbak Lobo, 2010 edition. Three-liter capacity, slim form factor. Best $75 I’ve ever dropped on con prep, no joke.

And yes, I named it “Rescue.” You were expecting something else?

Once you’ve sunk the initial cash on a hydration pack that will last you for several con seasons, it’s easier, cheaper, and better for the environment than it is to keep getting overpriced bottles of water at Mrs. Fields or Starbucks inside the hall. You won’t have to interrupt your con experience to go on a quest for fluids. If you’re close with your friends, they’ll appreciate the occasional hit off the supply.

Plus, Jeff Bridges wants you to stop using disposable plastic bottles. You so don’t want to upset the Dude. Or Obadiah Stane.

2. That Jeff Bridges seems like a nice guy, really.

We ran into him for five seconds outside the Flynn’s Arcade replica in the Gaslamp on Thursday morning. He said hi; he seemed fantastically happy to be at the con hanging out.

3. We really like Cliff Chiang; we especially like paying his rent, it seems.

Thursday morning’s other two big scores were a signed copy of Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang’s adaptation of Neil Young’s album “Greendale,” and, for my supervisor at work, one of Cliff’s awesome Every Night I Have the Same Dream, Issue 3 shirts from the new Threadless comics collection.

Cliff’s not only a fantastic artist, he is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet on the con floor. You should check out his work and give him money. We can’t meet all his expenses alone, no matter how hard Chad’s been trying the last couple years.

4. You should go to w00tstock.

The Department’s main obligation to the con and related events was Thursday night’s w00tstock 2.4 performance at the 4th and B; we had arranged with w00tstock Dungeon Master Liz Smith to work the merch table and assist with anything else that came up. (Thanks again, Liz! We’re glad we could help.)

Adam Savage sang “I Will Survive” in Gollum’s voice, accompanied by a Wookiee on a guitar (video by k8greenisageek on YouTube). There was a Parry Gripp video, that, well, here:

Marian Call accompanied herself on a manual typewriter (and was incredibly great to me while I worked her end of the merch table). Molly Lewis had to be escorted into and out of the venue for her performance by security because she’s not yet 21– and graciously performed an awesome all-request ninja gig outside the venue for all the other under-21 folks who were screwed by the local liquor laws. Behold these videos from Kevin Savino-Riker, who was reporting for GeekyPleasures:

Len Peralta of Geek a Week fame drew an entire concert poster in four hours from the stage:

Official w00tstock San Diego Poster

(If you have mad geek art lust, Len’s taking orders on the poster until Friday. Details are on his Flickr page; he’s also on Twitter as jawboneradio. Len and his wife Nora are completely awesome people, and they were a real pleasure to work with at the show– support them!)

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait showed us every single schlong-shaped celestial object he could think of, and then dropped a bombshell of a trailer for his new Discovery Channel show, “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe:”

That? That there is some high-end science porn, kids. You want that. Three episodes, coming this fall.

And that was, uh, about a quarter of the awesome things that went on all night. Paul and Storm, Adam Savage, and Wil Wheaton serve as the w00tstock ringleaders and assemble a crew of performers for every concert; this one was particularly epic owing to everyone having shown up for SDCC in the first place. We were on our feet and on the move from 2pm until 3:30am, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“But,” you say, “that’s not much comics content, for an ensemble performance at a comics convention. Aren’t you guys comics bloggers?”

Well…

5. Matt Fraction speaks for the comics tribe at w00tstock.

Matt Fraction thinks about process and inspiration a great deal. He presented his spoken-word piece “The Batman Dreams of Hieronymus Machines” at the Portland w00tstock earlier this year, and he did it at SDCC twice– once at w00tstock, and once as a spotlight panel at the con proper.

Unfortunately, his wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick (hey, she’s writing a new book about Norman Osborn! Buy that!), has never been able to make it to one of these presentations. She’s never seen Matt bust out a bunch of raunchy jokes about Stilt-Man’s taint in front of a screaming crowd.

We had to fix that. Fortunately for you guys, the Department acquired new iPhones prior to the con, and Chad shot the following video of Matt’s “The Batman Dreams of Hieronymus Machines.” The HD master went to Kelly Sue, and this one is up for everyone else’s delectation:

We know the angle is suboptimal– the rule at w00tstock is “record all you want, but don’t annoy other guests,” so we shot from the side. If you need a version of the talk that is slightly different in content and has a better view of the slide show, but not as much of a view of Matt himself, Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance recorded the SDCC spotlight panel.

Watch both recordings; they have different things to offer, but Matt is saying a lot of inspirational and important things about comics here. Can we get this man a speaking gig at TED?

Tomorrow, depending on how my morning goes: Isaiah Mustafa hits the con floor; a young man from Chad’s alma mater writes a book about historical badassery; Fraction and I get in trouble on the throne of Allfather Odin, and more.

LA Times Festival of Books: New Media Meets Publishing

The second panel we attended at the LA Times Festival of Books, “#book: New Media Meets Publishing,” wasn’t overtly a comics panel. That being said, folks with an interest in process and digital publication will probably want to read my recap anyhow– the processes and networks that allow guys like Wil Wheaton to self-publish are the kinds of things that can be adapted to comics work as well. The panel moderator was LA Times blogger Carolyn Kellogg, who’s covered the publishing industry for the Times since 2008. The panelists were:

First observation: Carolyn speaks LOLcat. Pretty fluently. In addition, she encouraged audience members to tweet from the panel using the “#latfob” hashtag, which was a nice touch. The Times kept that hashtag front and center throughout the Festival; placards posted in vendor areas mentioned it prominently, and every panel we attended made a point of telling us how to tag any tweets we made. That’s good message discipline, and hopefully something other festivals, conventions, BarCamps, and the like will emulate.

The panel opened with Wheaton briefly explaining that he’d come to Twitter after the urging of LA ubergeek Sean Bonner (founder of the Crash Space hackerspace in Culver City, CA), but didn’t really embrace its potential until Warren Ellis directed him to the pithy, pun-filled tweets of Diesel Sweeties cartoonist Rich Stevens. Kellogg then asked Dana about teenagers’ Twitter habits, which, well… it turns out that “teens don’t Tweet,” which is pretty much the attitude my 22-to-25-year-old coworkers display about the service too.

What teens do, though, is write, as Dana Goodyear found out while covering Japan’s keitai shousetsu (cellphone novel) subculture for the New Yorker. Most of the early authors of cellphone novels were teenaged girls in the rural districts of Japan (roughly, “anything outside of Tokyo proper” if you’re a Tokyo resident); these young writers captured their experiences via text message and gained an audience of over 12 million readers. Conventional publishing caught on, and the dead-tree versions of cellphone novels sold well to eager audiences looking for souvenirs of their reading experience. (You can read Goodyear’s original article, “Letter from Japan: I ♥ NOVELS,” here.) Inspired by this experience, Goodyear went on to start Figment, a Web platform where teenagers will be given the tools to express themselves without restrictions on form or content. (Figment will launch later this year; you can check out the prelaunch site now, though.)

Pablo Defendini envisioned a similar community for science fiction and fantasy fans at Tor.com. Instead of being a puff site for Macmillan’s SF imprint, Tor|Forge, Tor.com was designed to be as accessible as possible to people at all levels of interest in science fiction publishing. It’s equal parts group blog and SF/F magazine, open to content from readers, writers, publishers, and editors alike. “Access to guys like Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman is easy now,” Defendini said. “[Publishers] need to engage and listen to the readers… and leverage that knowledge with bookstore buyers to get our books on the shelves. The Internet hates middlemen.”

Wheaton concurred entirely with Defendini’s assessment, detailing his own experience with both his content and the works of others. Both Wheaton and Defendini spoke admiringly of author Scott Sigler (Ancestor, Earthcore), who releases multiple editions of his novels in differing formats. The hardcover version of a Sigler novel might have tipped-in additional content, while the paperback has a different plot; Sigler’s audiobooks are released as free, serialized podcasts via Podiobooks. In much the same way as Sigler approaches each narrative as mutable, Goodyear noted, the authors of cellphone novels often take suggestions from their readership as they write; the narrative, delivered in 70-to-100-word installments, becomes a dialog between the author and his or her fanbase.

Like Sigler’s audiobooks and Tor.com’s free PDFs of SF novels, the cellphone novel is given away freely– but free content isn’t the defining feature of digital publishing, Wheaton pointed out, going on to note that digital publication offered new avenues of consumption and interaction for audiences and authors. Defendini likened these new avenues to a Balkanization of publishing, where large houses would eventually fragment into smaller publishing services that catered to and were deeply invested in very specific interests. Wheaton also noted that in such a market, print-on-demand or self-publication should no longer be a taboo topic, unlike pay-to-publish vanity press scams. He emphasized that a book should look and feel good; to that end, aspiring POD/ self-published authors should utilize their personal connections and hire competent, talented people in order to create a professional product.

Of course, that might be a bit easier for Wheaton than for others– he mentioned that, among others, comics artist D’Israeli and White Wolf game designer Jesse Heinig had assisted him with production work on his books. When asked what he would do if he ever needed a translator for his works, Wheaton unflinchingly replied that he’d go to his blog and Twitter and ask for applications from his one-million strong reading audience. Still, even folks less famous than Wheaton can apply that strategy to their interactions with like-minded creators; Kellogg half-jokingly noted that with the current state of the print publishing industry, authors could easily “hire the laid-off” to work production roles on their titles.

When it got down to nuts-and-bolts discussion of best practices for ebook production, though, Wheaton and Defendini brought out their geek A-game; Goodyear was visibly impressed with the amount of work each of them had put into thinking about digital publication. Wheaton called for publishers to standardize on an open ebook format and “take [proprietary formats] out behind the barn.” Defendini agreed, and mentioned that he found PDF an inflexible format for ebooks because “text needs to be more accommodating” to different reading devices; he prefers the open EPUB standard. Goodyear concurred, noting that teenagers are platform-agnostic as long as the reading experience isn’t jarringly different from phone to laptop to digital reader. When asked for specific tips on creating EPUB content, Defendini noted that generating EPUB can be a dirty, hands-on coding process requiring knowledge of XML. Wheaton jumped in to assure the somewhat frightened audience member that “it’s really easy,” while also recommending the ebook formatting services provided by SmashWords and other layout houses.

Defendini further recommended the open-source EPUB creator Sigil as a good starting point for the timid. When asked about covering all the possible format bases, Wheaton mentioned that he avoided some formats (like the Kindle) because the terms of use weren’t beneficial to his bottom line. Defendini reinforced the notion of selectivity with the observation that when you have an idea, the presentation should be chosen explicitly to suit the idea itself– does it work best as a book? as a Twitter feed of crafted content? as an iPad app?– and urged people to pick their shots accordingly.

Certainly, Goodyear, Defendini, and Wheaton are presenting a paradigm for thinking about digital publication that will ruffle some feathers in traditional publishing. I’ve already seen one recap of this same panel that, er, didn’t resemble what I got out of it at all, and I doubt that’s the last one I’ll see. I know, specifically in the comics field, that I’ve seen several creators be quite open about their lack of digital publishing know-how during public appearances– and, well, a guy like Mike Mignola knows that Hellboy fans would buy Hellboy on stone tablets if that were the only distribution channel, so, arguably, he’s perfectly correct in not giving a shit.

Most of the rest of us don’t have Mignola’s considerable professional leverage, which is why we should be listening to folks like Defendini, Goodyear, and Wheaton. They’ve been over this ground. They are working out the paradigms in which many of us will work in the years to come; it would be stupid not to take heed now. If we want to move from “aspiring” creators to creators, we must know our markets. We need to move towards laying out cold, hard cash to like-minded artists to create the most appropriate and attractive packages for our ideas. We need to engage openly and honestly with our audiences… and we need to have the kind of content that compels those audiences to listen.

Understanding Comics Fridays: Chapter Three

Chapter 3 of Understanding Comics gets into the grit of panel-to-panel continuity, the literary equivalent of persistence of vision. It’s probably good that I’m hitting this now, when I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Hickman comics lately; I feel like I could use a refresher on the ground rules, since Hickman’s known to break them every which way he can in the space of a book.

Fantastic Four #575’s ending, which I won’t spoil, is a good example of breaking a lot of rules about compressed storytelling. The vast majority of Hickman’s The Nightly News doesn’t even deal in panel boundaries at all; it looks more like a web designer’s anarchist manifesto than a comic book. I picked up the second Secret Warriors HC in the shop last night, flipped it over to the stark back cover with the single emblem and the brief, terse description, and said “Gee, Chad, look! It’s a Hickman book!” Man has a style, and it’s largely based on taking Eisner and McCloud to heart and then proceeding on without further regard.

That being said, Hickman’s work-for-hire books look more like conventional comics (aside from the awesomely clean, shiny, Jonathan Ive-tastic backmatter) than his creator-owned works do. I’ve got the first eight issues of Secret Warriors sitting here with me, and I’m in a mood for less theory and more application this week. I’m going to break out McCloud’s six types of panel transitions and grab some examples from those issues, as Secret Warriors is arguably the Marvel book where Hickman is the most conventional with his scripting and Caselli is the most straightforward with the layouts and panel setups.

If you’re not familiar with Secret Warriors, I recommend it, by the way; it’s a tight thriller about the secret history of SHIELD and HYDRA as seen through the eyes of a team of teenage super-agents. It’s got that edge of weird that one expects from super-powered counterintelligence action, and if you’re not really into Hickman’s more experimental works, it’s conservative enough by his standards to be reassuring. Now, onto the transitions!

1. Moment-to-Moment

Nick Fury and the President, from Secret Warriors #1

No walking and a lot of talking: Hickman and Caselli redefine Sorkin's style.

The 12-panel grid on page 20 of issue 1 is a fantastic moment-to-moment that also spans eight major plot points, demonstrating incredible economy of storytelling in a confined space. A Sorkin-style walk and talk where the viewer’s eyes are doing all the walking while Fury and the President do all the talking.

And, uh, then there’s issue 4, page 15:

Nick Fury has a moment about massage, Secret Warriors issue 4.

Don't we all? Nick Fury has a moment.

It’s just barely McCloud’s version of a moment-to-moment transition– Fury doesn’t actually move here, although he does speak– but, um, AAAAA. Too much information, thanks, sir.

2. Action-to-Action

There’s two great examples of this in issue 1. First off:

Nick Fury tackles and injects a goon in three panels from Secret Warriors #1.

Three panels, one goon, no waiting.

Page 16, bottom three panels. Fury grabs the goon and injects him in three quick moves. Hickman and Caselli love this three-panel layout for fluid action, breaking out one scene into its component movements, as seen a couple pages later in the same issue when Fury accesses the Datacore.

Nick Fury accesses the Datacore, in Secret Warriors #1.

"This is a UNIX system! I know this!"

3. Subject-to-Subject

Nick Fury and Contessa Allegra Valentina face off.

Before we kill each other, Mr. Fury...

Issue 3, page 12. Nick, Allegra, the gun showdown. Cut to cut to cut, Tarantino-style. The suspicion between the SHIELD agent and the superspy hangs in every space between panels. Nothing is explicit, but everything is laid out for the reader.

4. Scene-to-Scene

Nick Fury's flashback ends in confusion for Daisy Johnson.

Wrapping up the flashback.

Issue 1, page 21. From the White House to the Coccoon, from Fury to Daisy.

Secret Warriors does a lot of jumping from locale to locale—from Australia to Inside Straight in issue 4, from Fury in New Mexico in issue 3 to Daisy and her team at Red Worm—but it’s almost always split across pages, which just makes it a change of locale and less of a narrative hook between two parts of the plot. This one, however, bridges a timespan, as Fury briefs Daisy on his infiltration of the White House. The dark wood and midafternoon lighting of the Oval Office contrast starkly with the hyper-tech blue lighting of the Warriors’ base (remember, kids, as Kenneth Hite says, all comforting technology glows blue).

5. Aspect-to-Aspect

The Secret Warriors review security camera footage.

HYDRA knocks over a 7-11.

Issue 3, page 5, the security camera dump focusing on what HYDRA has been up to—the different aspects of the idea that HYDRA has subverted SHIELD and is now stepping up their plans.

I find the aspect-to-aspect transition the hardest one to get my head around. This could also play as subject-to-subject—different HYDRA agents being focused on within the framework of the plan– but I think it works better as a tense overview of entire HYDRA plan. McCloud focuses heavily on anime and atmospherics when he discusses aspect-to-aspect transitions; it’ll probably take me longer to get a handle on its use in Western comics as a result.

6. Non Sequitur

…for once, there’s not a non sequitur in a Hickman book. So, uh, I’ve taken it upon myself to make one. See you next week! (Author runs for the exit.)

The soldiers of HAMMER, uh, don't discuss Fin Fang Foom's mating habits.

...he did NOT tell you that. Tell me he didn't tell you that.

Understanding Comics Fridays: Chapter Two

Scott McCloud says "Understanding comics is serious business."

This iconic image isn't kidding.

So last week, I was generally terrified by the amount of supplementary reading involved in getting a feel for Understanding Comics at this point in time. That fear hasn’t really abated any, but here we are at Chapter Two, “The Vocabulary of Comics.”

Chapter One laid the groundwork, defining McCloud’s vision of comics as an expansion of the critical work of Will Eisner (“sequential art”) and Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”). Chapter Two moves on to the basics of semiotics, or the analysis of the presentation and meaning of signs. As usual, it also provides me with an insight into why this feature is so hard to write so far, even though I’m up front about the fact that it’s an experiment and may go horribly wrong at any moment.

When I started reading, I hit up my friend Eric Burns-White of Websnark co-fame for advice on approaching the entire project. His words of wisdom were twofold– one, a general bit of encouragement about bringing my own reading to the work, and the other… well…

The other one was “Deep breaths. Remember, Icon Scott McCloud cannot hurt you.”

And Eric’s right. Smiling Icon Scott McCloud is about as accessible a tutor on basic semiotics as anyone’s ever going to get. Chapter Two breezily defines icons, covers levels of abstraction from “cartoony” to “photoreal,” and maps out the vocabulary of comics on a three-dimensional model– a diagram that tries to plot out comics style in the same way a gamut plots out a colorspace. It’s densely-packed in terms of just how much information McCloud’s put into each panel; Chad said it reminds him of the “Mr. DNA” sequence in Jurassic Park in its simplification of complex theoretical topics.

The symbolic gamut of comics creation runs from realistic depictions to cartoony images and beyond into pure abstraction, and from representative shapes to non-representative imagery. McCloud breaks it all down in what has to be the most intimidating diagram in the book, a map with 100 different comics artists plotted along the pyramid of visual styles. Fortunately, he admits that it’s a lot to digest at once, and Icon Scott McCloud advises us to save it for later.

The high bandwidth and high compression in this chapter is impressive… and when you start unpacking the content outside of the book itself, wham, you’re knee-deep in John Locke and Wassily Kandinsky. McCloud cites Kandinsky’s “On the Problem of Form” as part of the inspiration for the critical grammar set forth in Understanding Comics. It’s a short essay, and it serves to bolster McCloud’s content-agnostic, broadly egalitarian definition of comics. Every comics creator will choose the form that’s most suited to their needs; in McCloud’s paradigm, those needs and forms will be roughly circumscribed by his own definition of comics.

It didn’t take me long, this time around, to Google “semiotics,” bounce off Locke’s treatise on the topic (“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”), and say “Hey, wait, I think there’s going to be some conceptualism involved here, since we’re starting to talk about individual perception of these iconic images.” Obviously, if we talk about perception, we’re going to discuss how much of reality is perceptually-based and how much of it is objectively real.

And, lo and behold, when I dipped into Chapter Three, there was Icon Scott McCloud, walking through a disappearing landscape. I might be catching on to this game.

(Also, if you’re interested in how McCloud applies to other uses of iconography– say, human-computer interaction– you’d be well-served to read Lukas Mathis’ essay “Realism in UI Design,” which just went up yesterday over at his blog. I’m apparently not the only one thinking about Understanding Comics lately.)

A Quick Thought on Invincible Iron Man

Since shit was getting real over in Tony Stark’s neck of the woods last post, I thought I’d put up my one consistent observation about Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man run so far:

While I have often read an issue of IIM and said “Tony! You fucking son of a bitch,” I have never once read an issue of IIM and said “Fraction! You fucking son of a bitch.”

Compare and contrast: Fables, where Willingham just cold lost me the minute he went from “sure, there are parallels between the Fabletown situation and that of Jewish ghettos in World War II” to “LOL OMG THEY’RE ALL REALLY JEWS AND NEXT YEAR IN THE HOMELANDS AMIRITE.” Regardless of any personal opinions I may have about Israel one way or the other, I had a great heap of “Willingham! You’ve broken the immersion! Bad game master! Bad!”

I still haven’t managed to catch up on Fables since that issue. Something about it has been essentially soiled for me; the illusion is broken and I know the author’s lecturing me, instead of sharing a parable with me.

It should be about the characters, not about the writer, when it comes down.

Understanding Comics Fridays: Chapter One

The cover of Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics."

Understanding Comics, my new nemesis.

I have a confession to make. I’m writing a comics blog, I’ve been a fan for almost a quarter-century, I’m slowly working towards entering the field…

…and I’ve never read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

Yeah. One of the seminal texts of comics studies, the touchstone of a great deal of modern comics critique, and I somehow never managed to get to it. This strikes me as a shameful educational failure on my part, and I’m about to rectify it, one chapter a week, here at Department H. (I’m going to try to do these on Fridays, but we’ll see how that goes as I work my way through. My job tends to cause schedule slip at inconvenient times.)

So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on Chapter One of Understanding Comics.

McCloud’s defining the underpinnings of his critical theory here—attempting to quantify the broadest possible parameters of a specific art form, and then label that construct “comics.” While deriving his famous definition– “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence”–he takes pains to distinguish between the medium of comics and the content conveyed via that medium. In McCloud’s opinion, content is merely poured into the medium, making the medium or form the primary focus of his critical attention.

That’s where I stopped and said “Hey, wait, I covered this in my first college career, except the theorist in question’s name was Marshall McLuhan.”

And, lo, that was my first “well, that should have been obvious” revelation about Understanding Comics: it’s conceived as both a homage to and an extension of McLuhan’s 1964 bestseller, Understanding Media.

(In the wake of that epiphany, I turned to Chad and said, in the parlance of our times, “HA HA I SEE WHAT HE DID THERE.” I can’t be a critical theorist all the time, after all. I’d get tired.)

Of course, I also haven’t read Understanding Media, even during my three-year tenure in a top-tier communications research program at a good Northeastern university. At the undergrad level, we got one class on theory, where McLuhan’s major contributions were summarized in a couple weeks of lectures. Those contributions, however, are fundamental to McCloud’s work– the idea that medium trumps message, that media can be studied as a structure without regard to the precise content it holds, and that content may be irrelevant to the consumer as long as the form is maintained.

And simply taking McCloud as read is problematic for one unavoidable reason; Understanding Comics is a 17-year-old text at this point, with no major revisions. The brief mention of copyright law in Chapter One would undoubtedly lead, in a newer version, to an entire chapter on Creative Commons, copyleft, and the ongoing international debate on intellectual property rights. McCloud analyzes the Bayeux Tapestry’s sheer size and lack of panel borders during his historical review of sequential art, a subject that would organically lead to a discussion of infinite canvas in webcomics these days.

Understanding Comics’s age adds a layer of complexity to my reading, too, and I’m still figuring out how to approach it. In 1993, the field we now call “comics studies” was in its infancy… and since then, a body of criticism has sprung up around the book. It’s not the only game in town (besides Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art) any more– McCloud, of course, has two other works out. Comics bloggers deconstruct the form and offer analysis every day. Brian Michael Bendis teaches college courses on the graphic novel that use Understanding Comics as an introductory text. Creator-critics like Dylan Horrocks and R.C. Harvey have taken McCloud’s theories and offered rebuttals, modified the theories, added insights.

How to proceed with my own reading, then? It feels like a constitutional-law scholar’s worst nightmare. Should I be a strict constructionist, and take McCloud solely on his own merits, every word just as it was in 1993? Should I regard Understanding Comics as a living document, influenced by interpretation, and cite from Horrocks, Harvey, Bendis, and all those other sources as well? I’m leaning towards the latter, just on the understanding that our comprehension of the art has advanced since ’93.

I’m going to have to step up my game while I read. So much for some light reading while I work on my next VFX gig!