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.)

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!