Life being what it’s been, it’s taken me a while to finally finish reading Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. This had been recommended to me by several reliable sources, like GuestGeekBrian, and Kazu Kibuishi. And how long it took me to get to and read it should be no comment on this book either for how important it is nor how good it is.[tweet https://twitter.com/compgeeksdavid/status/608305527031013377]
Because it is quite simply one of the best, most important books I have ever read.
In short, this 1992 book attempts to explore the art form of comics at the very core. What it is about comics that make them comics, and not just drawings, or picture books, or illustrated literature, or really any other medium or thing – they are their own thing, described in the singular and plural as “comics.”
Along the way, he argues against any thought that comics are intended for only a specific genre or genres; the comics are only for a specific age group; or that comics are not art. He also takes an international approach, with the most specific and compelling difference being Japan and manga (see also: Tezuka). He also takes a historical approach, defining comics back far enough in time that he hit on a topic near and dear to my heart: but more on that below.
I feel like I could talk for a long time about this book, but it would be far more efficient for you to just go and read it! Hopefully like it was for me (or for Kazu before me), this book should be available at the library. Of course, I only had to get it at the library because I finally returned Brian’s copy to him, unread… And I won’t need it from the library again, because I’m definitely buying this one to reference later!
But anyway, allow me to briefly hit on some of the major definition points of comics, hit on that historical connection with my own research, and finally speak a bit about how this book informs discussions on this blog, and in my own life.
One of the big things that comes from reading Understanding Comics is his work on defining what “comics” means. McCloud states that there was really only one book before his that tried to define what “comics” were as a whole, by Will Eisner (for whom the annual comics awards are named…) and so he starts from Eisner’s definition.
Something more than just art. Something with which, suddenly, a story is being told. McCloud goes on to develop a full definition, worthy of the dictionary:
That definition approaches the fact that both the art and the storytelling are of significance with comics, and that you can’t have the one without the other – even if there are no words, or even if the pictures are all stick figures.
However, he also explores the fact that for much of the life of professional comics, these two jobs are totally separate ones, and that the writer and the artist (and often inkers, colorers, editors… a whole lot of people) are each working separately to hone their skills.
The progression at the bottom is of importance as well, and developed into three dimensions into a pyramid eventually by McCloud – it is the progression from the fully, visual realistic to the wholly iconic (the third axis being abstraction then). So the word FACE means a face just like that smiley guy does. 🙂
Which brings me back to an image from this book I’ve used before – that Kazu shared during his presentation.
Basically, the more cartoony a character or environment is, the more of an icon it is – the closer it is to the basic form, or even to the word, describing it. That makes it more approachable and accessible by more people – not a bad thing. Also, there’s what he says above – amplification through simplification. In other words, the ideas come across more quickly and to more people when they are simpler.
So this means a couple of things. For one, it means that the writer/artist like Kazu is someone who can avoid that giant gulf above – that they can control the direction of the art and the words, amplifying their meaning through the fusion of both. It also means that, like Kazu said in his presentation – you could write the greatest graphic novel in the world with stick figures. This isn’t just hyperbole – it’s also amplification through simplification.
The Obligatory William Hogarth Section
So McCloud takes the history of comics back all the way to cave paintings, and includes things like early written languages with their visual icons. However, modern comics in the sense we might expect them goes back more to an English engraver and artist. One William Hogarth.
I haven’t talked about Hogarth much, though he did get name-dropped on a post on Sourcerer. However, he was the subject of my History thesis, and of particular interest to me was a copyright law nicknamed “Hogarth’s Act.” Here, I’ll let McCloud tell you about it…
Hogarth created his engraving, the earlier single-panel ones what we might call today political cartoons. Satire and parody. Original stuff, though. And other engravers would then copy the design, print some off, and sell them. Because there was no copyright – nothing stopping them from doing it. In my research, I saw many of these copies, which ranged in skill and likeness.
Copyright had before protected only paintings and such – because they were art. His creations were meant for a broader audience, for the masses – and as such were a more mass-produced item than a single painting for a single wealthy patron is. Meaning the engravings were not considered “art” and not covered by copyright.
So Hogarth fought this on both fronts: for the copyright, and, through books like his Analysis of Beauty, also argued that his engravings were, in fact, art. While I was not supposed to make comparisons to the modern day in my history thesis, I certainly feel the need to do so here: that’s a whole like what McCloud is talking about in Understanding Comics. Comics can and should be considered art – their own distinct medium, but still art. Or also literature.
This is a fight that I feel I have regularly argued for some medium or genre or another on this blog over time. I think it’s an important one, and now you can see a bit of where I am coming from with these arguments. Just because the art-defining community doesn’t value something doesn’t mean it is without value. Maybe the copyright concerns aren’t there anymore… and maybe they are. The Internet is a web of copyright complications. And new art forms – fan art? Fan fiction? Copyright questions galore.
Old medium of art, and an old fight over its validity.
Me and My Big Mouth
So my last blog post before seeing Kazu speak was this one, and it was a heck of a rant about comics (and the state of the world). And something Kazu said really hit me and finally got me sitting down and reading Understanding Comics. It’s that he had tried to defend his love of comics – and his desire to make comics – but had never quite been able to articulate it. And then, he checked out Understanding Comics from his university library, and suddenly he had a way to talk about comics.
In that same vein, I would have to say that my rant, and some others, fall short. Because I didn’t fully understand. Because it’s so easy to combine the medium of comics, and the subject matter we so frequently see in comics – superheroes, science fiction, and maybe a little fantasy. But comics can be so much more, as McCloud is quick to point out.
Comics aren’t solely for children, they aren’t meant solely as fiction even – just look at this lovely non-fiction comic! He returns to this cloud of largely unexplored topics or styles that comics could and still can explore. I feel like even now, 23 years on like we are from when this book was published, there are more of some of these that have been explored.
And more to come. It’s maybe good, maybe bad that the flagship of comics right now is, ironically, superhero movies, but I imagine that the success of the Marvel movies has people reading comics. And while you might start with punches and universe exploding shenanigans, you may eventually find yourself reading Watchmen, or Lumberjanes, or Locke & Key, or Feynman, or even Bound by Law to answer those pesky copyright questions.
Confessional: I am a slow reader. I get bogged down in descriptive sections. And now, I have even less time than I’ve ever had before. But because of amplification through simplification, I can get a whole lot of story intake in limited time and despite my reading speed by reading a comic. There’s value there, for someone like me who loves reading but isn’t devouring a book a week. Or a book a month. I feel like it’s only been about 2-4 a year since blogging…
It’s Always Been Comics For Me
So I just described why I love comics now, and have been reading so many of them. However, it’s not just now. I remember reading comics from a fairly young age. I remember driving around town with my whole family, going to comic book stores and finding new issues, getting collectible cards, just generally being geeks together.
I fell out of reading comics at some point around high school, and didn’t think of myself as much of a comics reader through college and for years after. Nope. I read webcomics. Lots and lots of webcomics. I kept up on a large number of webcomics for years. But hey, they weren’t superheroes, so it didn’t count, right?
Around the same time I fell behind in my webcomics reading – and incidentally started blogging – I also picked up the Marvel Comics app and decided to check out what had been happening in between. Which catches you up to roughly last week’s blog post…
In other words, for the vast majority of my life, I have been an avid comics reader. Sure, in different places, in different genres, different art styles and production values. I’ve seen webcomic artists able to quit their day jobs and create comics full time. I’ve seen my favorite superhero brought to the big screen and then set to Mozart. And now I’ve even seen my History thesis – which surely enters into this overall life narrative of comics, always comics – rolled neatly into the history of comics.
So if you’ve made it this far – 1800 words into my “brief” blog post – then I’d like to let you know that I love writing and have always wanted to be a writer. And that I am fully realizing that the reason nothing has felt quite right when writing is that I’m probably going to be a comics writer. And so I am working on my art skills (so they’re at least passable at the simple cartoon level!) and am hoping to be able to, someday in the near future, let you know that I have a real live webcomic. In the mean time, you can find a bit of updates on this, and some of my sketches, on this site.