Understanding Comics (The Invisible Art)

Posted: May 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
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""So a little while ago, I read this book. It’s called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. It was written by this guy here. Scott McCloud.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The guy pictured here is the comic version of Scott McCloud. He’s the narrator of the book, which is told by way of a comic. There are graphic novels; this is a graphic theoretical text.

It’s a fantastic exercise in visual rhetoric. There are things that can be shown but not said, and McCloud does a fantastic job of integrating and pointing those things out.

McCloud begins by offering us a definition for comics. He calls them “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (9). While not the best definition, it does function for McCloud’s purpose (which is all he’s really looking for).

We go back to the distant path to try to figure out when comics first came into existence. Hieroglyphics? maybe. McCloud doesn’t know the origin of the comics (and, arguably, no one does). But I think we can go along with McCloud when he argues that it was the printing press that really gave comics the push they needed to move forward; that most comics have come into being as they are since the late nineteenth century (18).

What I find most interesting about McCloud’s project is the way he plays with the experience of reading and icons. He starts his second chapter by talking about a painting of a pipe that has a French transcription that translates to “This is not a pipe.” Interesting on the face of it, but as McCloud points out, “And indeed, this is not a pipe. This is a painting of a pipe” (24), then pushes deeper by pointing out that it’s not a painting of a pipe, but rather a drawing of a painting of a pipe; and more so, it’s a printed copy of a drawing of a painting of a pipe (25).

If that wasn’t enough, he points out how many copies there are of the drawing of the painting of the pipe (ten), and, to make sure the audience is keeping up, he asks “Do you hear what I’m saying?” only that’s a trap, since the very next panel says “If you do, have your ears checked, because no one said a word” (25). More than just ‘breaking the fourth wall,’ this meta discussion, which goes through the entire book, forces us to look at things that we couldn’t hope to see with just text. In fact, it feels odd of me to be writing this with just words.

I think it’s fair to say that words don’t do this book justice. But seeing as that’s the medium I’m using, I hope Scott McCloud will forgive me.

Back to icons. McCloud points out what it is that makes comics so accessible. In the stripped down, less realistic images, we are able to see ourselves in the comics. We are able to identify with what is going on in the panels and on the page in a way that we cannot do in, say, a film (30).

Something I found very interesting was the feeling I had while reading this book. Normally, when I see something interesting, I underline it, or write notes in the margin. But I found myself not willing to do that. It was as if comics were somehow sacred, and i I invaded the panels, I’d be doing something wrong. But then, on page 46, we are explicitly invited to write in the box. In fact, the point McCloud is making cannot be made if the box is not violated.

This becomes more important as McCloud gets into the idea of closure, of movement and events happening outside of our experience. For example, when one panel of a cartoon has a ball in the hand, and the next has it up in the air, we as readers know that there has to be movement in between (namely, the movement of tossing the ball). This closure, McCloud suggests, is created by the space between the panels. By the “gutter.” He says that “in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea” (66).

This combination of words and images is nothing new, McCloud tells us. “We all started out … using words and images interchangeably. It didn’t really matter which we used, so long as it worked” (139). Images are a part of language. In some languages, the images still ARE the language (like pictographic languages), but even in the least pictographic, we still use images as part of our communication.

Now, the subtitle of the book suggests that comics are art. I have no desire to argue with McCloud on this point; like him, I think this is a stupid question, especially given the broad definition of art that McCloud suggests (163). What I would like to look at are the six steps he suggests are needed to create art:

  1. Idea/purpose
  2. Form
  3. Idiom
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

It seems to make sense. You need to know what you want to do, what medium to use, what genre you’re working in, how to structure it, the ability to put it together, and to finish it. But these six steps sound very familiar to me. I know I’m nowhere near the first person to see this, but still, let me walk through it.

Ideas and purposes are important. You have to create them. They need to be Invented.

When you examine the form and the idiom (what medium and what genre), you are putting something together in a specific order. You are Arranging it. And, of course, part of the determination of genre, as well as the overall structure, are personal choices. Individual Style.

Putting it down, setting it in place, is creating an external memory. Or you can hold the art in your head (assuming it’s something like a poem or a song), as a regular Memory.

And the way you put it together, and the finishing that gets the job done, that introduces it and exposes it to the world, that’s how it’s Delivered.

In other words:

  1. Invention
  2. Arrangement
  3. Style
  4. Memory
  5. Delivery

Which we call the five canons of Rhetoric.

Did McCloud do this on purpose? I don’t know. Wouldn’t surprise me either way. He has an understanding of comics, of the world of comics, and he ends the book by inviting us all to keep going, to consider things on our own. Not only are we invited into the world of his comic, but also into the world of his research.

Overall, it’s an elegant and wonderful text.

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