Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics

[Readings] (03.26.09, 5:33 pm)

Comics and games actually have quite a bit in common. They share a common trait that they exist on a level of text and images, and they share the common negative characterization as being childish, valueless, and intended for entertainment only. Games are interesting in comparison because they extend beyond the referential level of iconicity and move into the space of systems. I think that the visual language of comics has a great deal of potential to illustrate meaning from games, especially in terms of relating the complex narrative devices used in adaptations. Games that employ a great deal of text and dialogue (before entirely cinematic cut scenes) have often used conventions of comics to convey this dialogue.

McCloud is an important figure because he sees his work as aiming to legitimize comics, and account for the characteristics of the medium, as separate from the content. He goes through properties of signs and signification, as well as story and discourse, showing and telling. These are principally the concerns of narrative.

It is also worth noting that that the medium of comics has been connected to games for a long time. Early games frequently had in their manuals a short comic that quickly illustrated the narrative gist of the game’s backstory. Furthermore, many game adaptations have come directly from comics, and more recently have come from comics, to film, to games. There thus seems to be an affinity of sorts between the two media, and this may broaden the conception of how adaptations might work.

Setting the Record Straight

McCloud’s first step and goal is to legitimize comics. First he looks to identify what comics are as a medium. He borrows Eisner’s term “sequential art”, but the critiques the definition to find out how to examine it more precisely. The definition he finally settles on is “juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” His goal is to look at what the essential properties of the medium defined by this definition are, beyond the content that makes up work in the medium.

He reviews some of the historical roots of comics, going as far back to the pre-Colombian Mixtec manuscript describing the exploits of “Ocelot’s Claw.” He indicates that this, the Bayeux tapestry, Egyptian paintings (not hieroglyphs), Trajan’s column, Greek painting, and Japanese scrolls all are comics, and form the historical anchor for the origin of comics.

The definition of comics suggested is important for what it leaves out: The content, genre, and subject matter; the materials and tools; the representational rules and constraints; suggesting that all of these are up for grabs.

The Vocabulary of Comics

Comics use an iconographic language. Icons are referential, but they are not equal to their reference. These depend on a language of metaphors and cultural practices of understanding in order to be correctly understood. McCloud describes this as the process of cartooning, which is amplification through simplification. Cartooning strips images down into their essential meanings.

The reason why this works with comics, McCloud suggests, is because of fundamental properties of human cognition, that depend on interaction and identity formation. People will identify with a very simple cartoon, but see a realistic image as implying an otherness. This simplification process is described as being cognitive and embodied. Self awareness is conducted on simplified terms. For example, driving a car involves projecting one’s awareness onto the whole of the car, not just the self within the car.

Cartoons are thus lifelike because we can extend our consciousness into them. There is a transition from realistic to abstract images that occurs on several levels:

  • complex to simple
  • realistic to iconic
  • objective to subjective
  • specific to universal

Words lie in this as well, as words are the ultimate abstractions. Pictures are received information, but writing is perceived information. This introduces a cut along the spectrum of perception to interpretation. A realistic face transitions to a very iconic one, moving from more perceptive to more interpretive, but a description of a face moving from a word to a paragraph moves from simple reception to more active perception. However, moving in this axis, the level of iconicity raises but then declines.

The whole of this defines a system of three axes: picture, reality, and meaning. Comic artists fall within wide ranges of this space through the characteristics of their work.

Blood in the Gutter

Closure is the property of people to complete the missing meaning of something, for instance, imagining that the other side of an object exists when only one side is visible. This is a cognitive property, but also enables images to be understood via small cues. Closure is performed temporally via the spaces (the gutter) in comics, in between panels. This is incidentally the same as the “fill in in the gap” property of narrative in general. To make meaning between a sequence of images, active participation of the reader is necessary to construct meaning and complete the act.

McCloud defines six types of closures:

  1. Moment to moment
  2. Action to action
  3. Subject to subject
  4. Scene to scene
  5. Aspect to aspect
  6. Non sequitur

By far and away, (2) is the most common in American and European comics, but by contrast, (5) is very common and culturally important in Japanese comics. McCloud suggests that this is because Japanese and Eastern culture in general strongly values intervals, with pauses playing an important role in the whole. This indicates an important valuing of minimalism. Western culture is more focused on action and continuity.

Overall, closure is a negotiation between the seen and unseen.

Time Frames

The visual form of the panel has an effect on the perception of time of that panel. Events and actions cause time to stretch and play out over distance. Silent panels illustrate a paused moment, or alternately stretches of time in which nothing happens. McCloud gives a review of the panel language at a technical level, with closed and unclosed panels and bleeds each having expressive qualities. Comics are a still medium that can represent motion, and there are several ways of doing so, by employing different perspectives.

Time is enormously important in narrative theory, and the dimensions that are introduced by comics are really quite astounding.

Living in Line

Lines are used to express mood and evoke senses (this derives partly from Kandinsky, who was interested in the idea of a line being able to stimulate all five senses). Lines are expressive forms, especially around faces. The line has a style and expressivity, which has the capacity to evoke mood and emotion.

Show and Tell

The focus of this section is on words and the image, but it could be extended to include showing and telling in the broader narrative sense. Historically, showing and telling originated together, but became separated over time. With focus of abstract and expressionist art, they turn back together again. A collision of these occurs with Magritte, who indicates the conflict between words and images.

Showing and telling exist in terms of visual versus technical emphasis. McCloud gives an example where a scene is illustrated purely visually, and then accompanied with text, or is only text. Each of these conveys its own meaning, but the combination of image and text causes the reader to evaluate the image in context of the text and the text in context of the image. In this, they become interdependent, the meaning produced by both wholly dependent on the two together.

Showing and telling may trade off, and the ultimate form of comics involves a balance between the two. What is most significant and powerful about comics is the way in which the two may be combined and juxtaposed.

McCloud does not examine in depth the ideas of the conflict between showing and telling literary form itself. Indeed, the text presented in comics tends to automatically assume the role of “telling” because the text is presented clearly and may be simply heard, whereas the image is what must be visually seen. To mix a narrative showing with an image becomes confusing, and the image takes on the role of the illustration, or often the “interpretation” of the textual scene.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMcCloud, Scott
TitleUnderstanding Comics
Tagsmedia theory, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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