Comics, however you wish to describe them, are a debatable subject, it would seem. As an art form, medium, or communication device (or simply by categorizing as such) we create borders around what we essentially believe comics truly are. Indeed, Scott McCloud has, himself, stereotyped comics as “bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories, and guys in tights.” McCloud goes on in his book, “Understanding Comics” to define comics for what they are… or what he believes they should be.
Dylan Horrocks gives an astounding analysis of Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.” In his article, Inventing Comics, we are able to see McCloud in new light. Horrocks describes McCloud as a “visionary” with an agenda and calls “Understanding Comics” McCloud’s “manifesto”; an attempt to map the “territory” McCloud wishes to claim for the Comics Nation.
Scott McCloud see’s comics as this infinite art form, a universe waiting to be discovered with limitless possibility and ability. There are no specific genres to obey, no language to submit to, no topics are out of bounds. McCloud has a vision, alright. He also has a definition.
In McCloud’s definition, or rather his idea of comics, we are given ONE example of what comics can be, Will Eisner’s concept of “sequential art”. McCloud takes this concept and fashions it into a definition. Somehow, McCloud takes two words and turns it into “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response from the viewer.”—quite a leap from “sequential art,” as a concept. By defining comics, Horrocks claims that McCloud has formed “an expression of certain values and assumptions.” McCloud has very cleverly told us what we should value more and less about comics simply by defining them.
The concept of sequential art also leads McCloud to make a claim about the form of comics—form being the definitive marker of what makes a comic a comic. The form is specific enough, but are the borders around this format combative with McCloud claim of the limitlessness of comics? Horrocks asserts that “borders are, after all, artificial inventions designed to control the movement of people, commodities and ideas.” He goes on to argue that “[McCloud’s] definition is more than simply a descriptive model; it is also necessarily prescriptive. By reinforcing some values and suppressing others, it can influence the way we read and create comics, discouraging experimentation in some directions and imposing particular narrative structures and idioms.” Since McCloud gives form definition and in turn expectations, it can be assumed that McCloud wishes to limit comics to his own ideas.
Horrocks goes on to explain how McCloud crafts comics into his own definition. Comics, as a community, have a history all their own. What that history is, we do not learn from McCloud. Borrowing from history (i.e. Hogarth’s narrative sequences, wordless novels by Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, and picture books by Maurice Sendak… even the stained glass of cathedrals! ), McCloud claims any “sequential art” that fits his definition of comics. McCloud even makes a myth-history in which pictures evolve into writing. None of these are credible, but they are also often overlooked.
Even so, McCloud has a vision and in that vision, comics can become more than what they are today. His book, “Understanding Comics” is described by Horrocks as “polemic”, “prescriptive”, a “manifesto”—strong natured words that make me think of McCloud as a politician. Comics have a long way to go and McCloud has opened new territory for creators, fans, and people like me, newbies to the Comics Nation. He urges this community to reach beyond stereotypes and genres, to leave this “Ghettoization” Nation and become what comics are destined for. And in McCloud’s Comic Nation, he screams “YES WE CAN!”
We can argue that McCloud’s definition and rhetoric holds no water, but I’m still voting for him!