27 February 2012

Uncharted Territory


In his article, “Inventing Comics: Scott McCloud's Definition of Comics,” comics’ artist Dylan Horrocks discusses the hits and misses in Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

Horrocks begins by referring to McCloud’s Understanding Comics as a polemic, a type of argument in which one side attempts to establish complete superiority of their own argument over their opposition’s. Horrocks argues that McCloud has an agenda for his book and that McCloud is not the least bit discreet about it. Horrocks states that McCloud is primarily hoping to shatter the stereotypes in comics, because here exists the underlying problem: not that people believe comics are merely unsophisticated, childish art, but that people believe that this is all comics can be. Secondly, McCloud attempts to rid comics of their embarrassing history because this, rather than comics’ potential, is what most people associate with the medium. According to Horrocks, McCloud uses references to historical artwork such as Hogarth's own narrative sequences and Toppfer's picture stories to provide credibility to the medium.

Horrocks asserts that McCloud ingeniously and inconspicuously replaces the old definition of comics with a new one by simply reusing the word “comics.” Horrocks writes that by using the old word for his new definition, McCloud is seamlessly replacing any pre-conceived definitions for the word with his own. Horrocks claims that “closure” is McCloud’s most valued process, which makes “sequential art” a useful definition for him because “sequential art” makes closure a necessity. Horrocks asserts that this is essentially McCloud’s reasoning behind choosing this particular definition, and that most people take it to heart without challenging it; they just accept it as the truth.

Horrocks has a negative opinion on the boundaries that most artists situate in art forms. He claims that boundaries can limit us and aren’t necessarily a good thing. Essentialists are those who believe that all art forms are unique and that only art that captures these unique aspects of their medium are “good” art. Essentialists believe that art should stay within its borders and not “mongrelize” itself with other art forms. Contrarily, Horrocks believes that only when we eliminate these boundaries are we liberated and permitted to explore freely in a whole universe of endless possibilities. Horrocks also points out that although McCloud’s definition opens up many doors, it still creates its’ own boundaries. For instance, Horrocks claims that McCloud excludes single images from his definition of comics and eventually amends his definition to exclude children’s books because the pictorial narrative does not dominate the textual narrative. The pictures must be able to communicate the whole story on their own, with only supplement from the text.

Next, Horrocks discusses the issue of form vs. content. He argues that when comics are defined by their content -- genre, styles, medium -- their readers are left with a narrow spectrum. However, more possibilities are opened up when they are defined by form. The definition of “sequential art” allows this. Horrocks argues that McCloud defines “sequential art” as comics’ form, thus making it essential, while comics’ content is then left elective, which are merely more options to put into the vessel that is comics. Horrocks maintains that through his form vs. content metaphor, McCloud attempts to convey the idea that even if you don’t appreciate the content of certain comics, you can still appreciate the form itself.

In Horrocks’ view, McCloud does not wish to “eradicate” all borders, but rather seeks to expand them and “claim more space.” Borders, however, are one concept with which Horrocks is not in agreement with McCloud. Although McCloud’s new definition widens the borders that contain the medium of comics, this is not enough for Horrocks; he wants more yet. Personally, I think McCloud’s definition was a good place to start, which is exactly what McCloud himself states. However, I agree with Horrocks that borders can limit and stifle comics’ creativity. In order for comics to begin reaching their full potential, artists must be like true explorers and wander not implicitly inside of the “borders” of comics, but also outside of them. I agree that McCloud’s book is a great reference, but it should not be the only one. As Horrocks puts it, “for all the exciting new territory it opens up, it is still only one map.”

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