16 June 2010

Critiquing Comics

In Inventing Comics: Scott McCloud's Definition of Comics, Dylan Horrocks critically analyzes the rhetoric of McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Identifying it as polemic, as apposed to a “simple, disinterested scientific argument,” Horrocks picks apart many of the persuasive elements of McCloud's book. It soon becomes evident that Horrocks disagrees with the borders McCloud has “drawn” around comics, claiming the “Map” or “Nation” McCloud is trying to create limits creativity, and discourages “Nationalists” from overstepping the boundaries and exploring new areas.

Horrocks explains that in creating an argument that comics can be “limitless and exciting,” McCloud employs a dichotomy of “form VS. content.” That McCloud seeks to separate the message from the messenger. If form becomes the “vessel” and the content is all optional then we can disassociate the “crude, poorly drawn, semiliterate, cheap, and disposable kiddie fare” from the greatness that comics as a vessel can attain. According to Horrocks this is also the first step McCloud takes in erasing and revising the history of comics, and history of language and pictures for that matter. Horrocks also complains that the chosen definition of the vessel, which he notes as “Sequential Art,” is only a preference of McCloud, and may not actually represent what really makes up “comics.”

McCloud's agenda, according to Horrocks, is to remap the territory of comics to bring it out of the “ghetto.” He claims that McCloud uses many geographical metaphors, and this is evidence of his plan to stake out a comic “Nation” and to “Map” its territory. Horrocks explains that while pictures and words reside in this domain, it is primarily the domain of pictures. He references McCloud multiple times stating that in comics, pictures must carry the burden of telling the story, only to be supplemented by words. To Horrocks, these well defined borders serve only to limit what comics can accomplish. Horrocks essay asserts that while McCloud intended to give comics a definition that unlocks their potential, he has only served to create borders that will limit comics. While Horrocks uses maps “to wander outside their delineated borders every time I feel the scenery is getting a little stale,” he obviously worries that other creators, these comic nationalists, will stay within the confines McCloud has set for them. Anyone stuck in the borders of McCloud's Comic Land would not be free to wonder, as Horrocks does, "why can’t you have a comic without pictures?"

I wasn't really sure what the point of Horrocks' essay was until I read the conclusion. I still couldn't decided whether it was an exercise in critiquing comics, namely McCloud's comic, or and essay regarding mapping boundaries in art. Horrocks obviously had a kind of a love-hate relationship with McCloud's Book. While he grouped himself in with the comic fans that adopted it, he also, sometimes reachingly, picked apart McCloud's rhetoric even when there seemed no need to. It seemed a bit ridiculous that Horrocks actually claimed that McCloud's geographical metaphors were part of his grand scheme to “map” comics. Is McCloud actually not allowed to use words like bounds, territory, frontier, chart, and universe in a less than literal sense?

Horrocks also seems to have the magical ability to dance around these borders that would seem impassible to everyone else. Apparently any guidelines created around comics would set up an imposing wall to all but Horrocks, even though McCloud admits “our attempts to define comics are an on-going process.” Several times McCloud challenges readers to push the limits and move these borders, yet Horrocks still acts as if they are immovable.

All in all, while I was impressed with parts of Horrocks essay, such as his knowledge of comics, his writing style, and his ability to break down rhetoric, I was not convinced. I feel that there are a few holes in his argument, and at times he was critical for criticism's sake; he used criticism when it did not actually add to his thesis or point. McCloud's definition still stands as a guideline, not a border, and Horrocks has only proven his prowess in literary criticism, and not that his concern for the creativity of comics stands true.


  1. wow brandon... and i thought i was wordy! ;) good job. while i believe that Horrocks did in fact show rhetorical weaknesses in McCloud's work, I am, as you are, a McCloud fan even now!

  2. Excellent point, B. But hopefully, after we broke down Horrocks' rhetoric in class today, you don't feel like your buddy McCloud is being attacked ;-)