07 June 2010

“What Are You Really Seeing?”

In the first two chapters of Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics: The Invisibe Art the author undertakes the task of first defining “Comics” then setting up a vocabulary to examine them, probably to aid the reader in understanding the subsequent chapters of the book. As David Kunzle did in The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825, McCloud first gives comics a proper definition. In Chapter Two he identifies terms used in analyzing comics, and also sets up principles in which he will chart comics in their artistic style.

Unlike Kunzle, who took a strict four point definition of comics, McCloud choose a definition that boils down to one sentence: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” However, like Kunzle, McClould examines the roots of comics, as they fit his definition specifically, and finds examples in a picture manuscript discovered by Cortes, in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 1300 B.C. He also examines more modern “Comics” including non-traditional examples that fit his definition such as Max Ernest's A Week of Kindness which is a sequence of collages that is definitely sequential, thus meeting his definition. McCloud ends the chapter by stating that “Our Attempts to define comics are an ongoing process which won't end anytime soon.” This seems to allow for the definition to be rewritten as new forms of comics are created.

In Chapter two, McCloud identifies some terms and ideas that will apparently be necessary to understand in order to proceed in the book. He explains the word “icon” and how it pertains to comics. McCloud also demonstrates “the masking effect” in which an artist will use simplistic looking characters in very detailed realistic backgrounds, explaining that we can more easily identify, or mask, ourselves with a simplistic character. A triangular chart is used to show how comic style can be charted as it pertains to Reality, Meaning, and the Picture Plane. By using this chart McCloud makes it apparent how comic styles vary, and how they are alike.

The book is written in the comic style, with picture and text, and McCloud takes full advantage of it. In doing so he shows us the power of the medium. The visual examples are excellent, and necessary to show some of the complicated notions he is explaining. There is also quite a bit of humor in the book, which makes it very easy to read.

The definition McCloud creates in Chapter 1 seemed to be more logical than Kunzle's. He uses “intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” rather than “a story which is both moral and topical.” Granted, I don't believe McCloud was as concerned with qualifying his definition as Kunzle was, considering what each of their books is about. Nonetheless, I do like McCloud's definition more. The historical perspective that he uses is also as fun as it is informative, fitting in well with the rest of the book.

One of the most interesting parts of Chapter Two was how McCloud demonstrates that in a simplistic drawing of a face we can most easily see ourselves. I was blown away at how well he was able to show a concept that I had lived with my whole life but was never aware of. Yet when he asks “What are you really seeing?” about a simple face drawn by combining a circle with two dots and a line, my instinctive answer was “myself.” McCloud then shows how when we are engaged in conversation with another person, while we have a very realistic mental image of them, the mental image of ourselves is far from realistic, more simple, like a cartoon. The connection makes perfect sense. When I read Calvin and Hobbes as a kid I was Calvin. I could easily imagine myself crusading around in costume as The Dark Knight. When the features are obscured, even by a costume, you can easily relate to the character, even become the character. In showing this McCloud has really revealed to me the power of comics.


  1. Excellent post, B. I'm glad you could see your younger self relating to his point about seeing ourselves as those characters when we're kids.

    I'm also glad someone finally hit on McCloud's definition :-)

  2. Great insight! I look forward to discussing McCloud in class with you!