Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Understanding McCloud: Defining The Medium of Comics

Because comics as a medium remains somewhat undefined, and because -- in the English speaking world especially -- comics scholarship is still in its infancy, theoretical approaches to comics analysis in practice usually adopt techniques from other disciplines and other media.  One of the distinguishing -- though by no means a necessary or defining -- features of comics is the presence of both image and text.  As a result, comics are often approached as a field from one of three perspectives: comics as literature, comics as art, and comics as a medium of its own.

A great starting point for comics theory is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. McCloud makes a few theoretical assumptions and assertions that we don't necessarily need to agree with, but with which we should be familiar.

McCloud's theoretical agenda is to establish and analyse comics as a medium.  He is deeply invested in establishing comics as a medium in the popular understanding, and in separating the medium of comics from the content.  The medium has been slighted, says McCloud, because of its association in many people's minds with superhero stories for kids. For McCloud, disconnecting the content from the form is a crucial first step.  In McCloud's words: "I realized that comic books were usually crude, poorly drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable, kiddie fare ... but ... they don't have to be." (McCloud 3) In Understanding Comics McCloud attempts to give a coherent account of the medium, often separating it from much of the actual history of comics as they have been published.

For the moment we'll earmark the question of what constitutes a medium (and the related issues regarding differences between an artistic medium and a language, an artistic form, a genre within a medium) and just accept McCloud's assertion that "comics" is in fact a distinct medium.  Accepting that assertion, however, does not mean that we need to accept McCloud's definition of or assumptions about the medium.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  We'll return to some problems with McCloud's conception of the medium once we've actually addressed what that conception is.

McCloud begins Understanding Comics by calling for a definition of comics--a definition that is broadenough to encompass the ""huge and varied" (4) types within the "world of comics", but not "so broad as to include anything which is clearly not comics." (4)  The definition that McCloud settles on, derived from Will Eisner's definition of comics as "sequential art", is "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence" (9).  This definition has its virtues, and it allows McCloud to consider Egyptian painting "comics", and also to imagine the future of comics very differently from the present.  McCloud elaborates his ideas on the future of comics in his follow up to Understanding Comics, the less successful Reinventing Comics.

From McCloud's perspective his formalist definition of the medium of comics is valuable because "no generes are listed in our definition, no types of subject matter, no styles of prose or poetry.  Nothing is said about paper and ink.  No printing process is mentioned ... no materials are ruled out ... no tools are prohibited ... no schools of art are banished by our definition, no philosophies, no movements, no ways of seeing are out of bounds" (22).

In addition to an attempted formal definition, McCloud also provides a pragmatic definition of comics through the rest of the book.  His choice of what to focus on suggests what comics in practice are--at least to McCloud.  The chapters of Understanding Comics are "The Vocabulary of Comics", which is largely about cartoons, "Blood in the Gutter", which introduces McCloud's concept of closure, "Time Frames", in which he posits that in comics time=space, "Living in Line", which is largely about the emotive potential of artistic style, "Show and Tell", about the relationship between words and pictures, "The Six Steps", which is an examination of the art in general and "A Word About Color", which is about colour.  There is also an introductory and a concluding chapter.

As we can see from his choice of chapters--especially the section on colour--McCloud recognizes that comics as a medium is a socio-cultural artifact, not only a theoretical formal construction.  Though he wants to distinguish the medium from its historical incarnation, largely because of what he perceives as stigma attached to that history, he can't really do that.  The section on the cartoon, the section on colour, even the emphasis McCloud places on the gutter, all highlight that what McCloud is really talking about for most of Understanding Comics is not a theoretical formal medium but a socio-cultural artifact.

And that brings me to one of the major problems of McCloud's definition.  A medium is simply not a straightforwardly understood concept.  McCloud argues that "at one time or another virtually all the great media have received critical examination in and of themselves" (6) and he lists examples: "written word, music, video, theatre, visual art, film" (6).  Yet in what way are film and video separate media?  And doesn't the medium of film often include music?  And isn't it created in the first place as written word?  And if I bring a camcorder to a play and tape it, is what I have in the end theater or film?

McCloud defines comics as a medium, but are printed comics part of the medium of print?  If comics are displayed on a tv screen do they become the medium of film?  If a comic is framed and put in an art gallery does it become the medium of visual art?

The point of all these rhetorical questions is to stress that "medium" is far from a clearcut concept.  Neil Cohn wants to separate what he calls "visual language" from the socio-cultural construct of comics, while McCloud does not.  In a future post we will look some more at a few of McCloud's central ideas, including his concept of "closure", but for now, what do you think about attempts to define comics?  Do you agree with McCloud's definition?  What are some of its strengths?  What are its weaknesses?

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