The Rhetoric of Comics

March 31, 2008

I’m new to the genre of comics. Frankly (and sadly), I have to admit that I used to be of the mind that comics were for kids or nerds (particularly of the Dungeons and Dragons variety). I would have vigorously backed my grandfather’s comment on the matter when I saw him over spring break: When he noticed the source I’m about to comment on in this post, he asked somewhat incredulously, “What’s that you’re reading?” I replied, “It’s a book about how to read and understand comics. And look! It’s written *as* a comic; isn’t that neat?” He looked at the page I held open in front of him and said after a minute of contemplation, “So, you’re going backwards?”

I found myself silently accusing him of being elitist, of ‘not understanding’ the finer points of comics that I myself was only realizing in the real time comprised of each turn of the page. Yes, he’d said it all. Even my mom and dad–always open-minded about my scholarly pursuits–asked upon seeing my interest and involvement with the book on the single day that I visited them, “Is *this* what we’re paying for??” To which I hotly replied, “You’re *not* paying for it. And yes; this is what *I’m* paying for. Comics!”

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

Later in the evening, mom and I settled in our respective furniture crevices–her at one end of the couch, near the end table lamp, and I stretched across the nearby love seat, my ankles dangling over one of the arms–and I decided I’d impart some of McCloud’s wisdom. Mom was about to open her junk food (my term for popular fiction…who’s elitist now?!) mystery novel when I started reading out loud:

“Mom,” I said, “Why is it that we privilege words to the exclusion of images, when sometimes words and images *together* can say so much more than words *alone*? Look here, McCloud shows us in eight panels how ‘words are the ultimate abstraction’ (46-47). Would you have understood me if I simply *told* you that words are the ultimate abstraction? Or if I tried to describe, using words alone, what was happening in these panels, would you have had such a clear revelation?”

Mom said, “That is so cool! I wouldn’t have understood at all without the pictures.”

“That’s what McCloud really excels at,” I replied. “He’s so masterful at finding just the right picture to supplement and augment his text. He even has a word for this technique–it’s called ‘additive combination’ (154). He actually delineates many different ways words and pictures can fruitfully interact with one another in a chapter called ‘Show and Tell.’ Betcha didn’t know comics was so complex!”

Through the course of my chat with mom, I found myself almost becoming McCloud, taking on his passion for disambiguating his craft, for legitimating and taking steps to theorize his genre. The more I read, the worse I felt for casting aside comics as *merely* comics–as if it might not actually be much, much harder to create The Sound and the Fury, one of my favorite “hard” southern novels, as a comic.

One of the most fascinating elements of the comic reading experience is the alchemy that happens between the panels. The “gutter” is so important that McCloud devotes an entire chapter to the space that “plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics” (66).

What I love about the top two panels I’ve posted here is what McCloud goes on to say about the vital role of reader involvement in comics. McCloud brilliantly points out, “I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, what your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style. To kill a man between the panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths” (68-69). *That*, dear reader, is, as we say in the academy, freakin’ awesome!

Truthfully, this isn’t just a book that will do much to silence those who believe comics is junk food reading–all style and no substance. This is a book those who have an innate love of comics and have grown up with them should read to understand (as promised in the title) how the genre works, how it’s evolved, how unlimited it is, and how much it takes from ‘legitimate’ disciplines like creative writing and fine arts.

For instance, check out what McCloud does here:

McCloud’s talking about the fascinating trajectory of words and images across time, in terms of greater and lesser degrees of abstraction. In the 1800s, McCloud argues, words and pictures were about as far apart as they could be on a continuum of concrete representation–you had the photo realists working in the fine arts, and poets like Keats in the literary realm making it quite difficult for ‘the common man’ to comprehend poetic meaning. As the time line fastforwards, art becomes more and more abstract (“expressionism, futurism, dada, surrealism, favuism, cubism, abstract expressionism, neo-plasticism, constructivism” (146)), while poetry becomes much more accessible (Whitman is the representative example (147)). Interestingly, the simpler the language, the more picturesque–the more appropriate for comics. On the other hand, in terms of visual abstraction, McCloud discusses the costs and benefits of realistic versus cartoon representation in comics, and successfully shows that, in large part, the message determines the form.

Here, for instance, he points our that because it’s easier to identify (again, an act of reader involvement) with cartoons, he chose to draw himself in a less realistic style in the hopes that how he looks will matter less, so that what he says can matter more.

For those in Victor’s seminar this semester, I fear my “teaser” here won’t be very effectual since I’m fairly sure the book had its 3 hours of fame in class. For others though, particularly people like me who, without even bothering to read a single comic, had formed an opinion on the matter, this book is a must-read…maybe even a must-own for visual buffs and scholars alike.


2 Responses to “The Rhetoric of Comics”

  1. I have recently discovered the wonderful world of working with comics in a scholarly way, and am trying to find a comic that I could use with my rhetoric students. Any suggestions?

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