Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part I: Understanding Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics is incredibly addictive. I bought it on a gift card on Saturday despite having already read it cover-to-cover, mostly as a reference for my own ideas, and proceeded to read it cover-to-cover all over again. Oddly, I’ve been to two different Barnes and Nobles three different times, and the latter two times both Barnes and Nobles had Understanding Comics and its second sequel, Making Comics, but not the first, Reinventing Comics. As Reinventing is the book I’m most interested in for this weeklong series, as it’s the book with Scott McCloud’s thoughts on the then-burgeoning form of webcomics, I’m going to see if I can still procure it or at least read it. (Oddly, Reinventing is not even the first hit for its own name on barnesandnoble.com, Making is and Reinventing is third and has no cover image. So basically B&N treats it like the bastard stepchild of the series. But I did see it the first time I peeked into a Barnes and Noble to peek at Understanding, and even read a bit of the beginning…) At some point as well, I want to read other dissections of comics, such as Will Eisner’s McCloud-recommended Comics and Sequential Art and anyone following in McCloud’s footsteps, just to get more perspectives.

The funny thing about Understanding Comics is that it’s not just about comic books, but to some extent or another, about all art forms. And I’m not just talking about Chapter 7, which focuses on McCloud’s vision of the creative process for any work of art. As if to prove McCloud’s point (and then-novel idea) that comics were just as much an art form as anything else, McCloud discusses comics and other art forms side by side throughout the book. To take one example, part of Chapter 4, mostly a discussion of time in comics, casts the idea of the “motion line” in comics (and later refinements on it) as the answer to the question of motion on a static image some in the “high” visual arts had struggled with early in the twentieth century. But even that is a fairly weak example (and really, McCloud returns to the visual arts in particular throughout the book, as static painting/drawing and comics are cognate art forms (or cognate media), for a reason I’ll get to later).

Chapter 2 deconstructs the appeal of the cartoon (distinguished as an artistic style from the medium of comics) as an extention of the reader/viewer, by deconstructing the way we see ourselves, going so far as to completely ignore its ease of drawing, to explain its popularity not only in comics but in any form of animation. Chapter 3 compares the extrapolation of events between panels to the portrayal of events “off-screen” in those same media. In addition to the discussion of motion, Chapter 4 also compares and contrasts the concept of the present “now” with film and television and brings up the specter of “viewer participation” in media of all stripes. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the very origins of language, and the latter effectively sees comics as a means of returning to the ideal union of words and pictures, and discusses the obstacles facing the genesis of any medium.

If I have an issue with it on first read, it’s mostly the clunkiness of the end of each chapter (except the first) and the end of the book. The “recaps”, perhaps inspired by the “hourglass” model of long-form argument taught in English class, are clunky and come off as unnecessary. This is why I have problems properly wrapping up my posts sometimes, because the main, predominant form of ending posts of the lengths I sometimes write is one that doesn’t appeal to me and I don’t think I’ve found anything better. (If anything, McCloud gets worse at this as he goes along; other than Chapter One, Chapter Two is the least clunky chapter ending.)

There are also some problems with the content, though I think I would have fewer of them than some others would. McCloud distinguishes between six different types of panel transitions but comes close to throwing out two of them: “moment-to-moment” is really a slow “action-to-action”, and the “non-sequitur” may not even exist, since either multiple non-sequiturs in a row become scene-to-scene, subject-to-subject, or even aspect-to-aspect, or a single non-sequitur that’s continued from is really a form of scene-to-scene. I might add that aspect-to-aspect is arguably a form of subject-to-subject that’s somewhat arbitrarily distinguished from it mostly in order to distinguish Japanese comics from their Western counterparts.

Also, I have some trouble with McCloud’s six-step creative process, especially the specifics of the third part, the “idiom”, which is never quite clarified as well as it could be. The way I see it, what McCloud means by “idiom” is all the stuff that can be used to describe the work other than the singular, basic “point” of it. To say that something “has a kissing scene” is different than to say it’s “about kissing”. But I wouldn’t be surprised if others have different interpretations, and especially, the distinction between that, “structure”, “craft”, and “surface” can be somewhat unclear, especially for non-comics media – and if you do distinguish “idiom” from the other three, you then have to distinguish it from “idea/purpose” and “form”! And I would suggest that “idiom” sometimes (especially in other media) goes hand-in-hand with “craft”. I often write stuff with no attention paid at all to “structure”, and let the ideas flow onto the page as they may. I decide the “surface” aspects will come out naturally as I write (and so I rarely edit) as well, so “structure” and “surface” come out naturally following “craft”.

Oh, and the “backwards” development of most comics artists may no longer be 100% true simply because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of Understanding Comics: since the book was released, people have gotten more self-conscious about the process. And despite its nature as a dissertation on all art, I don’t really see it as doubling as a manual for designing for the computer the way some people do…

But again, I came for McCloud’s thinking in Reinventing Comics which oddly, made him a god in webcomics but – by his own reckoning – tarnished his Understanding-built reputation and made him a pariah in the print field. And there is, from what I hear, plenty to deconstruct in Reinventing Comics. But first, I want to point out the irony in that Reinventing is de facto an attempt at doing for webcomics within the broader comics field what Understanding did for comics within the broader domain of all the arts: defend the former as a legitimate part of the latter.

In Part II, I’ll start examining the similarities and differences between webcomics and their print counterparts and begin examining the state of webcomics at the present time. As the series goes along, I hope to examine what McCloud got right that may not have been recognized yet – and what he got wrong and why.

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