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.

Quick thoughts on the Super Bowl

  • If I were putting together NBC’s opening sequence, I would have made a few more changes to the opening song. For example, instead of “waiting all day”, how about “waiting all year”? And how can you pass up the fact that “forty-three” rhymes with “NBC” and so could have been inserted into the song with few other changes? You won’t get anything like this until Super Bowl 70!
  • I hate to disagree with Roger Goodell, but this game did not top last year’s game. This game does have the advantage over Super Bowl XLII, and XXXVIII, that the first half was not boring as hell. But while this game did produce some landmark, all-time Super Bowl plays, those individual marks can’t really compare with a great game – this game was just like any other Super Bowl from a pre-game angle standpoint, unlike XLII, and the Cinderella team didn’t win, which hurts its standing – in fact I was rooting for Pittsburgh to pull out the win just because it would have been too bizarre otherwise. There are in fact some similarities with XXXVIII, another game people wondered about being the best Super Bowl ever. One of these days I need to go over the game film, or at least the NFL Films distillations, or even compact game stories, of every Super Bowl and rank the greatest ever. FSN’s “The Sports List” did a ranking probably around the time of XL, maybe even before XXXVIII. Obviously, that list needs a serious update.
  • Is it too early to start talking about Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame credentials? Remember, in the lead-up to the Super Bowl people were talking about Kurt Warner’s Hall of Fame credentials now that he had reached three Super Bowls with two different teams. Now Roethlisberger has been to one fewer Super Bowl and won two, becoming just the tenth QB in NFL history to do so, and not completely throwing up in the second. Not to mention his leadership in the regular season. If there’s a knock against him it’s that he’s leading a team composed of a bunch of parts that might win Super Bowls without him, but then again that was the knock against Tom Brady for a while as well. If he so far as makes one more Super Bowl, is he a shoo-in for the Hall? And is it possible that his final drive in this game, which had Steve Young positively salivating on ESPN’s NFL Primetime, is the one that puts him in the Hall?
  • Speaking of ESPN, and lists, about your “Top 10” Super Bowl plays: Your own analysts, who clamored for Manning-to-Tyree to beat out Roethlisberger-to-Holmes for #1, are correct. What you should have done was rank the Harrison INT return significantly further back, in the middle or even near the back, since it was one of those sideshow gimmicky plays that come out of the blue every once in a while in the Super Bowl. By ranking it #3, you forced the Holmes play to #1 to avoid consecutive plays from the same game. Probably the main reason you rated the Holmes play #1 was because it actually scored the game-winning TD, but it arguably makes Manning-to-Tyree greater that it attained such greatness without actually scoring. (Incidentially, initially I rendered “Holmes” as “Burress”. What does that tell you?)
  • Am I the only one who noticed that the clock briefly stopped at two minutes left in the game when Roethlisberger barely got a play off, then started again as the clock operator realized there was a play going on, and the discrepancy was never corrected? How might that have influenced Arizona’s final drive? The game-ending fumble would have only occured with two seconds or so left on the clock! You think Arizona would be working a bit quicker? And am I the only one who thinks that on the play to the 5 on Pittsburgh’s final drive, the main reason the Steelers called a timeout was that the receiver (I think it was Holmes) was a little lazy getting back to the line of scrimmage, as though he didn’t quite realize the situation? The Steelers might have needed that timeout to set up a field goal with a few seconds left on the clock if the Cardinals had been able to get a stop. I think there was one other “Am I the only one who noticed that” in there, but damned if I can remember it now.

I have plenty to say about the ads in a later post, where I hope to hand out awards for the ads, and some comments on NBC’s modified banner for the game, which is also an opportunity to talk about ESPN’s new tennis banner it broke out at the Aussie Open. There were a LOT of great ads in the second half of this game. Lineal titles updated for the offseason.