There is a lot to talk about in regards to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, particularly in regards to the role of the reader in comics. From basically the outset, McCloud makes it clear that the role of the reader is far more active than what we might think of readers being, especially when it comes to comics, an art form that’s still so stigmatized that we, as a culture, have decided that comic that doesn’t have superheroes or fantasy is more aptly called a “graphic novel” (see: Maus, Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, Persepolis or Citizen 13660, all comic books, but all frequently billed as graphic novels instead). It’s also interesting that McCloud shows how collaborative the efforts of comic books are between the artists/writers, but also the creators/consumers.
It’s curious to me that McCloud posits interpreting the icons, as he calls them, a job of the reader, mostly because it makes me wonder how much further we could go with that. If a writer writes a novel and their intent doesn’t match the message the readers understand from the writing, we label it a failure on their part. Could we say the same of comics, or because so much of it is left to the reader (interpreting the pictures, figuring out confusing sequences of panels, matching onomatopoeias with the sounds they’re meant to portray), is a failure of understanding, of authorial intent not meeting reader interpretation, a failure on the part of the reader? To a certain point, we could certainly say things like poorly composed panels, onomatopoeias being separated from their sounds or different organization of the typical understanding of how to read comics being a failure of the author to present their intent clearly, but what about things like readers not all seeing a human stand-in as human? What about different art forms/styles?
Is failure even the right word?
Beyond this, McCloud brings up one of my favourite things in all of writing: character’s standing in for the reader. On 36, he discusses the role of the cartoon, of simple drawings representing real-life humans as a place for the reader to step in and assume the role of the protagonist (or, I guess any character, though I think the protagonist is most often the one readers want to be), and how the more simplistic a drawing, the more people it represents.
When Twilight came out (bear with me here), one of the most common critiques of it was that the main character, Bella, was flat, was never described with any certainty and exhibited an extreme lack of personality, beliefs and goals (all valid critiques, in my opinion). However, it quickly became clear that this was Twilight’s (and a lot of Harlequin/Nicholas Sparks/what-have-you romances) strong point: by leaving Bella’s features and character so empty, it was much easier for the reader to get into the book, to take up the part of Bella and ~fall in love with Edward too~ (this was problematic in that the entire relationship is… unhealthy at best, but we won’t get into that). Comics, it would seem, have this same strong point. The more simplistic the comic, the more room for identity of the reader to take over. Perhaps this is part of the reason why comics have been so lasting, have connected with millions of people across the world since at least the beginning of D.C. in the late 1930s, though as McCloud shows, earlier too (though I’m not sure that this principle applies as neatly to Egyptian mural and art gallery paintings as characters in masks that don’t show their facial features).
Two last things: McCloud states at one point that the confluence of story and art set forth by Jack Kirby may be drifting apart as America clamors for more realism in its comics. I don’t necessarily agree that this is happening anymore (though in the 90s? Marvel comics, at least, had a pretty ugly realistic-but-not-quite style, I agree). I present several examples: Webcomics, as a whole, tend to be pretty simplistic (somewhat to keep up with the demand for weekly comics from most readers and also because most webcomics are drawn, lined, inked, lettered, written, flatted and shaded all by one person).
But even in high-budget, full-team productions, comics are beginning to trend toward simplicity over realism: Matt Fraction and David Aja’s “Hawkeye” was drawn with a color palette of about four colors per issue and came out in 2012. Ryan North’s “Squirrel Girl” is all round lines and basic shading (sorry, you won’t find cross hatching there. Personally, I don’t miss it), and that’s still coming out. “Scott Pilgrim,” arguably one of the most popular comics in all of the mid-2000s, which spawned a movie, was black-and-white and nowhere near realistic, which is a major part of what made it fun. All of these that I’ve listed are ones that friends of mine who are just plain disinterested in most comics have read, and were wildly popular. I think the convergence of story and simpler form is coming back, and thank god for that. I can only take so much heavily shaded art and standard lettering before I get… maybe a little tired.
Last thing: I love the small details in this comic. McCloud, from the very beginning, establishes himself as an authority on comics, not from years of study or working in the industry (alone), but through the sheer amount of small details he throws in that show us he’s been a fan of comics for a long, long time. My favourite example of this is on page 2, bottom row, rightmost panel. On his comic, it says “The Really Old X-Men: by Stan & Jack.” He’s talking silver age, y’all. It’s not that important, or even that like, hidden, but I really appreciated it as someone who’s grown up with comics and loved them longer than I can remember.
Recommended reading: Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye (it’s free through ComiXology, which you can get a 30-day free trial of), The Oatmeal: When your house is burning down, you should brush your teeth, Hyperbole-and-a-half: Menace and/or The God of Cake, Guy Delisle’s Pyongchang: A Journey in North Korea