Amazing Montage Magazine

for June, 2000


by Joe Zabel
Literature and Art
Comics and Film
McCloud's Definition of Art

The Comics Market
Public Perception
Practitioner Diversity
Genre Diversity

The Computer-assisted Artist
Stylistic Considerations of Computer Art
The Computer As Artist
The End of Print?

Infinite Canvases
Becoming Like Film
Sound and Animation
Multimedia Comics
Interactivity and Alternate Pathways

Virtual Reality


Cover, REINVENTING COMICS copyright 2000 by Scott McCloud Scott McCloud's new book doesn't replicate his brilliant pioneering effort, UNDERSTANDING COMICS. The earlier book was the most detailed description of the inner workings of the comics artform ever attempted, and the level of inventiveness he exhibited there is not likely to be repeated.

Rather, REINVENTING COMICS picks up on the ongoing debates comics professionals, fans, and critics engage in every day. It's primary value is in centralizing these discussions in a vehicle, a (hopefully) bestselling book, that will reach the broader public.

McCloud's own insight into these matters is considerable, given his experience as a comic artist, his longtime friendship with independent comics luminaries, his central role in the history of comics, and of course his considerable intelligence and knowledge in many different areas.

UNDERSTANDING COMICS expressed McCloud's unbounded optimism about the comics medium; I sympathize with this entirely, but it gave the book an almost Polyannish tone. He also adopted a kid-friendly narrative stragedy, which no doubt helped enormously in getting the book accepted into classrooms. This was combined with the publisher's (understandable) pursuit of advance praise for McCloud's effort, so that the back cover was garnished with glowing comments from every sector of the industry.

Not to mince words, the unintended result was to create a frothy love-letter to the comics establishment that industry fringe elements might find a little grating.

In this regard, the new book is a much more pleasant read. McCloud's optimism is now tempered by the dramatic slide in comics sales that took place shortly after UC was published. He no longer argues that comics are going to take over the world, but rather that they need and deserves to be preserved as a valuable form of artistic expression. This is a far more realistic and compelling thesis.

McCloud's use of comics to express abstract ideas is now economical, polished and self-confident. He relies less now on humor to make his points, and when he tries to be funny, he usually is. He seems to have centered upon a more sophisticated audience, and the book never seems to be a refugee from Sesame Street.

The new book is more distinctly favorable to independent and alternative comics, and distances itself more from mainstream comics. However, unlike more elitist commentators, McCloud has a broader and more accomodating vision of comics' future. Often self-effacing, never corrosively and needlessly confrontational, McCloud has the potential to be a very influential advocate for broadening and diversifying the market.

The following examination not only discuss McCloud's ideas, but questions them, contradicts them, expands upon them, and freely diverges from them. As such, it strays outside the boundaries of an ordinary review. But I think it upholds the spirit of vigorous discussion that McCloud has championed so well.

Literature and Art

McCloud structures the book by identifying 12 revolutions in the comics medium and discussing each individually. Of these, the first two, Comics as Literature and Comics as Art, relate most closely to his first book.

His views in these chapters seem different from the stances of UC, and it's difficult to tell how much of this is because of the different perspective he is taking here (individual works vs. pure theory) and how much of it represents a mellowing of his stance. Covers, Understanding Comics copyright 2000 by Scott McCloud.

It is particularly notable that the word 'icon' is never used (at least I couldn't spot it). McCloud's theory of iconic images was the centerpiece of UC, and worked its way into almost every aspect of his discussion of comics. The closest he comes to mentioning this is in the new book's summary of UC, where McCloud writes, 'Comics is a language. It's vocabulary is the full range of visual symbols, including the power of cartooning and realism, both apart and in startling combinations.' Although he made a similar evenhanded statement at the end of UC, much of that book's text was devoted to theorizing that the simple cartoon image is privileged with unique and special powers to foster reader identification, and is more compatable with text in creating a unified language.

The new book in fact explores the quality of realism in some depth, and analyzes it in terms of stylistic choices, rather than a theoritically inevitable superiority of iconic art.

Nevertheless, I'd still like to register some dissensions from its conclusions:

On page 35, McCloud writes, 'But of course, the realism of a great novel or a short story is about far more than descriptions of surface detail. And the details which may be drawn with such care in prose are often the details of human society, rather than physical environments.'

First, note the comparison of comics with prose fiction, rather than with film. But comics are far more visual than verbal, more film-like than prose-like. And whereas realistic prose fiction often limits its focus on surface detail, realistic film immerses itself in it. More about film later.

He continues on page 36, 'This may be why a growing number of comics creators in pursuit of a sense of the real sometimes opt for styles of drawing that are, at first blush, anything but...' This is adjacent to a page from Seth's IT'S A GOOD LIFE IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN.

Cover, Eightball #21 copyright 2000 by Dan Clowes. His statement about the growing number of creators is a little misleading. Many cartoonists in fact convert from more cartoony styles to more realistic styles when they turn to more realistic stories-- examples of this are Robert Crumb, Jason Lutes, Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Eddie Campbell and Joe Sacco. Cover, SAFE AREA GORAZDE, copyright 2000 by Joe Sacco Conversely, it's hard to come by artists who've changed to less realistic styles for more realistic stories. The only artists who come to mind are Jaime Hernandez, and David Mazzucchelli, but their changes seem to be more an evolution and maturing of their styles, rather than a fitting of style to subject. Jaime sometimes switches from his regular realistic style to a Ketchum-esque cartoony style (as in 'Home School' in PENNY CENTURY #3) but the switch seems connected with the fact that the characters are children.

Also, its an exaggeration to say that Seth's style is 'anything but' realistic-- it's proportions, perspective, details, and lighting brand it a kind of stylized realism.

McCloud continues, 'For even a few simple lines, when placed in sequence, can capture the rhythm of the unbidden images that our eyes encounter every day. The rhythm not of a narrative, a story, or a play put on for our benefit, but of the simple experience of being alive on Earth.'

It's true that a few simple lines can suggest familiar images and, in combination, the rhythm of life. But more realistic artwork can also suggest this. And stylized depictions of reality carry with them the implications of the particular style. Cover, PALOOKAVILLE, copyright 2000 by Seth Seth's work, for example, projects an elegant New Yorker sensibility; he may be depicting a slum, but we don't feel the slum; we always feel as if we're having dinner in a fancy restaurant. Conspicuous style can be turned to the artists' advantage, but it must be acknowledged as a factor in a realistic depiction.

On page 37, McCloud writes, 'Realism and the art of caricature might seem strange bedfellows, but comics artists who employ the art of exaggeration often succeed at capturing the wide variety of real world human appearances in a way many more restrained and 'serious' creators do not.' This is adjacent to a montage of faces by Will Eisner.

One problem here is that McCloud doesn't identify the "restrained and 'serious'" creators coming under fire. Is he talking about Joe Kubert, Paul Chadwick, Alex Ross? Cover, BATMAN copyright 2000 by Alex Ross, DC COMICS If he were more specific, it might be possible to analyze their shortcomings differently.

I agree that some exaggeration is necessary to capture a sense of the real when working in a medium of simple line drawing. In this regard, the Eisner faces are close to 'straight' realism, being anatomically accurate within the degree of precision that a half-inch square portrait allows. Also, they are representative of real individuals.

In addition, exaggeration and caracature serve a function McCloud hasn't noted-- they help to visually distinguish one character from another-- something that can be a problem when the characters aren't all wearing insignias on their chests.

But caricature has an inherent problem when it is used as a means of projecting character. Appearance in the natural world does provide clues about personality; but caricature can be a shortcut for telegraphing an entire character, often a simplistic one, when behavior-based characterization would be a better approach. This is the very kind of 'cheap manipulation' McCloud warns about on p. 39.

Otherwise, McCloud's views on realism are on the money, especially the way he connects it with social consciousness. His discussion of 'moments within moments' shows real insight into what realism is all about. In the fantasy and satire-saturated medium of comics, his advocacy of realism is a welcome development.

Comics and Film

The new book sheds some light on McCloud's attitude towards film. UNDERSTANDING COMICS made only a few vague criticisms of cinematic art, and had no books on film in its otherwise broadly-based bibliography. This has always struck me as odd, since film and comics are obviously related in form and history, and comics professonals often use cinematic terms like 'closeup'.

In the new book, McCloud does grapple with cinematic comparisons briefly. On p. 33 McCloud writes that in comics, unlike film, 'the combination of simpler, more selective imagery and comics many frozen moments lends a less fleeting, less transitory feeling to each moment, imbuing even incidental moments with a potentially symbolic charge.'

While I agree with the praise of comics, I think the statement goes too far in establishing a quality for comics at cinema's expense. It presumes that because the cinematic image is fleeting, its symbolism is not registered. Few students of film would agree. As a matter of fact, McCloud on the facing page pointed out the symbolism of a reflection in the glasses of a character from Jason Lutes' JAR OF FOOLS. This very form of symbolism has anticedents in, and was probably inspired by, motion picture closeups.

The problem I believe he's grappling with here is how to establish comics as an essential artform which is not redundant to film.

Preserving a rationale for comics as an artform is a legitimate concern for comics theorists. But it's a missed opportunity that McCloud doesn't focus more on the many parallels between comics and film. Cartoonists have learned from film and will continue to do so. The art of cinema provides many hints of the directions comics can and should take.

On page 39, McCloud writes, 'In considering comics creators' relationships with their audience, though, it's worth noting that those bonds are far different from the ones forged in cinema and prose. The partnership between creator and reader in comics is far more intimate and active than cinema, while comics symbolic static images may cut straight to the heart without the continual mediation of prose's authorial voice.'

Once again, McCloud is asserting qualities for comics at the expense of other artforms. Is the reading of a boiler-plate superhero comic more intimate than the viewing of the film CRUMB, or more active than attempting to comprehend a Godard film? Poster, Godard's BREATHLESS And can't a well-turned phrase in a work of prose cut straight to the heart as well as any symbolic static image?

Where do comics fit in the spectrum of narrative artforms? I think they are the halfway point between prose and film, and their appeal and strengths very much overlap these other forms. They may have a battle on their hands to maintain their nitch, but within that nitch, they have the best of both worlds.

Like prose, they are the product of one creator or a few creators in collaboration. That makes them more personal and idiosyncratic. It also democratizes them-- nobody needs to negotiate a development deal in order to start writing a novel or drawing a graphic novel.

Just as prose fiction has an omnipresent, personalizing style through which the events are viewed (what McCloud calls 'the continual mediation of prose's authorial voice'), the cartoonist's drawing style personalizes what is depicted-- for Crumb, a sleek business district looks like a slum; for Seth, a slum takes on a chic atmosphere.

Also, as in prose, the reader has control of the experience. A phrase can be reread to savor its meaning. An image can be studied.

But like cinema, comics are visual, with all the exciting possibilities of visual storytelling. While prose describes the essense of things, and leaves the surface appearance to the reader's imagination, comics and film show the surface, and invite the viewer to speculate on the essence.

Audience participation is essential in making a story vivid and involving. All three media have elements of audience participation, but in different forms and in different degrees.

Prose is heavily dependent on audience participation, because everything that takes place must be visualized based only upon words. Each person that reads a story 'sees' it differently, based on their own experiences and imagination.

A Film director can choose to reduce audience participation to practically zero by methodically showing everything from every angle. But no professional filmmaker would ever do so, because the short duration of films requires a great deal of compression. Rather, a few shots, a few sound effects, the actors words and expressions are used to convey in seconds what would take minutes or hours to establish literally.

Also, filmmakers are quite aware of the power of our imaginations to create experiences no camera could capture. Audiences of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT Still, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, copyright 2000 by Artisan Films never saw the murders or the murderers, only some grotesque twig ornaments and a tiny package of something red. But that was all that was needed to inspire many a sleepless night.

Comics have an approach to audience participation much like film, but are signifigantly more restricted. Drawings replace photography, static images replace motion, text replace dialog and sound effects. But like film, scenes are built by a series of shots, suggesting a complete picture while only providing a partial one.

Another way of looking at audience participation, particularly regarding fantasy, is that prose, in the form of a novel, a comics script, or a screenplay, evokes images of fantastical beings and places in our imaginations. This inspires cartoonists and other artists, who transform the imagined form of them into illustrations. These illustrations, in turn, provide the basis for filmmakers to construct the costly special effects necessary to commit these images to film. The illustrator or cartoonist plays a vital, if unappreciated, role in this process. And this certainly helps explain the importance of fantasy genres to comics.

McCloud has more to say about film in his section on online comics, and we'll take up the discussion again when we consider that section.

McCloud's Definition of Art

McCloud's aesthetic discussion also revives his ambitious attempt from UNDERSTANDING COMICS to define the meaning of the word 'art.' But his latest attempt to wrestle with this issue is thwarted at the outset.

On page 45, he writes, 'First of all, I think we should remove the focus from the objects or products of art-- and look instead at the process. Art as a branch of human behavior.'

But this turns out to be a conceptual dead-end, because McCloud's discussion ends up focusing on the artist's intentions. On page 49 he writes, 'But what if his efforts are neither profitable nor appreciated? What if he had nothing to gain from painting and knows it, yet continues to do it anyway? What possible motive could Arnie have? If the only answer is "the work"-- then as far as I'm concerned, you're dealing with an artist. Capital "A" artist. "Fine" artist. The real thing.'

McCloud qualifies this statement somewhat, but nonetheless, there are four fundamental problems with this line of reasoning:

One, neither the observer nor the artist themselves can ever really know what the artist's intensions were. Any effort to use this concept as a critical standard would be grossly absurd. Related to this is the unsolvable problem it creates in judging collaborative works.

Two, McCloud is vague about the origin of this supposed motive that lacks self-interest. Is he actually talking about a non-biological motive? If so, the logical conclusion is that the motive he's talking about must have an extra-biological source-- in other words, it must come from religion, the spirit world or from space aliens! Those of us who are unbelievers will have a serious problem with any such speculation.

Three, the unavoidable conclusion from this is that an artist with self-interested motives cannot produce true art. But wouldn't it be more reasonable to argue that an artist whose efforts are strongly and clearly motivated by self-interest might be driven to a higher level of excellence?

And four, all the pure artistic intentions in the world don't amount to a micron-high deposit of termite droppings if the work itself isn't any good!

As a portray of the artist as a rebel and non-conformist, McCloud's discussion has merit. The comics field is plagued by too many craftsman who turn a cold shoulder to high ideals.

McCloud paints a romantic vision of the artist's experience on page 50-- 'Evolution sets a narrow path. The great variety of our actions hides the fact that nearly every one of them carries us in the same direction; fulfilling our evolutionary mandate; locked in the parade of a million generations. Thinking we stray far more than we do.

'The artist breaks step... Moves laterally... Sees the world... Sees inside... And sees the parade.'

I sympathize with this. It's an appealing, inspiring argument. I just happen to have a higher regard for evolution, and think that fine art DOES fulfill our evolutionary mandate.

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