There are people out there who know more about the Marvel and DC Universes than I ever will. People who can name every single Lantern Corps and at least three prominent members of each. People who know that Booster Gold has done more for the multiverse than Batman ever will, and can tell you in excruciating detail why and how.
I can hold my own, of course: I can name all five Robins and give respectable arguments for my favorites. If you name a Marvel hero I could probably name which side of the Registration Act issue he or she fell on. Maybe the most convincing proof I can offer that I’m a True Believer is the fact that I actually envy the people who know more than me.
One might wonder why anyone would envy such a dubious accomplishment. The answer is simple: because Marvel and DC are comic books and comic books are Marvel and DC. No matter what my relationship is with the medium, no matter how long it’s been a part of my life, no matter how much I can tell you about indie authors like Craig Thompson or Marjane Satrapi, there is a certain and very odd kind of street cred carried by the people who know the chemical difference between adamantium and vibranium.
It’s telling that the spandex-clad cliches of the old guard still define the medium of the graphic novel to the extent they do. Mention the term ‘comic books’ and what comes to peoples’ minds are tights-wearing superheroes, campy dialogue and the casual use of that questionable term, ‘multiverse’. Assumptions like these are certainly less true than ever these days; more and more, titles that were avant-garde obscurities twenty years ago are being recognized as works of popular literature now, perhaps even as classics.
Still, it’s hard to see what made these works so avant-garde in the first place. Read Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and its sequels (together composing an autobiographical epic history of a fictional row of tenement buildings in Depression era New York) and it’s hard to tell what made this story so revolutionary. For all its brilliance, it doesn’t drift that far away from the conventions of traditional artwork or storytelling.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen seems a little closer to revolutionary, but even two decades has been enough to dull its edge substantially. Movies like “The Dark Knight” have made it easy for us to believe that a superhero story can be real art. Twenty years ago, this wasn’t a fact to be taken for granted.
We can, of course, ask ourselves the mostly-rhetorical question of what exactly made these books so unconventional and world-shaking back in their own day. But we know, don’t we? What made them so remarkable was their suggestion that a comic book can tell a story for grown ups. That the medium might produce storytellers who could, a hundred years from now, be mentioned in the same breath as Woolf and Ibsen and Dickens and Dumas.
But I digress. All of this is just a really roundabout way of segueing into my main point:
Scott McCloud is a motherfracking genius who can destroy you with his mind. Bow before him, for you live only because he continues to permit it.
I’ve had a relationship with comic books as long as I can remember. I’ve read plenty of prose adaptations of theRamayana and the Mahabharata- the great Indian epics- but as odd as it is to admit, most of what I know about the oldest stories of my culture (and the world) originally comes from the Amar Chitra Katha line of comic books: a series that retells Indian myths, folk tales, scriptural stories and historical anecdotes. Then, after coming to the States, I was constantly reading the Big Two as well as a wide variety of indie titles. But I always read them as a distraction- as a break from the all-important work of stuffing my brain with prose fiction. As much as I would defend to the death, even in my early teens, such masterpieces as Craig Thompson’s Blankets or Neil Gaiman’sSandman series, I always thought of comic books as a sort of poor man’s cinema, a way of combining narrative storytelling with visual art and doing so without a multimillion dollar budget.
Scott McCloud completely changed my mind.
Understanding Comics, somewhat self-referentially, is itself a comic book- an incredible literary feat in its own right. Imagine taking the most complicated paper you wrote as an undergrad on literary theory or any other appropriately abstract subject, then expanding it to a couple hundred pages. Now try taking half of the text you wrote, and drawing it. The man wrote a book-length essay about literary theory in comic book form. And he made it fun to read. That’s all I need to know to be convinced I don’t want to run into him in a dark alley. The being that can communicate a complex literary theory using pictures is not one whom I want to look upon lightly, lest his pandimensional Lovecraftian visage drive me mad.
McCloud divides the book into history, technique and theory. While the sections on history and technique are a fascinating read (not to mention mandatory for anyone with aspirations in the medium) it’s the ideas that really make this book shine. If Understanding Comics is standard material in nearly every college class about sequential graphic narrative, it’s because of McCloud’s dazzling exposition of the fundamental building blocks of comic books. These are the sort of ideas, like Copernicus’ heliocentric solar system or Whitman’s use of unrhymed verse, that are brilliant mainly because they seem obvious when you look back. I don’t want to give too much away, especially since you can’t do the ideas justice without the art, but here is a broad sweep of two of the most important ideas in the book:
1) One of McCloud’s most interesting arguments is that there’s no sharp division between words and pictures, since it’s impossible to pinpoint when pictures turn into symbols and iconography, and where symbols in turn become written language. The book illustrates the point with an impressive diagram containing sample illustrations from great comic books of the past century, with one end of the continuum containing the relatively realistic illustrations of Jack Kirby or Bob Kane, and the other end containing… well, words, but also the more representational and non-realistic artwork of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts or Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.
2) Another argument McCloud makes is that comic books have about as much in common with the prose novel as they do with film and television, since audience participation is an essential part of the experience. Unlike film, where the events of the story are conveyed to the viewer almost entirely through external stimuli (since the viewer is given a window into the story as it unfolds on the movie screen) and the prose novel, where the portrayal of the events happen in the reader’s mind and depend entirely on his or her imagination, the graphic novel gives us a type of work that falls between the two. With comic books, the reader sees the events happen a panel at a time, but it’s entirely up to him to connect the dots and form a cohesive image of the fictional world being presented. McCloud refers to the process of filling the gap between panels as ‘closure’, and provides a list of different kinds of panel transitions, such as the moment-to-moment transition (where two adjacent panels are connected by a progression in time) or the aspect-to-aspect transition (where panels show the reader different parts of the same scene). More than any of the other chapters, this one convinced me that comic books are a unique medium with a more than incidental place in the culture.
Understanding Comics is almost twenty years old and quite a classic in its own right by now. Scott McCloud’s ideas have made me drastically re-evaluate the way I perceive comic books as a narrative form. I have a deeper respect now, both for the so-called commercial schlock of Lee, Kirby, Siegel, Shuster and the like- who had more of true art in their work than conventional wisdom gives them credit for- as well as the creators who dared to explore the limits and boundaries of an ostracized medium back when so few would, people like Will Eisner, Osamu Tezuka and Alan Moore. Understanding Comics has taken me from thinking of comics as a niche medium to leaving me with the suspicion that they may well be for the 21st century what the prose novel was for the 19th.