Understanding Comics: Some Approaches
By Hervé St-Louis
January 21, 2009 - 05:13
First, I must add a caveat to this article, based on a discussion with my editor. Some of you must remember a Web site called NinthArt.com. It was a British-based Web site that analyzed comic books intellectually. Most of their analyses were contents-based but they approached comic books smartly. Unfortunately, they are no more since 2006 and the articles that were available there have been replaced by a dummy page about comic books. I haven’t verified if the domain has been bought by some other organization, but it’s easy to tell that it’s used as a parking space.
Another Web site that focused on the scholarly study of comic books, Sequart.org, has had server problems and most of the material available, has been inaccessible. This does not bode well so far for the study of comic books! Now my editor told me more “scholarly-oriented” articles on comic books may not be a good idea. (Yeah, I’m the publisher of the site, but I still routinely pass off story ideas to an editor to validate them). My editor is concerned that I may be out of touch with the average reader that comes to The Comic Book Bin. Considering my decreasing amount of time for article writing, I may not be investing my eggs in the right place. Does the average comic book reader and person that visits The Comic Book Bin care about academia and comic books? Based on Ninth Art’s success, one could say no.
But I have to get this stuff off my mind. I have to write about comic books in an academic way, at least for a few more articles. I promise I will do double duty on the Spider-man reviews to make up for long boring articles that no one but a few academics will ever care about. I personally don’t find my comic book research material boring, but the judges of that are you my readers, and you say it’s boring. So, I have to respect that.
My editor has challenged me to make the academic study of the comic book something interesting and engaging that the average reader will care about. If I succeed with this article, I can keep on writing about that topic and be forgiven for not writing Spider-man reviews. I’ll try my best.
In my last article on the topic of understanding comic books academically, I discussed two schools, or theses defining comic books. By schools, I mean a group of practitioners that share similar ideas about a topic, how it’s defined and perceived. The first school that I mentioned were the formalists. I define the formalists as people who see comics principally as a visual medium defined by the juxtaposition in a spatial order of several frames of drawings. For that group, a comic book is a series of images where something happens. All of the frames are linked together. The main advocates for this view of the comic book are cartoonists Scott McCloud and the late Will Eisner.
Some of the ideas that Scott McCloud and Will Eisner have brought to the world of comic books, were the concept of closure and storytelling. Closure is the space between two images that requires the reader to fill in the blanks and the transition between what happens in two frames patched one next to the other. McCloud is generally credited with that idea, where he first exposed it in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, published in 1993.
Storytelling, is something that was contributed by Eisner. Storytelling, based on Eisner’s definition in Comics and Sequential Art, published in 1985, is about how a narrative can be developed visually within a comic book, without the support of words or caption. An easier way to understand what storytelling means is to think about a comic book where there are no word captions. The story progresses only through a series of panels and images. If the storytelling is good, the reader will intuitively understand what is happening without any written explanations. If the storytelling is bad, the reader will not understand.
Both McCloud and Eisner, by advocating the primacy of closure and storytelling argued that the contents of the comic books, and the story aspect had to take a back seat momentarily and because they were not the unique features of the comic books. They argued in their definition of comic books that what made comic books specific were those means of communications that were intrinsic to comic books, such as closure and storytelling.
The Words and Picture School
Eisner and McCloud’s ideas went against what until then had been the accepted definition of comic books, which was that it was a medium based on words and pictures. Many before them and many to this day continue to say that what really defines comic books as a medium is that they sit at the cornerstone of many forms of art. They combine the written aspects of novels and literature and the visual elements of illustration and painting. By combining the written with the visual, a new language was created and defined as the comic book.
I can’t name any specific person that has always defended this vision of the comic book. There are many and I would argue that for most, including readers and the public this is the main definition of what comic books are. To the credit of people who defend this definition of comic books, this is a simple idea to grasp, far more simpler than the concepts of closure or storytelling, which demands that a person pays more attention and uses more imagination.
The Juvenile Audience School
Another definition, of comic books, is that it is for children and juvenile literature. This definition of comics is centered specifically on the majority of contents that have been published in comic books. For example, in the United States, super hero material intended for kids and published in comic books were seen as the main expression of the medium. In Europe, similar comic books based on iconic characters such as Tintin and Astérix and published for a younger audience, also characterized how people perceived comic books for years. In other words, that comic books could contain the complexity of a multilayered story like Watchmen was irrelevant. Comic books were always about children’s literature. This is another school or way to define a comic book. The words and pictures aspect is irrelevant. The closure and storytelling aspect are also of no concern. All that matters is to whom the comic books are intended.
The Absolutist School Consisting Only of Me!
In my last article, I proposed another way of seeing comic books that has been rejected by many. It’s something that had become evident to me way back when I was an undergraduate student at McGill University and after I had thoroughly read Understanding Comics. In my opinion, McCloud and Eisner did not go far enough in their exploration of comic books. They used the theme of contents versus form to redefine the medium. They argued that the only way to successively and objectively define comic books was not by looking at whom they were intended for or to worry about the mix of words and pictures. They argued that the mechanics behind comic books defined what they truly were.
While I argued with them wholeheartedly, I felt that they stopped short of the logical definition of comic books. If the form was the one thing that defined comic books against other art forms, then the narrative aspect had no business being brought into the mix. Hence, as well as not being about whom the comic book was intended for, it also was not about a mix of words and pictures. The words had no business in there and so didn’t any consideration for stories or plots. All comics were about was the visual stuff.
Ok. I can hear my editor, arguing that I’m about to lose two thirds of you right now. Here’s an example of what I perceived that a comic book was really about. What about a comic strip where in the first panel, a ball rolls in from the left. In the second panel, the ball, still moving is in the middle of the panel. In the third panel, the ball is on the far right of the panel, almost ready to exit. This is what I call an absolute comic book. If you really try hard, you can claim that there is a story in there about a ball. But if you don’t, you’ll notice that it’s really about nothing. Yet, two of the elements introduced earlier by Eisner and McCloud, storytelling and closure are clearly exhibited
Storytelling can be seen by the speed lines that direct the eyes of the reader, providing information about the movement of the ball, where it is going and how. I also made the comic book easier to read for a Western audience by staging the ball from the left to the right. This is good storytelling, as the action follows the normal way audiences in the West read information.
Readers are forced to use closure to imagine the many panels that I have left out that show the progress of the ball. I could have added two more panels but I didn’t. Your brain has filled the gaps.
In my definition of a comic book – or what scholars refer to as sequential art, which includes Web comics, graphic novels, comic books, comic strips, and storyboards, the short sequence above is all that is needed to define a comic book. Of course, that definition of comics annoys a lot of people. I argued that to minimize the opposition of a lot of people, McCloud and Eisner never tried to define comics in the absolute way I have done above.
But other matters have led me to reconsider my own favoured approach to defining comic books. What if the debate about contents and form was unnecessary? What if, as my editor will tell me, I’m wasting my time? What if there is another way to define a comic book that could borrow from the many approaches discussed above without negating them? I think I’m on my way to finding something, but I’ll stop now, before my editor fires me for writing about stuff no one but a few university professors and graduate students care about. More on that another time.
Understanding Academic Research and the Comic Book