My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As with any treatise on aesthetics, there is an enormous amount to quibble with in Understanding Comics offers many arguments to quarrel with. For example, is McCloud really so sure he wants to exclude the single panel from the definition of comics? Is he really able to keep the idea of words juxtaposed with images out of his basic definition? Is it actually desirable or necessary, except as a broadly “political” tactic, to define comics as a form so rigidly—is this not just the reprise of an outdated structuralism? And so on. But McCloud created a work that is so lucid, thought-provoking, and pedagogically valuable that it certainly deserves its reputation as a modern classic.
McCloud gained notoriety for extending the definition of comics to embrace artworks or even cult objects from the distant past—his minimal definition of comics as “sequential art” embraces Mayan codices, Roman reliefs, medieval tapestries, and more. But that redefinition of much past culture as comics is actually not the boldest part of McCloud’s case for comics as art, even though it bolsters the bigger thesis in a specific way.
Rather, McCloud makes his most daring move when he describes a period between the Renaissance and the late 19th century in which western art had gone as far as it could go toward verbal abstraction on the one hand and pictorial representation on the other—his examples, rather oddly, are Keats in literature and Corot in painting, but even though these perhaps aren’t the best choices—how about Kant and Millet?—we can see what he means. This polarization of the rational faculty into the abstract (words cut off from experience) and the objective (pictures that represent experience) went so far that the rubber band of culture had to snap back—and the result, of course, was modernism in high art (Pound, Hemingway, Stein et al. clearing the clutter out of literature; Picasso and Co. bringing abstraction back into painting and sculpture) and the whole panoply of word and picture combinations in mass culture (illustrated magazines, cinema, etc.).
McCloud doesn’t emphasize it, but he distinctly implies that comics in their modern form had to emerge at precisely this point in history, this moment of the image’s reunion with the word. Comics, while a mass or commercial art, is for McCloud a legitimate heir to modernism’s assault on western reason and its supposedly exaggerated split between mind and world. This also explains McCloud’s case for manga as more sophisticated than western comics, with its “Eastern” investment in a more contemplative, less action-oriented aesthetic. McCloud’s drive to the East echoes modernism’s always potentially reifying embrace of the pre-modern and the non-western, just as Picasso turned to Africa, Pound to China, Yeats to Celtic myth, and Joyce to ancient Greece. Modernist politics trouble this thesis more broadly: what are the implications of crushing the middlebrow—the Enlightenment’s cultural descendant, with its putative taste for elevated literature (word/concept) and pictures that “look like something” (image/experience)—between the high (modernism) and the low (mass culture), the union of which comics is the legitimate child? I am reminded of the Maoist philosopher Badiou characterizing his stance as “aristocratic-proletarian.”
We are almost a quarter century beyond McCloud’s book now: the middle has surely been crushed, and what art are we left with? Neo-Victorian verbosity at both the low and high ends of literature (Martin, Knausgaard), visual art as a pleasure garden for the rich, and probably fewer interesting comics than there were in 1992. The liberation promised by modernism’s vitiation of the Enlightenment has not really come through for us. Maybe you need a middle for modernism to flourish, at least economically. Maybe, whatever its uses at the time, a knee-jerk anti-bourgeois stance, expressed as a hostility to reason’s separation of thought (word) from experience (image), actually serves forces I’m sure McCloud would abhor: the money-men, in short. I don’t enjoy thinking these thoughts—I am, aesthetically speaking, the child of Alan Moore and Virginia Woolf and thus successor to their war on the middle mind—but the politics of the present force them on me.
There is in any case much to love in this book. Its formalism is most rewarding in the chapter where he discusses panel transitions and the differences between Japanese and Euro-American comics. His treatment of time in comics as a mysterious and unquantifiable element is stunning and should be closely studied by every aspiring comics creator. Understanding Comics is a powerful, even unforgettable book—which is all the more reason to criticize it, but also all the more reason to read and reread it.