My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I reread this—for the first time since I was 14 or so—because I am teaching a graphic novel course this semester. As with any treatise on aesthetics, there is an enormous amount to quibble with in Understanding Comics (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 exploded structuralism? etc. etc.) But McCloud created a work that is so lucid, thought-provoking, and pedagogically valuable that it certainly deserves its reputation as a modern classic.
When I was 14, the parts that most affected me had to do with the signification of drawing styles—how a more abstract style lends itself to reader projection and identification while a more mimetic style creates objectivity. Now that I’m on the other side of a rather protracted education in literary theory, though, I perceive the broader point served by this argument.
McCloud gained some 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, etc.; I remember chancing upon Trajan’s column while in Rome with my wife and, recalling McCloud’s treatise, we both semi-satirically said, “Comics!” 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 boldest move in the section wherein he describes how, between the Renaissance and the late nineteenth century, western literature 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?) one sees what he means. This polarization of the rational faculty into the abstract (words cut off from experience) and the objective (pictures meant to 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 art) and the whole panoply of word/picture combinations in mass culture (magazines,cinema, etc.).
McCloud doesn’t beat us over the head with 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 concept. Thus, comics, while also a mass/commercial art, is also a legitimate heir to modernism’s assault on western reason and its supposedly exaggerated split between mind and world. (Hence the—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, Joyce to ancient Greece.) McCloud’s very deliberately but subtly implied cultural history meant nothing to me as a teenager, but now I see it as the most important and interesting—and also troubling—part of the book. Troubling because I worry about the implied politics of crushing the middle(brow)—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 communist Badiou describing his stance as “aristocratic-proletarian.”
We are almost a quarter century beyond McCloud’s book, and 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 come through for us. Maybe you need a middle for modernism to flourish, at least economically speaking. (The literary theorist Declan Kiberd, for one, thinks so: see his Ulysses And Us: The Art Of Everyday Living). 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), not only makes little sense now but actually serves forces I’m sure McCloud would abhor: the money-men, in short. I don’t like 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.
(Am I being too hard on this book, which, after all, never mentions politics? I don’t think so: McCloud wants comics to be taken seriously as art, and that means having to hold up under the weight of criticism. This includes the criticism of meanings that were perhaps not consciously within the artist’s control.)
Anyway, there’s 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. A powerful, unforgettable book—all the more reason to criticize it, perhaps, but all the more reason to read and re-read it.