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cover art

The Language of Comics

(University Press of Mississippi)

Scott McCloud's Great Debate On Comics Continues

“In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.”
— Thomas Carlyle

There is no point in discussing this book unless we take into account the following remark made by former Marx Brothers’ writer Arthur Sheekman about a well-known classic work on humor:

“There has never been a book on humor written by a funny man. George Meredith’s essay on comedy was so dreary I don’t think anybody but the proof reader ever got through it all.”

What does this have to do with a book written about the relationship between words and images in comics art? Just keep that quote in the back of your mind while you read and we’ll get to it in a minute.

In 1993, Scott McCloud published his instant classic Understanding Comics, which sparked numerous debates amongst comics professionals, critics, and readers as to just what “comics” was. His aim was to start people thinking about comics art and its place in our culture.

And it worked, as Editors Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons have put together a collection of essays as both a counterpoint to some of McCloud’s views, and as a launching pad for new ideas. The Language of Comics: Word and Image contains ten essays detailing the interesting and unique way that language “written words—either inside of word balloons, used as sound effects, or narrative captions—interact with the images and iconography on the comics page.

This book is at its best when it chronicles the history of comics, as in N.C. Christopher Couch’s essay on the evolution of the layout of the modern comic page, and Robert C. Harvey’s exploration of how the modern gag cartoon—a single panel, usually a caption underneath, few, if any, speech balloons—progressed in the pages of The New Yorker magazine.

Harvey begins by asking if gag cartoons are really comics. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics says no, because at least two panels are required to convey a passage of time. McCloud’s definition of comics is that they are “sequential art,” therefore a single panel isn’t enough to meet the requirements; one panel must, sequentially, follow the other. Robert C. Harvey argues that single panel comics ARE comics: “In my view, comics consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa.” One panel, two panels, a million: words and images together, complementing each other are comics.

Harvey never says it, but single panel comics can also be sequential art because the gutters—the spaces between the panels, indicating a measure of time - take place both before and after the panel being viewed. That is, time takes place in the reader’s head. With gag cartoons, it is usually the space after the punch line that counts.

An example: A group of canine firefighters are on a fire truck, bells clanging, racing down the street. Chasing a cat. (As dogs are wont to do in cartoons and comics.) They’re passing by a real emergency: a house on fire. The firedog hanging onto the back of the truck, in full fire regalia, shouts to the people trying to flag them down: “Keep it going ‘til we get back!”

In this little example (shamelessly lifted from an unfilmed Marx Brothers script), there is enough information for the reader to figure out the before and after in their own head. The picture by itself may be amusing, but the words by themselves are rather non-funny. But put it together and bingo! Sequential art. You look at the picture; you read the words. This is a sequence.

If comics are words and images together, then logically (Logic? Comics? Together? Dogs driving trucks? Madness!) the words can follow the images (or verse visa) sequentially or in the readers head to make a sequence of “images.”

As you can see the debates can go on and on and on much like a cartoon mouse chasing a cartoon cat up a tree where the cartoon dog awaits, jaws agape, every Saturday morning on the TV.

And don’t get me started on “wordless comics”—I feel a headache coming on.

And now we come to the only problem with The Language of Comics. Varnum and Gibbons’ book, while interesting and informative, lacks the humor and well-intentioned kidding and playfulness inherent in McCloud’s work. McCloud was smart enough to know that any book about the inner workings, both mechanical and artistic, of comics would be best accomplished as an actual comic book; that is, words and static images together to make a whole. McCloud’s book is at times funny, deep, informative, and inspiring. Now, McCloud wasn’t the first to use this approach. Will Eisner did it years ago in his Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative; but McCloud did it in a fun-to-read fashion and this I think helped it immensely. Rendered in strict prose-form Understanding Comics would have been one of the dullest reads imaginable.

Have you got it yet?

Even though there are numerous examples of the comics and panels referred to in The Language of Comics (I counted forty images, most full-page, in a 200-plus page book), and some of the essayists do an admirable job of describing the great works of art they’re writing about, I kept thinking about Sheekman’s quote.

Now, I’m not saying this book is dull—or worse, not worth your time—just because it isn’t full of funny pictures throughout. As information, as history, as exposition, as viewpoint, it is valuable.

And I know well that not everyone is an artist. (This is why voyeurism is so popular.) If the editors wanted to put out a comics-style essay on comics, would it have been labeled as a gimmick? Probably. Was McCloud’s book a gimmick? Sure it was. But remember: Photographs were, originally, a gimmick. Moving pictures? Gimmick. When they added sound that, too, was a gimmick. And when Hollywood hired Jim Carrey as an actor? Gimmick, gimmick, gimmick . . .

But because of all these gimmicks, look at where we are today. We have tons of expensive films with overpaid actors and no one bothers to read, even fun schtuff like comic books. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example.

So, in conclusion, gentle readers, I can understand not doing a series of essays about comics in comics-format style. Understand? Yes. Forgive? Never! I can’t even forgive myself for not doing this review as a comic strip. Just because I don’t forgive myself doesn’t mean that I understand myself. Or something like that.

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