Forget McCloud (or Maybe Not, Baudrillard): On Understanding Comics

This column marks the beginning of Worlds in Panels second year. In looking at what I wrote in year one, it’s hard for me not to notice that my own attempts to make sense of comics have relied heavily on the writing of Scott McCloud, particularly Understanding Comics (HarperPerennial, 1993). I directly reference this book in a quarter of the monthly columns published in the last year. Indirectly, his influence is likely immeasurable.

I’m hardly alone in this. There is virtually no recent work in comics theory and criticism, in English at least, that does not reference or owe a debt to McCloud’s writing on the nature of the medium. No other work, not even his own, has yet to emerge as a successor or equal influence to Understanding Comics.

The reach and appeal of McCloud’s initial foray into comics theory is, I think, partly a result of its form: Understanding Comics is a comic about comics. On one level, this is simply cool, but its significance is deeper than that.

The decision to make the book as a comic has the effect of making it inviting to a range of potential readers. I suspect that many people who think of themselves as being otherwise disinterested in matters of theory have picked up and read, or at least skimmed, Understanding Comics. For academics, the coolness of McCloud’s text appeals because of its novelty, and the fact that few literary critics, humanities scholars, and semioticians have the skills or the professional support and encouragement to produce a similar work of their own.

The comic book form of Understanding Comics also means that McCloud does not simply articulate theory, he also performs it; the text itself becomes an example of what it analyzes and critiques. That it does so self-consciously at certain points further underscores the performative quality of the work. In reading Understanding Comics the reader is constantly being both shown and told about the medium.

McCloud’s ecumenical approach to situating comics to other arts also helps to account for the appeal of his work. Comparable books, such as Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), are more inward-focused, if no less valuable for being so. McCloud’s interest in other fields has become a two-way street, with his work now carrying weight for professionals in areas such as design and information science. Simply put, one no longer needs to have a native interest in comics to reference Understanding Comics.

The matter-of-fact placement of comics within wider traditions of visual and narrative art rhetorically functions to take the medium seriously, but without apologizing for doing so or genuflecting before other arts and artists. It asks readers to un-ironically see comics as art, and to therefore see it as a meriting ‘serious’ theory and criticism.

Equally important is that this straightforward treatment of comics as art is never expressed as a simple personal inclination. By comparison, one can easily read Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics (Da Capo Press, 2007) or Rocco Versaci’s This Book Contains Graphic Language (Continuum, 2007) as idiosyncratic texts, or as personal statements about the literary or artistic value of comics. Wolk, in particular, is at pains to emphasize the importance of personal ‘taste’ in how comics are read.

No matter how important such acknowledgments are, they are also self-limiting in the sense that others are always free to disagree. This is, of course, true in any case, but McCloud’s text does not make any concessions to doubters. It gives people permission to start from the presumption that comics are ‘real’ art, as well as ‘real’ literature. This has been invaluable in opening up a pathway for other authors, such as Wolk and Versaci.

While form and approach are important clues to the influence of Understanding Comics, the particular genius of the text, and I think the most significant reason why it looms so large in its field, is that McCloud chose to address his first book not to creators or would be creators, but to readers. The decision to lead with a book about the experience of reading comics, why and how they ‘work’, helped to move comics theory and criticism into a broader and richer vein covering not only ‘how-tos’ and fellow artists, but also the life of the finished product after release into the wild where readers are active agents, too.

Film scholar James Monaco, in How to Read a Film (3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2000), describes this as a movement from theory and criticism concerned with prescription, or what a medium can or ought to be, to theory and criticism concerned with description, or what a medium is. The former often predominates early in the development of a new art, while the latter gains currency after some kind of normal practice takes shape and debates over how a form is to be made recede into the background.

This isn’t a simple linear progression, of course, but for comics, Understanding Comics is the first major theoretical work that was primarily descriptive in nature. The significance of this is the manner in which the book starts from the presumption that comics is already full in form and ready for examination; there’s no reason to begin with a treatise on what comics ought to be because they already are.

The address to readers is also important because that is a subject position occupied by engaged fans, literary critics, publishers, librarians, shop owners, and creators alike. Understanding Comics is a landmark in theory and criticism because it’s a book about comics that is for everyone with an interest in the medium.

Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay titled “Forget Foucault” (The MIT Press, 1988) as a response to the ‘perfection’ of the other philosopher’s work on sexuality. The implication of the title is that to move on with new theory requires dispensing with the apparently perfect theoretical apparatus already articulated by someone else. Maybe the further development of comics theory and criticism will require people to ‘Forget McCloud’, but despite my growing self-consciousness about how often I return to the pages of Understanding Comics, I don’t think that would be any better advice than was Baudrillard’s.