Comics Grow Up: Reading Scott McCloud

19 Apr

Scott McCloud has been influential in college composition since Understanding Comics came on the scene.  I can recall tutoring football players who were using the book at the University of Pittburgh back in 1994.  Various of my past and current colleagues have used his text to help students more carefully read graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, among others.

Comics and graphic novels have only grown in popularity over the past couple of decades, of course:  more and more of them have been published, and their influence on the culture can be seen in phenomena such as the popularity of ComicCon and similar conventions as well as in Hollywood’s embrace of graphic novels and classic comic book heroes as a means to make money.  Some of the results of the latter efforts have been excellent (if not sublime), while others have been ridiculous:

And comics seem to adapt pretty well to the new medium of the Internet, though rather like their linear cousin, the book, one wonders what might be lost in the translation to on-line comics, to iPad graphic novels.  (Indeed, the placement of Robert Coover’s essay, “The End of Books,” just before McCloud’s in The New Media Reader signals the more-than-chronological relationship of the two forms.)

The poet Donald Hall, the critic Sven Birkerts, and others have written about the way reading fosters and develops the imagination in a manner that electronic media do not.  Unlike say, TV, while reading a book, the reader participates in the “co-production of images” with the writer, imagining the scene as the writer has described it.  With TV shows, movies, or (now) a web video, a different kind of cognitive work is going on.

McCloud’s work makes me wonder if comics are, in some ways, a kind of middle ground between the imaginative (and largely linear) work of the reader of text and the spacial/visual/aural experience of TV/movies/web videos.  With comics, the imagery is presented to the reader, but in the spaces between and within each panel, there is imaginative work in time and space being done.

Comics used to be the realm of children.  (I can remember eagerly running to my local 7-11 with a quarter to buy the latest copy of Spider Man or Batman.)  Now they are an entertainment, and an art form, for adults.  Another signal of the infantalization of our culture or a mere evolution of art and the culture? Perhaps a little of both.  I shall contemplate the question further while looking at an image on the tin garbage can in my home office, a garbage can I’ve had with me since I was 10 years old:

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2 Responses to “Comics Grow Up: Reading Scott McCloud”

  1. Bobby White April 19, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    I’m loving the pieces you pull together in this post! Have you read the Sven Birkerts book? I’m interested in hearing about it. You have also reminded me to pay more attention to the surrounding essays in the MIT reader. Just like the surrounding frames on a page of comics… right? They represent the past, present, and future – but only depending on my focus in the moment.

  2. culturemulching April 19, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    I have, Bobby, and I remember it as being pretty great (and a little disheartening). But I read it shortly after it first came out, almost 20 years ago, so I’d like to re-read it and see what I think of it now.

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