Application Approach 2.2

Entering the final chapter, Chapter 9 of McCloud’s Understanding Comics represents the end of what I am calling the Theory Phase of my students’ introduction to the graphic novel and interpreting the graphic novel. They will be finishing up their Literary Analysis papers for submission. Starting in Week 3, the class will shift into a Writing Workshop Phase of putting together their actual Research Papers.

Students, to end their examination of McCloud were given one final PowerPoint lecture on Ch. 9 (images used presented below). They were asked to take notes as the lecture was presented. Afterwards, students were asked to present in a discussion their final thoughts on McCloud’s presented argument about visual potential of graphic narratives (chapter 9 is a very good compact, conclusion point where McCloud summarizes much of his argument). Students were also asked to give a preliminary reflection about the usefulness and potential of this text in aiding them as a resource and potential source material for their papers.

Student conclusions I will present at the end of this post, what follows next is an annotated version of the PowerPoint where I provide my own analysis of McCloud’s argument as presented in Chapter 9:

McCloud: Understanding Comics, Chapter 9

Instructor Annotation

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This is McCloud returning, in a more concise manner, to the questions he postulated in Chapter 1. Of course, he now provides a bit more of the opening of a complex answer: The Human Condition.

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Of course, what McCloud is identifying about human isolation (or as individuals) is what Kenneth Burke would refer to as identification. Burke specifically quips that “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (Rhetoric of Motives 22). To see this in a different way, one identifies his or her self as an individual, but also as part of a group of friends, member of a community, citizen of a town, state, country, or even species. Burke refers to this as the hierarchy, or “move by a sense of order” (Language as Symbolic Action 15). All of these groupings progressively move upward, to larger groupings and represent points of larger identification that can offer a way of overcoming the previous “division” in the pursuit of a larger sense of “unity.”

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This “wall” that McCloud is referring to here is part of the consequence found in Burke’s noting of identification.

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McCloud’s argument for the seriousness of comics, particularly as a means of communication, as noted below here, is part of looking to find that element of unity noted by Burke, to try and “understand” comics is itself a seeking of that unity.

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One might argue when McCloud, above here, notes “communication is only effective when we understand the forms that communication can take” that he is pointing out the rhetorical implications of any form of communication. In this he is echoing almost every rhetorical theorist since the ancient Greeks to the modern day.

In particular, Aristotle wrote that rhetoric was itself “. . . defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (The Rhetoric 24).

Wayne C Booth, for a more modern spin, provides a direct link between McCloud’s assertions of “understanding” and rhetoric by defining rhetoric as “The whole range of arts not only of persuasion but also of producing or reducing misunderstanding” (The Rhetoric of Rhetoric 10).

Ultimately, though Burke asserts that if one is to view identification as a means to overcoming division and possible isolation, as McCloud is offering up here, one must account for what are the overarching elements and substances  share in creating unity via identification. This requires the introduction of identification’s partner element that Burke calls: consubstantiality. Burke states that one is

“consubstantial with [one’s] parents [but at the same time] apart from them. In this sense, there is nothing abstruse in the statement that the offspring both is and is not one with its parentage. Similarly, two persons may be identified in terms of some principle they share in common, “identification” that does not deny their distinctness” (21).

The sharing of a common “substance” or unifying agent, agency, purpose, scene, etc. is at work here. So, McCloud begins this attempt to discover the shared “substance” via a process:

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This approach might seem silly. However, our modern world today tends to embrace TWO common assumptions made about comic books. One, there is the traditional assumption that comic books are “kids stuff.” Two, the newer/modern assumption that comic books are simply about “superheroes,” as evident in the cultural zeitgeist and popularity of movie franchises involving Marvel and DC superheroes.

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McCloud, however, attempts to separate the content of comics from the medium/form of comics. This itself an often overlooked aspect. Content in comics can have a wide range of both genre and age level. Content can be superheroes, or horror, or kids comics. The medium/form of comics, what McCloud is more directly addressing in his text represents the form. The form and the ability of the form of comics has potential that far outstrips any limitation of content.

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This refers back to Ch. 1 in Understanding Comics where McCloud defined what comics are. His definition was very generalist, but as he explained, that was intentional. The more general and expansive the definition, the more room for inclusion was available.

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McCloud notes here the 1896 publication of “The Yellow Kid” which is held up as the first modern example of the comic. However, comics as a form or medium go much much further back and McCloud asserts this early on in Chapter 1.

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Topffer’s quotation highlights both the ability of comics as a medium or form while openly noting the traditional assumption often attached to it. Topffer in his mentioning of “the lower classes . . .” is making note of the fact that early comics were employed by newspaper syndicates to promote distribution among illiterate and non-English speaking immigrants in large cities such as New York.

What assumptions, the traditional assumption, created was a divide:

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As noted in the two images above, some cartoonists were allowed to be upheld with those of “high culture” and “literary merit,” while others were segregated to a “low culture” kind of Hell.

Burke’s idea, and one that McCloud appears to second, is that via identification and understanding of the shared substance of the form of comics, this divide can be overcome.

In the end though, the form is what is most important for McCloud. It is also a form of massive potential as he launches into:

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Growth and Variation –

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Aspirations…

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McCloud is aserting here the fact that comics have (and always did have) the potential to reach out, as a form and medium to the highest kinds of aspirations: Fine Art, Truth, Literature. Why not? Why can’t the form allow for the visual expression of deep ideas found within the human condition?

Well…

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Of course, this is a major problem, but not an insurmountable obstacle. Comics creators often times, and in a digital age almost anyone can, find the freedom to express their ideas.

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Of course, from personal experience, I believe in McCloud’s argument. Additionally, his text, Understanding Comics, helped open the eyes of many of my students as well.

RESPONSE AND REFLECTION on McCloud

Student Responses

As noted earlier, I specifically asked my students in the original lecture to take notes and be prepared to discuss afterwards their thoughts on McCloud’s text in its whole. All of them agreed that his work would be invaluable resource to them in their research papers.

When asked about the work itself, here are some of the things, summarized, what my students responded with:

The combination of images and words is crucial to help thinning the wall that separates communication. In fact, the book itself would not work without the use of both really. The combination of words and images helped produce a profound and deeper understanding.

It helped some students see comic books as truly an artistic field rather than one concerned solely with making money (I called it artistic over avaristic).

Many of them also expressed a deeper understanding of comic book form as a result of their reading.

They also enjoyed the way that McCloud not only told you about something but showed you as well (visual rhetoric). It also helped show the potential of comics beyond the newer/modern assumption that comic books are just about superheroes (thanks to the movie success) and simplistic (good guy vs. bad guy).

McCloud helped expand their perception and helped move beyond the one postulated by Tara Schultz in the recent controversy at Crafton Hills College that she expected to read “Batman and Robin.”

McCloud offered many a feeling that the comic book form and certain materials expressed in it could rise to the level of literature. This was particular for one student who felt a deep connection to a character in her graphic novel.

Finally, one student who had been a fan and studied art found that McCloud had something to teach her too. He pointed out for her a deeper meaning in how it all worked, it showed her and helped her see the depth in her graphic novel. She specifically made note of an image from her chosen graphic novel, Marvel Civil War by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven.

She pointed out this image:

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Here is Daredevil, being put in prison by Tony Stark (Iron Man) and she specifically pointed out an Additive combination at work. Without words, one simply has an image of Stark with a coin in hand, looking at it, and Daredevil turning his head to the side. With the words you have a mentioning of a reference to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus from the Bible with the “silver dollar” standing in for “thirty-one pieces of silver.” This gives an enhanced meaning to the images, where Daredevil is about to be imprisoned, and turns it into a image of guilt, anger, and betrayal.

My hope is that students take this high level of inspiration and carry it forward into their Literary Analysis and Research Papers.

WORKS CITED

Aristotle. The Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. New York: The Modern Library, 1984. Print.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

Dissertation Progress: Frustration at the corner of identity and authority

So, as of last week my Prospectus was officially all signed by committee, my department head, and now by the head of the graduate school. So, even though I have already been working under the precepts that it would be accepted for over two months, now it is official official and I have a nice letter from the graduate school declaring that “Critically Understanding Inspired Emulation: Seeing the Man of Steel as a Rhetorical Model of American Arête” is a definite and approved TWU Doctoral Dissertation topic.

 

Now, all that being said, getting this thing off the ground the last 2+ months was not an easy trick.

 

For starters, there was the rush at the end of the semester (grading and what not) then holidays where my wife and I were traveling, and then there was cleaning up at the house and rearranging to prep for our own little blessing from Krypton arriving this summer. So, lots of preparation and planning that through a wrench into acting on the writing process itself.

 

Another element that got in the way of moving forward was: where to start?

 

Now, I know that should be an easy answer, “duh, at the beginning.” However, I knew what and how I wanted to start but my problem developed from the fear, one born out during my prospectus process, of myself becoming repetitive and overstating things (as I do when I teach). This left me at a big impasse, not to mention figuring out how and when to do my work, that I let build and build from a Hobbit hole sized issue into the Lonely Mountain itself with me desperately looking for the keyhole on the last light of Durin’s Day (yes, I saw the Hobbit 2 over the holidays). This left me with what looked like one hell of a climb, so, I did the smart thing and turned to the sage advice of my dissertation director.

 

So, the answer of moonlight came in the notion that a non-linear approach might serve me best and allow me to work directly on the area in my project I felt most comfortable and eager to engage: the Analysis Chapters. Specifically, I took from the example in my prospectus and applied myself to looking at Analysis Ch. 3 containing an examination of All-Star Superman.

 

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s mythic and grand Superman narrative was what had created my own light bulb moment some years back and when I took note of it, it was that “duh” moment I had been searching for all along. All of sudden, a flood of ideas and information came pouring out of my head. I knew I wanted to look at All-Star Superman, Superman Birthright (Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu) and Superman: Secret Origin (Geoff Johns and Gary Frank), but what did not expect was the torrent that I had unleashed.

 

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I am not kidding when I say ideas came rushing out. I found myself attempting to limit myself to three examples from each and in that process I discovered the three primary points I wanted to make. For one, I specifically had chosen this analysis chapter to look at Bakhtinian theory surrounding the application of re-accentuation in the Superman narrative because the works here lent themselves quite specifically to that point. What ultimately came pouring out though lead to explorations of the identification (Burke), Aristotle’s points of noble virtue, and connections between ideas of self-fashioning (Greenblatt) and the model/anti-model idea of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca.

 

But getting back to the three primary points I wanted to examine in the chapter, they were:

 

1.Specifically attempt to re-accentuate a classic element, image, or aspect of Superman’s iconography. In the case of Superman: Secret Origin, this fell to looking at Superman: The Movie and Christopher Reeves.

 

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2.Make a specific illustration of the model and anti-model relationship, particularly and defined in all three by the relationship of Clark Kent/Superman and Lex Luthor.

 

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3.Look for and illustrate Superman’s ability to embody Weldon’s concepts of the basic Superman characteristics – help others and never give up – as found in the sources as ways to which Superman inspires those both within and without the narrative.

 

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Along the way, I had to add to this chapter and discuss the ramifications of these two audience perspectives along with the notion of how retrocontinuity or retcon functioned as a point within these three narratives I was examining.

 

So, altogether I have birthed a Leviathan and I hope I can survive it.

 

It will need revision and there is already a mountain of material I am starting to compile, not to mention visually mapping it out afterwards. Particularly, I need to investigate just how the external and internal audiences function.

 

Ultimately, what I am aiming to do, to keep myself poised on at all times, is the understanding of my central question: How does Superman maintain and enhance rhetorical persuasion? What is it about him that allows him to be as persuasive as he is?

 

So, now we move on to revision and more drafting. The next frontier lies with Analysis Ch. 2 and attempting the first major attempts to re-invent Superman and alter his narrative in order to update the changes in his identification and conceptions of virtue culturally (John Byrne’s Man of Steel). This will look at reinvention and exploration of Superman’s narrative when taken to extreme limits and appropriations in Superman: Red Son and Kingdom Come and what this reveals.

Dissertation Answers: Why Superman?

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Part of what I have to be able to do in order to “defend” my dissertation prospectus is to answer questions, to my committee, regarding my choice of topic, provide a justification for the theories and theorists I am aiming to use in my dissertation itself, and help make the case for my actual argument. So, where do I start…

 

1.Why Superman?

 

Why not? He is the modern manifestation of America, of modern myth. He is one particular interpretation for what America can be for the rest of the world, and in this world’s current state of the world and United States today, it seems to be something even more relevant than ever. Of course, there is more to this answer. This is just a start.

 

2.Why use the theorist you are using?

 

Currently I am working with the following (primarily):

 

1. The Rhetorical Model – Chaim Perelman and Laurie Olbrechts-Tyteca (primary)

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2. Identification and Cooperation – Kenneth Burke (persuasion and rhetoric)

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3. Self-fashioning – Stephen Greenblatt

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4. Dialogism and Reaccentuation – Mikhail Bahktin

 

The rhetorical role model is persuasive because it is self-fashioned to a form we (as a society) can identify with – both as an ideal (Superman) and as an everyman (Clark Kent) – and this identification allows the persuasion of the model to take hold and promote, inspired emulation, cooperation as found as part of Burke’s definition of rhetoric.

 

“self-fashioning” — “Identification” — “rhetorical role model” — “cooperation”

 

The dialogic and reaccentuation element develops via aspects that Superman and how he is connected to American culture and American culture is turn influenced/shapes Superman the character – it helps determine parts of the self-fashioning and choices that make Superman identifiable. Part of what of the achievement that also aids Superman in his identification comes from the ability also of the character to tap into reaccentuated, appropriated, identifiable elements of myth and heroism that are embodied in Superman.

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3.What is my major argument?

 

I think I may have just found what I really REALLY want to be as part of my opening introduction to my dissertation. In the opening segment of the October 19, 2013 episode of the NPR program “This American Life,” John Hodgman discussed a choice in superpowers. The debate surrounds a choice between the powers of flight versus that of invisibility. In the closing of segment, Hodgman summed up the discussion with a question by acknowledging he himself has trouble choosing and that it boils down to a question of choice: “who do you want to be? The person you hope to be or the person you fear you actually are?

 

This, for me, was a seriously compelling moment.

 

Superman flies. Superman goes without a mask; he acts with nobility and openness – exposed. This would not be everyone’s choice, but Superman does this because he is a hero – a superhero.

 

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Superman is the modern embodiment of the person who we all hope or want to be. That is what makes him, like all superheroes, different from you and me. This ideal of who we want to be, of inspiration and emulation that helps conform Superman so perfectly to Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca’s notion of a rhetorical model as laid out in their work The New Rhetoric.

 

In Ch. 3 of The New Rhetoric, titled “The Relations Establishing the Structure of Reality” and part of the first section noted as “Establishment Through the Particular Case,” Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca define what a model (by their definition) is for them. They define it as, that “In the realm of conduct, particular behavior may serve, not only to establish or illustrate a general rule, but also to incite to an action inspired by it” (362). This is definition of the model is something or someone that establishes a rule or code of conduct that then generates some kind of imitation inspired by it.

 

Say, for example, one applies Superman just to this initial example of the “model,” one can point out that on one level Superman is the template for all modern comic book superheroes. His creation, abilities, and conduct serve as the original template for all subsequent superheroes that followed, from Batman to Captain America, Spiderman to the Justice League. On another level, Superman, within in his own universe within the comic books established a model for how other heroes wanted to behave, he wrote the rules, and he served as the guarantee for the maintaining of those rules as well.

 

One could argue that Superman, as a “model,” would fall within the area where “imitative behavior” acts as part of a “rule of justice” (363). This rule is itself based on the fact that Superman acts as the guarantee of the model, of the conduct of a superhero through his prestige. It is through his recognizable standing that Superman is also able to portray and project the status of a model. His “prestige confers added value on [his] acts” and allows those acts themselves to become models for other superhero creators and superheroes creators to emulate (363). Take for instance, and Michael Chabon notes this in his novel (Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay) that recounts fictional comic book creators operating around the same time as Superman’s creation, that Superman himself spawned many a copycat and still does. Superheroes such as Captain Marvel (Fawcett Comics), Hyperion and Sentry (Marvel Comics), and more recently Mark Millar’s Superior (Marvel Comics) and Utopian (Image Comics) are just a few of the many Superman analogues that have appeared over the past 75-years. Each of these analogues is, of themselves, homage to Superman and the power of the idea of that model. Superman’s nature as a superhero in his own comic presents inspired actions that model for other heroes the kind of behavior that, in fact, defines what a superhero is suppose to do and act like.

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Superman is an illustration. For, it is the “model shows what behavior to follow, and serves as a guarantee for an adopted behavior” and for this service, they are burdened with “an obligation which more often than not will determine his behavior” (364). One can see that the superhero, like Superman, is confined within a box. This box, to be the model, requires not only inspired action worthy of emulation, but can be seen as “imprisoning” the superhero in a position of extreme responsibility. It is a bit like Spiderman and Stan Lee’s wonderful line: “with great power comes great responsibility” magnified exponentially. It is fortunate then that Superman has chosen this mantel and is in fact able to project those qualities worthy of a model, but somewhere, on some meta-personal level, one might find it really hard to truly envy a life more inundated that any modern celebrity.

 

Ultimately, and perhaps thankfully, Superman is fictional. However, just because he is fictional does not render the power of him as a model inert. In fact, like any other fictional character, Superman’s popularity has transcended many mediums and has served, interpreted, as a kind modern mythical figure – paradigm – of human potential. He is the thing, to return to John Hodgman’s segment from “This American Life”: the person we hope to be.

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