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
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.
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.”
This “wall” that McCloud is referring to here is part of the consequence found in Burke’s noting of identification.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
Growth and Variation –
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?
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.
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
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:
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.
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.