Book Club / the Answer Is Probably Yes

understanding comicsUnderstanding Comics
By Scott McCloud

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

I’ve wanted to do a Book Club on Understanding Comics ever since the Book Club first started – but now that it’s finally here I’m not quite sure where to begin. Although I’ve always felt a little bit reticent seeing how maybe talking about a comic that’s talking about comics might be a little bit too much for people? But well by my count we’ve now done 77 other comics in the Book Club so far (holy moly): there’s no time like the present right?(My original plan was to actually kick off the year with Understanding Comics: but then I thought it’d be a bit less heavy and a bit more fun doing Calvin and Hobbes instead…).

Having said that tho: Scott McCloud and Understanding Comics are very far from being a dry, dull, heavy academic text. I mean – the 1 page introduction actually manages to establish the whole thing pretty well:


What’s especially telling (for me) is that final line “Aren’t you kind of young to be doing that sort of thing?” Because that’s actually kinda one of the selling points of the whole book: it’s not some old person droning on and on about some obscure technical detail or whatever – making sure to namedrop as many different things as possible so you know how smart they are. Instead like a good comic book – it’s zippy and light and straight to the point: bouncing from one idea to the other like Spider-Man acrobating across the New York skyline.

And yes I know that this is common and obvious point: but reading this book I kept being struck by the thought that: OMG why don’t more things use comics to explain themselves? I mean: the amount of times I’ve been reading a book (fiction and non-fiction) that’s tried to explain some point in hard-to-deal-with-words and I’ve just been like: dude – why don’t you use some pictures instead? In fact well – I actually think that the strongest/best argument that Understanding Comics makes for the power of comics is – itself.

But yeah in terms of where to start beyond that – there’s a smorgasbord of options…

The idea of cartoons being a vacuum into which your identity is pulled…


Which wow seems like pretty fertile ground. Especially as the word “Identity” probably doesn’t mean the same thing today as how he used it back then…

To his (sorry Scott) rather simple-minded idea of what “Art” is and how it works…


I mean: he makes the point that asking “Can Comics be Art?” is “a really stupid question” but then goes on to define “art” in such a boring, lowest common denominator kinda way that it just kinda seems like a waste of time… If blowing a raspberry is the same thing as Watchmen then what’s the point? You know – as always with this type of conversation where the safe easy and non-controversial thing to do is to define “art” is such a board and wide-ranging way that no one can possibly disagree (yawn). Ignoring the fact that the difficult and much more interesting question is: “What is Good Art?”

But then also – gosh – there’s stuff like this which just makes my brain go Mmmmmmmm:

past and future

I mean – I know we just talked about it: but it kinda reminds me of Imbattable…

But hey: what do you think of Understanding Comics? Any bits in particular that you really loved? Or really hated and thought were outdated (Comics as audience participation? Ha! That’s just a little bit too gimmicky no?). I mean – we’ve had discussions in the past as to what would make a good first comic for someone that hasn’t read comics before but Understanding Comics isn’t really one that gets mentioned which seems strange as when you think about it – this is pretty much the ideal starting point for someone just making their way into the medium – no?

But hey – what do you think?

Twitter / Improvised Comics

This book had a big influence on my comics work (which is maybe a boring/obvious thing to say?!) I’ll write more about all that later, I hope.

But just picking up on one quick question you raised, Joel: “OMG why don’t more things use comics to explain themselves?” Here’s Scott McCloud from 2008 making an almost digestible and fun job of explaining the inner workings of Google’s then-brand-new-and-shiny web browser:

Sitting somewhere between “Understanding Comics” and the almost wordless instructions that come with Ikea flat-pack furniture.

A D Jameson website

Hey! Understanding Comics! That’s a book about which I have a lot of thoughts. Long story short, I think it’s brilliant, though I’ll note that having now taught it a fair amount (over a dozen times), it’s a lot denser and more difficult to understand than it may initially appear. My students and I have found a number of problems in it, some small, some not so small. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll sketch out a few issues below.

1. re: Joel’s email

Note how the final panels of the introduction (“Aren’t you kind of young to be doing that sort of thing?”) create a pretty elegant transition into the start of Chapter 1. (“When I was a little kid, I knew exactly what comics were.”)

Note also how McCloud structured the first three chapters. The first one defines comics as “sequential art,” after which he uses Chapter 2 to discuss art (the realm of what’s possible in terms of the contents of the panels), and Chapter 3 to discuss the sequential (the realm of what’s possible in terms of transitioning between panels). Indeed, that structure is so elegant, I think McCloud should have done more to call attention to it. (I find people often miss it.)

2. also re: Joel’s email

> To his (sorry Scott) rather simple-minded idea of what “Art” is and how it works…

Note that McCloud isn’t really defining art there; rather, he’s speaking broadly about communication. His thinking there derives from Marshall McLuhan, whose Understanding Media is a major influence on McCloud—so much so that he named his own book after it.

McCloud offers a more direct definition of art in Chapter 7, in particular on page 164, where he writes, “Art, as I see it, is any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction!” Which he then proceeds to refine somewhat. That definition has its own problems—namely, it’s over-broad, in that it lassos in a bunch of things that I’d argue aren’t art (like sports and games), but it does I think point in the right direction, in that it includes the (essential) idea that art should somehow be useless or non-utilitarian, which has been a fundamental concept in modern art criticism (i.e., for the past couple hundred years).

McCloud’s on much firmer ground when he defines the comics medium itself as “sequential art.” Although one could argue that there are lots of comics that aren’t works of art—for instance, the instruction manuals that Will Eisner made for the US Army during WWII, or any instruction manual that’s done in comics form. (I don’t think McCloud would disagree with that, though, given his definition of art—I’m just pointing out a potential contradiction. It’s like how we have movies that aren’t artworks, works of narrative prose that aren’t novels, etc.)


To my mind, the biggest problem that McCloud runs into is the way he conceives of his Big Triangle in Chapter 2. In many ways I think that Triangle is smart and holds up to scrutiny, but in other ways it doesn’t (and his writing about it in the chapter isn’t always clear—I know my students routinely misunderstand some of his points there). My main criticism lies in regards to how McCloud understands and characterizes representation, in that he tends to conflate it with realism, which is a Mistake. (That said, it’s a very understandable mistake given when he wrote the book.) I could try and say more about this if people are interested, though I’ll note I write about this some in my most recent book, and I am planning at some point to write a paper in response to McCloud on this point. (Sorry to be so coy, but I have laundry in the dryer I need to get out!)


To my mind, the most underdeveloped section of the book, as well as the most intriguing, come in Chapter 2, pages 40–43, where McCloud describes “the Masking Effect.” I’ve long wanted to write more about that concept myself, and how one encounters it in media other than comics. I’ve spent some time looking around to see whether others have observed this effect in cinema, but haven’t been able to come up with much. So there’s a lot of work to be done here.

Briefly, because I really do have to go get the laundry: McCloud is essentially describing mixed-mode artworks here, in that he’s describing how a comics artist can place cartoon imagery in front of more realist backgrounds. Realism and the cartoonish are modes, i.e., ways of making art, and they are hardly exclusive to comics. (They can be found in all representational media.) Realism is a mode that can be applied to any formal component in an artwork—again, see my most recent book for more on this subject, if you’re interested—so it stands to reason that other artistic media can use the masking effect. And I would argue that one does in fact see that effect all the time in literary fiction and in the cinema, which are the two artistic media with which I’m most familiar. Indeed, one sees it in abundance in the original Star Wars trilogy, and if I had to guess, I’d say that George Lucas derived that technique from his great hero Carl Barks, who employed it all the time in his Uncle Scrooge comics, and his various other duck comics.

OK, I hope this is interesting / useful

The Amazing Frankie

Adam wrote:

McCloud offers a more direct definition of art in Chapter 7, in particular on page 164, where he writes, “Art, as I see it, is any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction!” Which he then proceeds to refine somewhat. That definition has its own problems—namely, it’s over-broad, in that it lassos in a bunch of things that I’d argue aren’t art (like sports and games), but it does I think point in the right direction, in that it includes the (essential) idea that art should somehow be useless or non-utilitarian, which has been a fundamental concept in modern art criticism (i.e., for the past couple hundred years).

Just to throw another spanner in McCloud’s definition of art, whenever people are trying to decide what makes humans different from other animals, what makes our species so incredibly successful, one of the things they point to is language — our ability to communicate across space and time, to preserve and transmit information to future humans and distant humans who can then build on that information. Every generation doesn’t have to rediscover fire and reinvent the wheel.

I get that McCloud is thinking in terms of “Does this help humans not die, eat food, or make babies?”

For almost everything we do, including art, the answer is probably yes. On a simplistic level, cave drawings showed the type of wildlife in the local environment and sketched the weapons and techniques used to hunt them. Or later, epic poems, structured with rhyme and meter to be memorized and transmitted orally, carried social information about things like laws and norms and other people. The ability to share that information has helped our species survive and thrive. And then somewhere along the line, someone came up with the idea of making pictures to represent words and sounds….

On a more sophisticated level, there’s a book called Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Hayes, that argues exposure to culture is what makes homo sapiens able to think the way we do, and culture is how we transmit that ability. Culture includes art.

As far as making babies goes, there’s Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind, which posits that artistic creativity in humans is a demonstration of genetic fitness.

Maybe I’m contrarian but I think the idea art must (or even can) be useless or without utility is outmoded. As a species, we wouldn’t have spent tens of thousands of years creating and refining our ability to create art if it didn’t serve some purpose.

Crossover Cosmos

Trouble with definitions of art is that the moment you start making things just for survival and reproduction, you go beyond the utilitarian. A bow can be a stick and a piece of cord, but a well-designed bow can be better at hunting or a prestigious ceremonial object. The art of ornament can make someone sexually attractive.

What’s good art? Is that piece of sequential art that involves you and makes you think a better piece of art than a commercial that fools you into thinking the makers of commodities care about your life? ‘Shared information’ can be ‘fake news’.

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

Oh boy. I turn my back for a second and suddenly everyone is talking about definitions of art. And here was me thinking that we were gonna be talking about comics…

kiddie fare

This will probably surprise no one reading this – but when I was at uni one of the things I studied was aesthetics because well – I’ve always found it fascinating: digging into art and things and trying to understand how it works / how it doesn’t. One of my set essays was “What is Art?” because well if you’re going to do something then forget the half-measures and do it properly right? (LOL). And after reading all the books and considering all the arguments the best answer that I managed to come up with was: “Art is whatever people say it is.”

I realise that might seem like a little bit disappointing / a bit of a cop-out: but it’s the only definition I’ve been able to find that really manages to cover all of the eventualities. Plus I think it gets to one of the core constitutes of the concept of “Art” namely – the boundaries and lines of what “counts as art or not” is always shifting and changing and growing. You know – see Duchamp’s Fountain, Manzoni’s Shit or Emin’s Bed etc etc blah. And well yeah – I agree with Frankie in questioning Adam’s assertion that there is an “(essential) idea that art should somehow be useless or non-utilitarian.” Not to be rude or anything – but if that’s a “fundamental concept in modern art criticism (i.e., for the past couple hundred years)” then maybe that’s why no one pay any attention to modern art criticism? Just to speak for myself – I get a lot about the art stuff that I’m into (music, films and – of course – comics) and just because that’s emotional and psychological stuff that’s hard to put into words – that is very far from saying it’s “useless.”

I mean even the example that McCloud gives in his comic…


That raspberry has got to feel good right? I mean – even looking at it feels good. So.

But then LOL arguing over definitions is just – I dunno – kinda strange? Like I know this is an extremely obvious insight but: different people use the same word in different ways. And that’s often it’s a very tough thing to actually realise because – well – everyone’s using the same bloody word. (Personally I think Twitter is the worst for this – but it’s not just the internet it’s also an in real life problem too). I mean – of course it would be nice if every word we used we could relate back to the dictionary so that we knew that all our concepts where present and correct but erm language has been around for thousands and thousands and thousands of years and the dictionary has only been around since erm… 1604? So yeah this idea that there’s a single perfect definition out there for all of the words we use (while obviously enticing) doesn’t seem to be something that takes into account how mercurial language can be… Yes we have definitions in our heads that tell us what words mean – but maybe the ultimate realisation that our brains will never be able to realise is that: other people think things in their own way and using words differently to us? Therefore – trying to come up with a suitable defintion of what Art is beyond “art is whatever people say it is” seems like something that is doomed to failure.

And yeah – not just art: but everything. How do you know when you say you’re a “feminist” that you mean the same thing as someone who says they’re not? How do you know when you say “Brexit” that the other person is using the same word in the same way with the same meanings attached? Some people think Churchill is one of the greatest leaders that England has ever known while other people think that’s a mass-murdering fuckhead. And yeah ok – there’s always facts you can point to and cases you can make: but I think of comics as being “kiddie fare” it doesn’t really matter how many copies of Maus or Watchmen you wave in my face – if it doesn’t fit the definition in my head and I don’t wanna make the effort to change it then I’m just gonna laugh and pat you on the head – right?

Now you die

So yeah: I’ve always thought the more interesting question is: what makes something good art? And this week I’ve mostly been reading Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth which has a Dinosaur called Satanus in it and a punk biker called Spikes Harvey Rotten and I think it might just be one of the best things to exist in forever so erm yeah: what do I know?

Lofi Space

I’m totally not going to weigh in on the ‘what is art’ tarpit, but it’s very much connected to why Understanding Comics was important to me – while I think McCloud’s wrong about a lot of stuff, the fact he’s asking the questions is really helpful. His book is one of the first that really got me thinking about comics as an art form, and introduced me to criticising them beyond ‘I like/dislike X’. The book might be more influential than it really deserves to be now, but if you look at early 90s american comics culture he was really doing something new and important.Still embarrassed by the tent he’s got pitched for manga, though.

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

“Thinking about comics as an art form” is obviously something that’s pretty close to my heart / or is it brain? / or both maybe…? Whatever.Kind of young.png

I think the first time I read Understanding Comics I was pretty young: like teenager-style. And I guess that’s one of the benefits of coming on to the scene just after a great battle has been fought. As far as I can make out – Understanding Comics is one of the vanguard books that was out there making the case that (sigh) Comics aren’t just for kids anymore. I mean Watchmen, The Dark Knight and Maus were all the range at the tail-end of the 80s and then here’s McCloud and his book (which came out in 1993) actually making the case for the seriousness of the medium – putting the theory in for those people too dumb to be able to see the potential. I mean – as much as I like Understanding Comics and like the cool little insights it contains there is a part of me that feels like it’s kinda (in a sense) a little bit of a death knell too – this might seem a little radical maybe: but I think the most stuff in a given artform will take place when it’s dismissed and disparaged: when it’s in those awkward teenage years when it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be but still kinda jumping and extending itself in all sorts of strange dimensions just to see what works and without having to worry about the straight-jacket of “respectability.” In case it’s not clear from all the Book Clubs we’ve done so far – my own tastes tends towards the stuff that’s halfway between the high-brow stuff and the low: the things that are smart about being dumb and dumb about being smart.

There’s that bit towards the end when McCloud is up on that hillside talking about the infinite potential of comics and how the possibilities are endless etc and I reading it now (over 25 years since it was first published) I’ve got to admit that I’m a little bit: whatever happened? Like: I think maybe McCloud is a little bit too obsessed about the crazy kinda experimental potentials of what a comic book can do (his example of a comic that can be read in any direction is kinda limited by the fact that it seems like it would only work on one page – and anyway: as anyone who watched Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch will already know: choose your own adventure stories are – sadly – never really the best type of story).

and so they should

Like: at the risk of sounding like a #Comicsgater (uh oh anything but that) it seems as if most of the talking / debates about the state of comics these days is more around issues of representation and identity as opposed to how to push the medium into strange new places… And part of me thinks ok fair enough every generation chooses it it’s own priorities (another part of me thinks that actually this is the problem with bullshit superficial neoliberal capitalism ideology but maybe that’s a conversation for a different time? LOL): but yeah speaking purely selfishly I’d really like to read a new comic that gave me that “OH HOLY SHIT” feeling (but maybe that’s just one of the problems of getting old? oh dear. Now where did I put my false teeth?? Or actually – maybe this is the problem with expecting the mainstream to show you were the good stuff is when most of the time it’s mostly about the stuff that’s the easiest to sell innit?).

You see yourself

In fact there’s the bit earlier in the book when McCloud talks about the mysterious power of cartooning and abstraction where it’s possible maybe he actually gets to one of the roots why comics in particular seems to be especially susceptible to the current climate of might be termed “extreme wokenessness” (I heard someone use term “radlib” the other day which seemed particularly good….). In that basically comics (especially when the artwork is in the right corner of the pyramid) leave the most space for people to (how to say this?) insert themselves into. And superheroes especially with their bright simple colourful costumes coupled with pictures that tend to emphasise action over articulation and superficialities over.. well – complexities.

One good example that springs to mind is the infamous Mockingbird cover from a few years ago:


I mean: the entirety of the conversation that I came across seemed to be various people getting outraged over other people getting outraged (ah the internet) when – shoot is this too much to ask – maybe a conversation about the various types of feminist agenda’s out there? (According to the Buzzfeed quiz I am apparently #3 Socialist Feminist).

Basically I guess I have a hopeless wish that all of us / comics could get a little bit smarter in the messages and stories they create and convey (I want to be moved in different ways – my heart and my brain) and instead mostly it appears that the Discourse is based around…. T-Shirts. (Check out the face in the picture above – if you’ve got blonde hair then that could be you – right?).

Completely unrelated – I wonder why this guy is the most popular superhero?


Hooray for comics.

Lofi Space

I reckon a good part of ‘comics don’t seem to reach their potential’ is down to just how much work it takes to make a comic. It’s harder to be experimental when you can’t just quickly try an idea out and see if it works. I agree, though, it’s something that really disappoints me. Compared to what’s been tried with writing or film, most comics don’t seem very inventive, despite the potential.

I think you’re overcomplicating the reasons for comics’ ‘wokeness’, though – I reckon simple money is a better explanation, the big houses trying to open up new markets, compensate for falling sales.

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