Scott McCloud: An Outsider’s View

Scott McCloud's Making Comics tour

My talented brother Powell is currently studying for his Ph.D. at Princeton. When I found out Scott McCloud would be stopping there as part of his Making Comics tour, I encouraged Powell to go and report back. Here’s his writeup:

“Comics: An Art Form in Transition”
Thursday, October 5, 2006
Jimmy Stewart Theater, Princeton University

The presentation began with an introduction by Tom Levin, professor of German, media theory, and architecture. He discussed works that were heterochronic and mentioned, as an example, The Nutty Professor, which for some reason I found to be strangely apt. Professor Levin was introduced to How to Read Donald Duck, which in turn led him to the works of Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics. He mentioned that Mr. McCloud was an early practitioner of web comics, an advocate of micropayments, the inventor of the twenty-four hour comic, and, ultimately, a “thinker and practitioner of comics.”

Scott McCloud got up to speak and the lights were turned off. This may have aided his presentation but made it impossible to take notes. But I suppose this was not a strictly academic talk. The crowd was mixed between students and locals, and I did not recognize any faculty.

Scott McCloud's Making Comics tour

The presentation was very polished and professionally done. The images went by very quickly, though, and I found it difficult to digest many of them. Perhaps there was an underlying assumption that most of the audience would already be familiar with the comics displayed, or perhaps he was using them only to demonstrate a particular idea and thought the individual content could be sacrificed for the whole.

A question: is there a comic clique aesthetic? I admit I am basing this on a small sample size, but Mr. McCloud’s look of premature gray, sneakers, and a flannel shirt over a black t-shirt seems to fit a pattern. I have noticed a uniform for architects (important glasses, European shoes) and philosophy students (scarves, European cigarettes), and so I wonder if “practitioners of comics” have their own.

The talk was essentially organized into three parts:
1. Understanding comics
2. The next stage of comics
3. Self-promotion

The first part I found very interesting and convincing. I was not familiar with his ideas regarding the how and why of comics. It gave this dilettante, at least, a better understanding of the peculiar affinity one-third of my family feel for them.

The second part, looking at the direction comics should take in the future, seemed more geared towards the converted. To bring comics into the modern era (or future), he suggests thinking of the fundamental vehicle of comics as a window, not a page. This theory was well thought out and well laid out. I had a few issues with his arguments, though. First, his examples of windowed comics, via the web, all still appeared completely linear and therefore not that different from either rudimentary web comics or paper comics. To take advantage of windows, why not use multiple dimensions? He mentioned three-dimensional comics, but I could not see that in any of the examples.

My second objection to his take on the future of comics concerned his premise. His underlying assumption was, essentially, that comics must think to the future and therefore beyond the paper genre. And of course he used the example of newspapers, with a droll anecdote about someone from the newspaper industry nervously anticipating the future. But I have yet to hear a convincing argument for the complete demise of the news on paper. The same Cassandras used to predict the demise of the book, as well, but that suggestion now seems passe. Is it not possible that people will continue to want their comics via paper, as well?

The final part, in which Scott McCloud focused on Scott McCloud, was kept light and fun but seemed to undermine what scholarship he did present. The presentation had its moments, but I was left wondering: how much of this work actually represents a scientific, scholarly, analytical approach to the medium and how much is simply observational? Comics as an art and a medium certainly established its validity long ago. But does the work of Mr. McCloud, or at least what he presented here, represent the vanguard of the study of comics? If so, it appears there is work to be done.

Johanna back again.

In case anyone is curious, my brother encouraged my reading of comics when we were younger, since he always wanted to go the newsstand to look at car magazines. I’d tag along and wind up looking at the comics, because I wasn’t interested in much else. Even though he’s not a comic fan or regular reader, he’s always been ahead of my tastes, introducing me to both Animal Man and The Invisibles. The last time he’d been in a comic shop, though, to my knowledge, was when he went in before last Christmas to get me a gag gift.

In other words, he’s a bright scholar interested in new things, not familiar with the current state of comics but not subject to stereotyping or pigeonholing them either. I would think this would make him an ideal audience member for this kind of presentation. I should add that of the two of us, he was always the artistic one, too.

I find his criticisms of the talk interesting, since they echo some of the same concerns I’ve had, that McCloud’s analysis is terrific but his predictions not so much so. It sounds as though the second part of his talk is more of the same we’ve heard from him before, and in an area where some of his forecasts have already been superseded.

I was pleased to see Powell accept the underlying premises so easily, though — I remember when the groundwork would have been much more hard-thought, in presenting comics as a medium worthy of study and discussion by the academy. And yes, there is certainly more work to be done.

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