Scott McCloud: revealing the true purposes and effects of the misunderstood comic genre

  • “If people failed to understand comics, it was because they defined what comics could be too narrowly!” -Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud is a leading comic’s theorist, having published a number of renowned comic books himself. After reading “Setting the Record Straight” and “Vocabulary of Comics” from Understanding Comics, I have gained a deeper insight into the purposes and effects of this commonly misunderstood genre. I briefly read some of his stuff in high school for a class, so I enjoyed coming back to explore his work further.

McCloud explains that we are living in an increasingly symbol-oriented culture. Importantly, icons, including symbols and cartoons (at different levels of abstraction), function as a way to communicate to comic readers. Icons can be understood as an image utilized to represent a place, person, object or idea.

To explicate this point, McCloud discusses how we as humans are a “self-centered race” unconsciously looking for ourselves in what we see. In this way, a simple cartoon such as a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for lips silently communicates to its readers that this is a face. Importantly, it is impossible for the reader not to see a face, because our minds are programmed to recognize and relate this icon back to ourselves.

McCloud explains that the effectiveness and beauty of cartoons derives largely from its simplistic nature. Because cartoons aren’t often too detailed (with the exception of Japanese comics), humans are able to recognize and extend ourselves to become/relate to the cartoon. However, the more complexity that is integrated into a cartoon, the more linked it is to reality and the less universal it becomes.

This contradiction is similar to the fact that the face we see in our minds is not the same as the face that others see. Individuals only have a basic understanding of their own face in terms of its shape and placement, similar to the simplicity observed in a cartoon. In reality, others see our face in a much more complex manner. This is a major reason why readers can relate so well to cartoons. Cartoons allow for universal identification and they are a “little piece of” their readers. In this way, cartoons speak to readers by abiding by the philosophy of “amplification through simplification.” In this way, cartoons should not be understood as eliminating details but rather concentrating on specific details. As explained by McCloud, “it is by stripping down an image to its essential meaning that an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.” Once a cartoon adopts a great deal of intricacy, readers are no longer able to see themselves within it. In this way, comic readers, or in other words the audience, play a key role in the way that comics are understood.

McCloud illustrates and discusses various elements which influence the effect of cartoons upon readers. For example, McCloud discusses the choice of framing, which directs readers to understand what they need to see, generating a sense of placement, position and focus. The cartoon artist must choose carefully what is included or not included in each frame. Furthermore, the choice of imagery is crucial. Images are intended to quickly communicate a particular appearance of a character, object, location or symbol to the reader. In this way, imagines are crucial in composing a particular effect on the reader. The word choice must work smoothly in combination with images to convincingly communicate ideas, voices and sounds. This goal can be achieved by using words of various ranges, specificity, etc. That said, there must be a good flow between pages which guides readers within and between panels. The arrangement of panels is also important in this process. In conclusion, using these elements in conjunction with one another will produce the best results.

McCloud’s exploration of images has made me think about the way that words and images work together. Analyzing comics, I realize that images are limited within a frame and to a specific number of words. The process to select those words and images must be selective. If irrelevant words or images are placed within the frame, it may redirect the reader’s attention or throw them off-course. In comics, words and images depend heavily on one another to convey a conclusive meaning. This said, not all comics contain images. Therefore, I would conclude that images alone are the most important feature of comics, composing the story to convey a particular meaning.

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