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Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art Paperback – April 27, 1994
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The Great Days of the cartoon-including animated shorts, comic books, political cartoons and newspaper strips-are generally accounted to have occupied the first half of the 20th Century, after which television did its steamroller bit on radio, movies, weekly magazines and the cartoon alike. Folks these days may not be able to write and draw great cartoons anymore, but we sure can jabber about them. It's fun to be a self-appointed authority, and it's far easier than the painful baby steps of learning to draw well, or training the mind to think up arresting visual continuities and involving plot-lines. Hence Scott McCloud's fairly-recent offering into this field of texts which, as the old saw goes, "fill a much-needed void."
The title of Mr. McCloud's book is humorous in that the comics are a medium understood intrinsically by practically any person aged four years and up. The supposition behind his book, of course, is that this is only because the art form never left its infancy; that the potential of the comic medium is more untapped than otherwise. The error here is that attempts of late to force the comic to "grow up" and "expand" have been, to use a popular phrase of the day, "style over substance"; four-letter words, teeth-gnashing rage, self-indulgent angst, glib posturing, freewheeling sex, and most of all, lots and lots and LOTS of hack drawing, amateur plotting & scripting, and pyrotechnic continuity which cannot be clearly followed. That these childish squalls were ignored by the once comics-loving public is testament to the unappealing deficiencies which bind lesser talents. The works of Mr. McCloud's contemporaries have been, in mass, slicked-up nothings-tramps in $2,000 suits-and his own efforts (ZOT!) have never risen above mediocrity despite the vast "understanding" which he has contrived from whole cloth and placed herein.
There is no true profundity in the book, which automatically dictates that scads of critics will suggest it is there in spades. The author brings home his seemingly-obvious points with sledgehammer force, as though with each passing "revelation" we are to strike the forehead with the palm, eyes widened. Like most such volumes, Mr. McCloud has inflated his superfluous notions with an esoteric padding, sure to rake in the eggheaded suckers, and ready to repel the charge of "Yeah, so what?" with: "Well, if you don't like it, then you must not understand it."
Yet if this volume makes clear any point whatever, it is that Mr. McCloud himself understands very little about comics-or at any rate, their appeal. The probity of good cartooning has always been and will always be a good story, well-drawn and simply-told. The trick is to work within those conventions rather than peremptorily dismissing them as ancient. The kind of ivory-tower imaginings which infest this and other identical books of analysis will never replace the hard work and ingenuity which were the hallmarks of the masters of the art. Citing the possibilities of a lump of clay makes a sculptor of no one, nor will anything but diligent and concentrated effort. For Scott McCloud to suggest that comics can be so much more than they have been is all well and good, but people have had more leisure time for examination, reflection and training since the 1950s than ever before-so where are the great comics? It is talk. The ignorance of the learned. Hal Foster of "Tarzan" and "Prince Valiant" fame claimed never to have dissected his art or storytelling technique. Yet he is certainly one of the ten greatest newspaper strip cartoonists of all time. How on Earth did he manage it without the guiding hands of Gilbert Seldes, Will Eisner or Scott McCloud?
The much-revered art instructor Kimon Nicolaides, who died in 1938, said: "I have had students who seemed to be more interested in `being artists' than in drawing. They were enthralled by a train of mental ideas rather than the feeling of responding on paper to a vivid experience of the senses. Such students are likely to be found, not sitting in front of the model, but sitting over a cup of coffee in a neighboring café, talking about art. The student who really learns to draw will be the one who draws. As Leonardo said, the supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance." I mention this quote because the greatest of cartoonists were first and foremost ARTISTS-they later became cartoonists, and trained themselves individually to do so by trial and error. In this way, numberless styles, yarns and deathless creations flooded the field. There was no time for pontification or self-analysis-those men just kept cranking and kept improving. They had deadlines. We have theory. They had talent. We have their reprint books.
And so, I suggest that if you plan to spend $18.00 in your efforts to "understand comics," you do it on the reprinted works of Messrs. McCay, Outcault, Crane, Foster, Caniff, Sickles, McManus, Opper, Segar, Sterrett, Herriman, et al. Their cartooning legacies are all the education-and more importantly, all the enjoyment-that you need ever hope for from a wonderful but long-deceased art form.
*If anyone has read comics any significant amount, a huge portion of this book will be completely redundant and unnecessary.
*His approach seems to be "the only reason people don't like comics is because they simply don't understand them." Well, it's not rocket science. If people don't like comics, it's probably because they simply don't care for the medium. I can't imagine how explaining things in EXCRUCIATING detail is going to suddenly change their mind. His other approach is to justify the medium itself as a valid and important art form. I agree that it is both those things, but to create a whole book on that premise is again (I feel) barking up the wrong tree. If people don't like comics, why would they read a whole book on the subject?
*There certainly is some nice information in this book, particularly the historical info on comics. But, as a whole, it feels padded and bloated with things that most people would already know, or just not care about.
All that being said, it is obvious that he has indeed found an audience, and I can't (and wouldn't want to) change that. My only concern is that some people might think this book is something that it's not (for instance would-be comic creators, like me) and may read it and be disappointed. That's what happened to me, so I have ordered one of his other books. I think it would help if amazon allowed people to look at the table of contents before ordering, but at present there is no option to do that.