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Understanding Comics

Page history last edited by John Faiell 13 years ago

Back to convergentemergence


Understanding Comics and More!!!



Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

by Scott McCloud,


            The text is a real and clear explanation of connecting words with images.  It also confirms my theory of instruction in teaching English Language Learners (ELL) through images. Connecting words, the structure and nuances with images develops a real world connection for the English language learner. The book discusses theoretical work on comics (or sequential art)) as an art form and a communications medium.  It also uses the comic medium for non-storytelling purposes.  McCloud’s, analysis and explanation of comics, particularly about visual grammar and how images can be significant and purposeful to the reader is expanded on in the book's seventh chapter, "The Six Steps," McCloud outlines a six-part process of artistic creation (Idea/Purpose, Form, Idiom, Structure, Craft, Surface). The process is also a clear structure as a rubric for ELL students.  Understanding visual grammar gives students a vocabulary in comprehending what the images are representing and why the images are more than “something pretty to look at” in comics or in any other visual medium that contains text.

            For the purposes of our writing class, I found that Understanding Comics to be used as a motivational tool to inspire writing as a visual composition.  A writer of any genre must create visual pictures for the reader to substantiate a space in time of place or person.  Comic books give you the visual and movies and theater extend the process in visual grammar.





Chapter One


Chapter One: Setting the Record Straight seeks to define comics as a medium rather than a genre. This distinction allows for a much wider definition of comics than is typically attributed. As a genre, anything defined as a comic must be similar in content, form, technique, or some other narrowly defined characteristic.  A medium, on the other hand, can include a wide variety of characteristics applied to a particular substance.  The comic then becomes a substance that can be molded and shaped in any number of ways.


Someone not so familiar with the art of comics may need further explanation of what a comic actually is. Many times the only way to understand a concept is to define it. While definitions can be limiting (sometimes good, sometimes not so good), McCloud's idea in the first chapter is to come up with an operational definition of comics in order to help his readers understand the vast ways in which a comic is/can be used. The definition of comics according to McCloud (so far, it may change, I don't know..) is: juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequences, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer. This operational definition should help carry us readers through the next few chapters as we begin to understand not only what this definition says about comics, but what it doesn't say.


Thinking of comics as a medium rather than a genre made me realize how many places in life that comics appear. I enjoy shopping at IKEA for so many reasons, one of them being the wordless, illustrated instructions included with each item that needs to be put together. When I thought about the comic as a medium, rather than a genre, I realized that my beloved IKEA instructions  are "juxtaposed static images in deliberate sequence"  - comics. I never really thought of them that way because I thought of comics as Superman or Archie and Jughead.


Another way to think of this contrast between a medium and a genre is through food. Personally, I love food and believe that it relates to everything in life, and this is no different. Cooking is one of life's joys. I have a large collection of cookbooks and subscribe to several cooking magazines, but I have very limited books on baking because I don't really enjoy it.  So, in this instance, food is the medium while cooking and baking are the genres. They are both very similar in that food is being prepared; however, cooking and baking employ two different techniques for the preparation.


This idea of medium versus genre could prove very useful in instructing Comp 1 and Comp 2 classes. Many students come to class believing they have no idea how to write, when actually they write almost every day. Writing is just a medium through which we communicate. Every time we commit pen to paper, or finger to keyboard as the case may be, we are writing. Writing essays, research papers, creative works, memos, letters or anything else is simply employing a particular genre to do something each us does in our daily lives. Expressing writing in this fashion may help students to realize that mastering a particular genre takes skill, and the technique can be learned. Content is where the creativity, and therefore the talent, comes into play. Going back to the food analogy, anyone can learn the techniques needed to follow a recipe well enough to prepare dinner.  The talent of cooking is in actually creating a recipe.  Likewise, while not every student is destined to become a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist or a world-renowned author, all students can master the technique well enough to express their thoughts and do well in school. -April, Jaime, Jenna


Holy McCloud! During the first week of school, all roads seemingly led to McCloud. There's the obvious reference, in the form of our first class. Imagine my surprise when my Current Trends teacher showed a video on Thursday night. My third McCloud reference comes from rereading Understanding Comics. In the first chapter, McCloud performs what he terms "aesthetic surgery" (5) to come up with a working definition of comics. This process, covered in pages 5-9, resonates with my study of the literary canon. I've struggled with my definition of literature ever since I went to school and learned that some texts have value and others don't. 


The gutter, the cognitive leap of making meaning from a text, preoccupies most writers, I think. An obvious example of the gutter is Spielberg's film Jaws. By keeping the shark off camera, the audience is left to its own devices, which prove much more frightening. I can think of many examples in film, such as Hitchcock's Rear Window. Recently my sister read a book called The Girl Who Played with Fire. The book contains a narrative so suspenseful that my sister stayed up all night to finish, and then had to sleep with the lights on the following night. The book burrowed into her imagination.


The gutter attests to the dialogic nature of art. I've learned many ways to critically read a text and all of them include what the 'reader' brings to the table.


McCloud Chapter Six "Show and Tell"


McCloud charts the division of images and words into two separate disciplines (art and literature) which come back together in the medium of comics. Like the rest of this book, Chapter Six revels in the conceptual fields of artistry, reaching into the past to clarify the present. Though the chapter resonates with me on many levels (McCloud's deftness with combining words and images to offer meaning to his readers, the subject matter with its emphasis on core concepts that cut across media, etc), page 140 sticks out for its relevance to my studies. The last row of panels illustrates a person's love of reading mirroring the disintegration of the relationship between words and images. Unfortunately, I think McCloud is on to something with this criticism. Could reading books go the way of reading newspapers? Or worse, could books return to their class-based origins and find their sole use in scholarly discourse?


On the other hand, the panels represent a limited definition of reading and by extension, literacy. We know that reading is the process by which a person renders meaning from a text. The term 'text' often refers to a book, but it can also refer to a visually-based medium (like film). What McCloud's illustrations remind me of is the seeming lack of connection between books and our 21st century reality. I'm wondering if in these new mediums (wikis, blogs, etc) we might find the same means of developing skills and abilities that we currently associate with print-based literacy. In other words, let's suppose that books do lose touch with the masses and become a specialty medium (like the scholarly article). What will replace books as the method of fostering literacy and the critical thinking skills which come with that literacy? This is a serious concern of mine, given that I am studying to become a literature professor. I don't equate literature exclusively with books, but I am not sure that other mediums can build a sustained attention span and the 'close', yet open-ended reading that books offer.


McCloud closes out the chapter with an exercise in how words and images can mesh (or not) with each other. The exercise also demonstrates how meaning can be a product of the two (words and images) working in tandem, or one 'taking the lead' over the other. For that matter, meaning is possible with only one of the two present. What changes with these different balances between words and images? The varieties and depths of meaning possible for the reader to achieve. The outcome of this exercise demonstrates that neither words or images has a clear edge over the other in terms of critical literacy.


I suppose the issue isn't so much what we are reading, but how we are reading that determines the level of engagement with any given text. That distinction relates to my project: if 20th century literary study is all about who to read (i.e. the canon and/or anti-canonical works), is 21st century literary study about how to read? How we read books is fundamentally different from how we read blogs, which is fundamentally different from how we read films or plays or the email from our boss telling us to stay away from Facebook. McCloud touches on this issue on page 150, when he remarks on the disconnect between 'high' and 'low' art, which is just another division of art, set into a hierarchal structure (much like the division of words and images).


A Rulebook for Arguments


I found this editorial in today's St. Petersburg Times after reading chapter one and the appendix of A Rulebook for Arguments. The editorial compares how well the German economy is recovering as compared to the American recovery and examines reasons for each country's current economic status. Although it delivers the argument that political division is getting in the way of the American recovery, the article runs through several premises and conclusions to do so.


In the following excerpt, the author of the editorial asserts that policymakers have not maximized the advantages in the American economic model. While this conclusion may or may not be true, it is poorly supported by a poorly constructed premise.


"In the United States, policymakers inherited a different economic model, one that also has certain advantages. It fosters disruptive innovation (of the sort useful in Silicon Valley). It also has certain disadvantages — a penchant for overconsumption and short-term thinking. Over the past decade, American policymakers have done little to maximize their model's natural advantages or address its problems. Indeed, they've only made the short-term thinking problem worse, with monetary, fiscal and home ownership policies encouraging even more borrowing and consumption."


Rule 4 in our book tells the writer to "concrete and concise" (Weston 5). The editorial mentions an economic model that it does not clearly define, yet seeks to classify it as different. Without any further clarrification, this term is, as Weston advises against, "abstract, vague, and general." Because the mention of the economic model breaks Rule 4 with its vagueness, the reader is not only left unsure as to it definition, but also when it came into being and just how long ago it was inherited.


Rule 5 states that an argument must be built on "substance, not overtone" (Weston 5). The editorial is using potentially baited language when stating that policymakers inherited the current economic model. The term inherited has been utilized quite frequently by the current administration to deny culpability for any negative current condition by placing the blame for the condition on the previous administration's shoulders.  Without the clarity of definition, this premise seems to be delivered with a particular, and oft used, overtone. -April


First, I’d like to comment that I found it hilarious that April’s husband thought she purchased a marriage (rule) book when he saw her copy of A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston.  What a hoot!  Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed the read because the first page had wee bitsWinston Churchill – “I am an optimist.  It does not seem to be much use being anything else.” 


As I read the introduction, I thought of the implication of even using the word argument.  Our PiratePad notes from class on August 31 show comments on using the word ‘debate’  – like debate was a bad thing.  There was banter suggesting that maybe a more pleasant word to use would be ‘discussion’.  Then, here we are, reading a book about rules for arguments.  Semantics, schmantics!  No where in the Merriam-Websterdictionary.com definition of ‘argument’ did I read a reference to a ‘fight’ or anything else with a negative connotation.  My favorite definitions listed were “a reason given in proof or rebuttal” and “a coherent series of statements leading from a premise to a conclusion” and even “discourse intended to persuade”.  Discussion?  Mirriam-Webster defines it as a “consideration of a question in open and usually informal debate.”  Debate?  Mirriam-Webster defines it as “a contention by words or arguments.”  Interesting.


The Appendix definitions had me thinking in many directions.  Non sequitur (77) made me think of the time my cousin blamed her husband when she decided not to sponsor my participation in a run with a donation to the Revlon Run Walk for Women.  She stated that her husband handled their household donations since he was the sole breadwinner in the family.  I (rightly) assumed that he would be responsible for any donation of a large sum.  Yet, I felt compelled to inform her that her argument held no validity.  She was never without (generally sizeable) personal discretionary funds and her husband would have no input whatsoever on whether or not she choose to fork over $10 or $20 to my charitable fundraising endeavors.  The conclusion she wanted me to draw (she had no money to donate) did not reasonably follow the path of her inference; I knew better.


Of course, not all arguments are this simple and not all rhetors’ are equal.  Some rhetors’ are experts in their field and their opinions may hold more weight than others.  Much of what I read in Unit One of English in the Research World was directed toward non-native speakers of English (NNS), but the book at least got me thinking about “positioning” oneself as credible when writing for a chosen discipline, whatever that discipline may be (Feak and Swales 3).  I will trust my yogi’s opinion when it comes to strengthening or relaxing my body and mind; I will trust my cousin's opinion when it comes to training a wolf.  (That comment was thrown in to show I was paying attention in class.) Both have positioned themselves as experts in their field. -Trina


Chapter Three "Arguments by Analogy"


This chapter briefly describes arguments by analogy and provides the real example of a  Chippewa Indian Chief  who argued about the folly of Christopher Columbus 'discovering' America. After exiting a plane in Italy in full tribal regalia, Nordwell 'took possession' of Italy by 'discovering' it much like Columbus 'discovered' America. Nordwell's argument is an analogy as he is claiming that his discovery of an already inhabited land is similar to Columbus' discovery. The complete breakdown of Nordwell's argument is on page 21 of the 3rd edition of Weston's text. Anyone heard any good arguments by analogy lately?


The Craft of Research


In The Craft of Research the authors state that we write to remember more accurately, to understand and discover, and then to test and evaluate what we think (Booth, Colomb and Williams 12-13).  This leads me to believe that journaling as writing will, in fact, be a useful tool in my personal mission to work with women in transition.  For example, by accurately documenting an experience, one can refer to the documentation when someone else possibly tries to deny the past.  Additionally, the experience can be evaluated more objectively to discover one’s own personal misconceptions or valid conclusions. 


The authors go on to state that when writing to understand, careful researchers do not wait until they have acquired all their data.  They write their ideas from beginning to end.  Later they can evaluate their arguments and rewrite when necessary.  It makes sense, then, that when exploring one’s own life it would be helpful to write it down.  - Trina


Booth, Colomb, Williams Chapter 8 "Making Claims"


The primary message of this chapter is to evaluate your factual or conceptual claim through your reader's eyes. Particularly, we should ask ourselves the questions that our readers are likely to ask:


        What specifically is the writer's claim?


        For example, one of Jon's arguments is that pop culture texts, like song lyrics, will increase an adult student's chances of academic success because these texts draw upon that student's prior knowledge.


        Is the writer's claim significant?


        Jon supports his claim's significance by referencing dropout rates and the societal costs of illiterate adults (in terms of larger prison populations, increasing homelessness and unemployment, etc).


Readers looks for accuracy, plain language and significance when they evaluate a research paper's claims. The text also suggests that research writers assert the limitations of their claims in order to enhance the paper's credibility. For that purpose, the texts offers "hedges", which are qualifying terms such as "unless", "believe", "suggests", "appears", etc.



Works Cited


Booth, Wayne C. and Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research.

            Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Weston, Anthony. A Rulebook for Arguments. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing

            Company, 2000.




Comments (8)

April Sopczak said

at 2:51 pm on Aug 30, 2010

Please feel free to use this page to discuss the text. Add to it, argue with me, add your own thoughts/ideas, write about different chapters, whatever.

April Sopczak said

at 10:51 pm on Aug 30, 2010

Love the IKEA comic, Jamie!

kms said

at 11:27 am on Aug 31, 2010

Whose page is this? April is this yours? It returns to convergentemergence, but it appears to be you?? So THIS is your academic writing - what we did not see when you ventured out in Dr Hallock's Nature Writing class. Well done, my friend!

April Sopczak said

at 11:30 am on Aug 31, 2010

Thanks! I set it up to be a community page, so write away!

kms said

at 12:34 pm on Aug 31, 2010

I actually wrote a short comment and it's connected to yours by 'baking'. It's on my Carl Sandburg page, which I should maybe edit the name to add and comics comment - I don't know. Anyway, not much said - - - just getting used to this wiki right now and more playing and practice than writing.

ShareRiff said

at 12:50 pm on Aug 31, 2010

playing and practicing, yes. Yes!

kms said

at 11:56 am on Sep 3, 2010

Oh April . . . so that email I sent you to find the community pages, then DUH! there / here it is! Well...it's your comics one that I knew about...do you know where the others are? Or are there others? Maybe I just need to go and WRITE about my readings and the PiratePad - now THOSE were some CALISTHENICS. Tom was right...too much distraction on the internet . . .I say . . . the UNDERWOOD GETS NO RESPECT! Nor the Royal, or the Olympia, or the IBM Selectric...but I LOVED the Underwood! I actually read on the net where they are rarely in musuems because they are not - well - rare; apparently they still work if you can find a ribbon!!

April Sopczak said

at 3:44 pm on Sep 3, 2010

This has been reworked to include all of the books. Please add, edit, rework, write, comment, run with it. If I did not add you, I missed you, but not on purpose. So, please add away!

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