Thursday, September 9, 2010

The One-Panel Critics: Listening to McCloud?

Yesterday this semester's classes had our first discussion of Understanding Comics. It's a book I teach with reservations, since it seems to have at least as many problematic assumptions and faulty leaps of logic as it has cool and innovative ideas. It's great for getting students to start thinking about the formal aspects of comics, and about the decisions of technique that cartoonists have to make in setting up every single page. But it's also loaded with claims that seem more and more specious the more I read them.

Leaving aside the chapter in which McCloud tries to define art and the artistic process, the shakiest of these claims seems to be his argument about the power of "iconic" cartooning—or what Art Spiegelman would call "diagrammatic" cartooning: spare, undetailed, simple cartooning, where every line indicates a legible, significant aspect of what the thing is rather than what the thing looks like as such. You know the kind of cartooning I'm talking about: Ernie Bushmiller instead of Todd McFarlane; Kevin Huizenga instead of Burne Hogarth; Vanna Vinci instead of Drew Friedman.

McCloud claims that there's something in our psychological hard-wiring about the human face that makes us identify more easily with the spare, "iconic" cartoon face, that we can somehow project our identities or consciousnesses into an undetailed cartoon face.

He claims that's why he draws himself in such an "iconic" way as he presents his argument. After all...

Taking this panel in isolation, I can't help thinking Sure, why not? — I mean, I'd still read a book of interesting comics criticism, even if its narrator was drawn with more lines. I'd even listen to it if it were presented on film, with moving photographs of the author. Why, I'd even pay attention if the presenter were right there in front of me—the ultimate in realism.

Sure, it might take a little longer for the author to draw a more detailed version of the argument — I might have needed to wait until 1994 or 1995 for Understanding Comics. But is there anything less trustworthy about that face?

In its context, in the course of McCloud's argument, the more realized or realistic drawing is jarring, and I think many readers take that momentary disruption in their reading expectations as a confirmation of McCloud's argument: we are unsettled by the less diagrammatic version of our narrator, so we think that he's "wrong" for the project. But let's remember that we've had thirty-six pages to get used to the little icon-McCloud at this point. We've formed a relationship with the little sprite.

And that's really how readerly identification works, isn't it?

I'd argue that we don't actually identify with a character because we confuse him or her for ourselves, or because we project ourselves into his place. I'm not fighting Kraven the Hunter in Spider-Man's suit; I just want Spider-Man to win. The musings of Glenn Ganges might remind me of things I've thought before, but when he's in trouble, I'm worried for him, not in him.

I don't experience the little McCloud sprite as "a little piece of [myself]" or even merely as "a little voice inside my head ... a concept" (UC, p. 37). I experience him as a character. Characters are by definition outside of me, and if I'm incapable of identifying with a character who doesn't resemble me, then I have a psychological problem.

There's much more to say about this, and a lot of it is covered in an excellent essay by Jonathan Frome ("Identification in Comics") that appeared in the Comics Journal roundtable on Understanding Comics (in the April 1999 issue). I've summarized this and other problems with McCloud in an essay that appeared in IJOCA a couple of years ago. If you're keen to read that essay and can't put your hands on the relevant issue of IJOCA, drop me an email, and I can samizdat it to you. You might also want to see Marc Singer's ruminations on teaching with Understanding Comics and this same problem.

For the record, I do think there's a special power in iconic cartooning, but it's less about identification and more about legibility. When we look at the face of Sluggo or Charlie Brown or Glenn Ganges, those facial features tell us less about what the character looks like (or would look like, in the real world) and more about what they're feeling. The line under an eye for fatigue, or the line of an eyebrow indicating surprise or anger: these designate emotions in an almost symbol-like (semiotic? iconic? linguistic?) way. The only disadvantage of the cross-hatched, detailed, more "realist" version of McCloud is that we'd spend more time looking at him, and thinking about what the image looked like.

And, despite McCloud's consistent privileging of image over text in his definition of comics, it's the text that's important in Understanding Comics. He wants us to pay attention to the message, and not the messenger.

(To be fair: that last statement is a paraphrase of McCloud himself, but I think he's imagining that "the messenger" is only an external character if he's drawn realistically, and I'd argue that even the iconic sprite designates a character, just one that we can "read" more easily. He's still distracting sometimes.)


John said...

If McCloud's theory were true, Joe Sacco wouldn't have a career.

Isaac said...

Actually, if I were trying to make a case for McCloud's theory of the "masking effect" — in which a cartoony or iconic figure serves as an audience surrogate against a more detailed, vivid, or fully realized background — then Sacco would be one of the first places I'd turn.

Although his backgrounds are meticulously detailed, Sacco's characters — especially the cartoon stand-in for Sacco himself — are really cartoony. And that's where the identification is supposed to take place.

If I remember right, an interviewer asked him about this in a piece in The Comics Journal Special Edition from Winter 2002—asked him whether he was deliberately taking this idea from McCloud—and Sacco's response was something like, "I just can't draw people very realistically. I'm better at drawing buildings and tanks."

John said...

In that case, "iconic" is waaaay too vague and broad a category.

Plus, how does one separate the background from the character in terms of impact on the viewer? They're both a part of the whole piece (the panel, page, overall book or medium the story is presented in, etc.) You know, the Mona Lisa isn't the Mona Lisa if she's at the beach.

Isaac said...

Don't think of "iconic" as a category. Think of it as a characteristic shared by a number of cartooning styles, to greater or lesser degree. With his characters and his backgrounds, Sacco uses different styles of translating real-world detail into marks on paper; one of those styles is noticeably more cartoony or "iconic." These days, his self-caricature is more iconic than his drawings of his interview subjects and other characters.

We can see that "iconic" approach to drawing in a lot of cartoonists, some of whom (Charles Schulz) use the same drawing style for backgrounds as well, and some of whom (Hergé) render backgrounds with more "visual resemblance" in mind while their characters are drawn more as "indicators" or "signs."

Take a look at the Mona Lisa in the first panel of McCloud's p. 44, for another example where figure and ground are rendered in different styles.