Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Making Comics by Scott McCloud



For those who have been living in a cave the past summer, Making Comics is Scott McCloud's latest offering; a how-to book on the process of comic creation. I've had my copy for about a week, but wanting to give it a good thorough read-through before commenting (as well as juggling it with reading about statistics and developmental psychology), I'm only now finally posting some thoughts on it.

Perhaps returning to familiar ground is a good place to start. Not infrequently I've noticed, I have been wrongly anonymously-quoted as saying that Understanding Comics was a how-to book, and I think MC helps make a clearer distinction. UC is a book of theory, but like the start of any good field's theories (which it is, both good and a starting point) it begins with what is most accessible to people's intuitions. From this, you can go in two directions: theory and practice.

Take for instance nouns and verbs. One can use nouns and verbs to better understand how to be a good writer (like in English class), or you can use them to analyze the deeper structures of how language works (like in linguistics). Comparable is the idea of panel transitions. In UC, McCloud took a very theoretical approach to dissecting and analyzing them, while in MC he (kinda) uses them as a tool for praxis. Both are valid ways of using that theory.

And from the basis of UC these two paths should now be clearer. With MC, McCloud has gone the route of English class, essentially becoming a "visual language instructor." I've primarily gone the linguistics route, diving into theoretical waters and ultimately critiquing the initial theories that McCloud set the tone with (though, while maybe not always as immediately recognizable as McCloud's, even my theories have a practical application too).

As always, as an author McCloud is a treat to read. His drawings looked fantastic and polished, yet, part of me wished he returned to the greys he used in Reinventing Comics, which gave nicer tone difference to the black of the line art and would have been softer on the eyes than his faux-screentones.

The footnoting of every referenced image on every page was tedious and annoying (and better served by the then redundant end section). It made things seem awfully cluttered at times. I liked that he had endnotes and drawing activities, though I would have preferred the activities to be drawn (or have "worksheet style pages" rather than just a listing in text).

Though well executed, Chapters 1 and 2 I felt were a little long because of how dense they were. Each had many subsections (and subsections of subsections), and it would have benefited from broader "book sections" for each, then subdivided into chapters per sub-topic. This might have allowed McCloud to breathe a little more for each one and really go further in depth. Despite the great probing he does, you can tell he's just scratching the surface of his thinking.

I loved his "Choice of moment" discussion of events carried out by panels, represented by connecting the dots of an overarching event. Particularly interesting was how he seemed to equate different parts of the visual sequence explicitly to different words. It reminded me at least a little of how linguistic semantics uses one language to describe the meanings of another (the idea being that if something can be said in one, its equivalent can be found in the other, implying all the while that the two are equal in expressive power). It was very interesting to see how he changed his description of the sequence with each change in panels.

What was also particularly intriguing about this discussion was that it betrayed an internal conflict within McCloud's approach to sequential meaning. While McCloud does include his taxonomy of panel transitions from UC in MC, he uses them sparingly in scattered amounts throughout. Now, I've been a critic of transitions and closure (which surprisingly hardly appears at all in MC), but a simple difference in my theoretical approach to McCloud's is just one of scope. While transitions simply relate one panel to another, a broader look at sequences admits that they form a holistic sequence.

Unlike his panel transitions, this "dots" depiction implies this same sentiment of mine that a sequence composes a contiguous whole event based around an intended expressive idea. Things like his lengthy (and excellent) discussion of "establishing shots" actually damage the idea of transitions, as they also rely on a functional relation to the whole sequence, and would have trouble being placed in a transitional approach (especially when the establishing shot itself is broken up into several panels).

Another theme of the book (and talking to him in person) is how self-deprecating McCloud is about his own work. He consistently expresses that his own work isn't quite good enough, and that is why he's writing a how-to book: to teach himself. As I told him in person, I think this is pure baloney.

In the words of his own "Four Tribes." analysis, I feel that McCloud isn't fessing up to his own Formalist identity, and critiquing his own work from the perspective of an Animist or Classicist. Part of the benefit of this theory is in understanding the inherent subjectivity of how one perspective views another.

He interestingly footnotes that much of his instruction in the books is teaching how to be an Animist, and in reflection seems to be what McCloud wishes he was more of. In some ways I feel that this is a case of "outside type envy," believing that you should be that which you're not because the other might thereby seem better (and might be more prevalent and thus louder in expressing their distaste at things). On the one hand, it's good to respond to criticism and grow as a creator beyond where you already are. On the other, it's good to embrace what's good about yourself for who you are (and for McCloud, there's lots), and it's quite alright to tell people to fuck off and enjoy their own camp without being so prejudicial to that which is different from their preferences.

That said, I should say that any of my gripes about the theoretical underpinnings of the book are tangential to the practical aspects for which the book was intended. In fact, I was a bit surprised there wasn't more theory in it, given that many theoretical observations that have been in his live talks of late didn't make it into the book.

For what the book purports to do though – instruction – it excels at. While I was able to scrape together what I feel was pretty good tools for learning when I was younger, this is certainly a book I would have loved to have when I was first starting out as a comic author.

This also taps into the concerns some reviewers have expressed regarding the book's audience. It certainly doesn't seem to be for people who can't draw at all, but rather for those who already have at least a base understanding and ability. It isn't a "foreign language class" that teaches you from ground up.

Rather, it’s a "(visual) language arts" class that teaches you to hone the intuitions you already have. McCloud strives to take what you have and make you better. He certainly lives up to his side of this equation, and hopefully the rest of us readers can live up to ours.

Other reviews I found interesting:

TCJ Forum
Fleen
Stephen Frug

1 comment:

grant said...

I was interested in his choice of frame section, too, but for different reasons. For a while now I have been wondering why all other forms of art have now been up front about the fact that they are objects and not illusions of another world, yet film and and comics still expect us to suspend reality and believe a 2d surface is 3 Dimensional. (Though I saw a film installation once where the projector was purposely in the room with the viewers and purosely clanking away as if to draw attention to the fact that we were looking at a projected image.)

Ultimately, I think painters and comics creators use abstraction for different reasons. Painters generally use it to bring attention to the materials and comics use it as a visual shorthand- almost a Zen brush painting mentality of economy of line.

I know McCloud has touched on this subject in UC with his pyramid, but its been a while since I read it and don't own a copy. I haven't read all of MC and I have thumbed ahead and see he might talk about abstraction later. When I finish the book I plan on talking about this subject further.