I had, and still have, some serious reservations about opening the comics class with Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. As my Making Comics review should tell you, I've gotten pretty tired of McCloud's relentless and, I think, misguided focus on reader identification and immersion as the quality that sets comics apart from all other media, and his icon-heavy presentation style seems to have worn thin as well. Yet from the moment I first designed this course, I knew Understanding Comics would be the first reading. The past two weeks, I've been watching to see if this was sound judgment or just a counterproductive fidelity to some old Platonic conception of a class I'd never actually taught.
I owe a lot to Understanding Comics. This is the book that showed me I could study comics (and sent me off on a formalist path I still haven't quite left behind). On the other hand, it's also a book riddled with so many naive theories, lazy arguments, and internal contradictions as to make it an unsuitable model for academic scholarship. Was this really the first book about comics I wanted my students to read?
Because of these reservations, I found myself alternately apologizing for and disputing McCloud since the second day of class. (Arguably since early in the course design, since I included articles by Bart Beaty, Jonathan Frome, and Dylan Horrocks that take issue with his ideas.) I don't like sending that sort of mixed message so early in the semester--if I have that many problems with McCloud, why am I leading off with him?--but when perceptive students started asking if me they were missing something because they didn't understand some of his claims about icons and identification, I didn't feel like I had much choice but to tell them the problems weren't theirs.
McCloud is an excellent reader of comics but a horrible scholar. (To be fair, Understanding Comics is more a manifesto than a work of scholarship, but I need to identify those bad practices for my students so they don't emulate them.) He invents grand theories of art, language, and psychology that he can't be bothered to support and he extrapolates his subjective reading experiences into universal proclamations of how every reader will respond. He doesn't seem to consider that any other people (with the exception of Will Eisner) might have already pondered some of these areas and developed concepts or terms he might find useful; he extends the academy's general neglect of comics--at the time, in English, and even then not as total as he lets on--onto every other subject he touches on, writing as if he is the only person ever to ask these questions. Did he really think the world needed him to whip up another definition of art?
As I reread Understanding Comics I was appalled by the blithe ignorance that pervaded a book I once loved. But the important question is not how useful I find the book now, but how useful it can be for a group of students who have never studied comics before, and on that account Understanding Comics seems to have done its job. Dylan Horrocks is absolutely right when he criticizes the arbitrary definitions and the rigid separation of form and content in McCloud's first chapter, but that chapter is incredibly helpful in getting students to look beyond genre and think about comics as a form. Getting students to grasp the concept of form can be difficult in any course, and in this respect I have to regard Understanding Comics as a smashing success. My class now has no trouble reading comics for their formal properties (as they showed in class discussions on Chris Ware's "Thrilling Adventure Stories/I Guess" and Moore and Veitch's "How Things Work Out"), and if anything I'll have to get them to change gears when we shift to historicist and genre criticism for Watchmen and superheroes. That alone makes McCloud worth using.
The most valuable parts of Understanding Comics come in the next three chapters, which lay out McCloud's theories about varying representational styles, closure and reader participation, and comics' mapping of time onto space. (In fact, I just cited McCloud on the "polyptych" the other day while working on the Morrison book.) These chapters also contain some of his most problematic claims, especially on iconic art and reader identification, where he commits the unpardonable mistake of assuming the very thing he's trying to prove. The rest of the book gets awfully flabby, with all that space-filler about linework and the six stages and a history of art that manages to get almost every single statement wrong. But the first four chapters (and to some extent the categories of word/image relations in chapter six, although that wheat comes with a lot of chaff) lay the groundwork for viewing comics as an art form and they supply a basic set of tools for reading and analyzing them, exactly what my students need right now.
I know some comics scholars who don't use McCloud in their classrooms--and with good reasons, only some of which I've touched on above. Maybe one of the gentlest criticisms you can make of Understanding Comics is that a lot of it doesn't seem necessary anymore; his defensive tone and status anxiety, his need to separate comics from the popular genres that long defined them in America, feels like a bad '90s flashback, about as contemporary as grunge. In that sense, the book may be a victim of its own success in expanding the public view of comics.
But however flawed the book is, however much it falls short of the most basic standards of scholarship, it provides a foundation for the formal study of comics. By the end of our McCloud unit, the students were actually sticking up for him in the face of the criticism from Beaty and Frome and Horrocks because he'd changed the way they viewed comics. I can empathize; he did the same for me.