(This review originally appeared in the International Journal of Comic Art 10.1, Spring 2008.)
In a 1999 issue of The Comics Journal dedicated to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), James Sturm and Art Baxter contributed a seven-page comic that lacerated McCloud for his “warm and fuzzy view of human nature.” The piece always struck me as unnecessarily nasty, not so much for its treatment of McCloud as for its treatment of the human race. To refute McCloud’s earnest but naïve statements that all problems stem from a lack of communication and all “inner truths” are inherently worthy, Sturm and Baxter declared that most people have no ideas worth communicating—and to prove their point, they drew a multicultural crowd in which every person, except for the cynical artist figure, was thinking some sort of racist, homophobic, or misogynist slur. While they railed against “the tyranny of popular taste,” Sturm and Baxter fell into the convenient posture of rebel artists isolating themselves from a corrupt society, convinced everyone else was either a sell-out or an idiot.
This criticism seemed both mean-spirited and largely irrelevant to Understanding Comics, answering a string of arguments McCloud’s book never made. Understanding Comics never denied that most comics were in thrall to popular tastes; it simply suggested that they didn’t have to be. But while Sturm and Baxter were excoriating McCloud for failing to condemn the popular with sufficient rancor, they inadvertently identified a line of argument that would become more prominent, even dominant, with each new volume of McCloud’s comics criticism: the idea of the crowd as the ultimate arbiter of quality. Reinventing Comics (2000) made repeated appeals to the wisdom of the open market, touting electronic delivery and web comics as a burgeoning revolution that would topple the monopolistic hegemony of American comics publishers and distributors by connecting artists directly with readers. With its faith that the internet would liberate creators and consumers from the imperfect economy of the physical world, Reinventing Comics reads like a late (and, given its release in the summer of 2000, ill-timed) entry into the boosterish literature of the New Economy, championing free markets as a form of rebellion. McCloud’s most recent volume, Making Comics (2006), retreats from its predecessor’s fantasies of the “frictionless economy” but extrapolates its market logic to aesthetics and creative inspiration. The “storytelling secrets” advertised on its cover invariably boil down to an unquestioned faith in the wisdom of nameless masses to determine what makes a good story. Scott McCloud has finally written the book Sturm and Baxter were criticizing nine years ago.
This facile aesthetic populism is all the more frustrating because Making Comics is in many ways a welcome return to the form of Understanding Comics. Unlike Reinventing Comics, the new volume plays to McCloud’s strengths as a critic, offering close formal analyses that it demonstrates through its own comics pages. With his art once again exemplifying his ideas instead of merely illustrating them, McCloud provides an insider’s look at the different elements and methods of making comics. The book is not How to Draw Comics the Scott McCloud Way and it doesn’t pretend to be a manual for producing finished comics; rather than go into detail on how to render perspective or anatomy, McCloud surveys the different options and then steers his readers to other, more practically oriented guides. Making Comics is an introduction to visual storytelling, showing aspiring comics artists the variety of decisions and techniques available to them.
McCloud only attempts to itemize the tools of comics, not to examine them in exhaustive detail; unfortunately, the tools he features rarely extend beyond cliché. When McCloud invents his own examples instead of looking at other artists’ comics (generally with more rewarding results), he always resorts to broad strokes: he illustrates character development and conflict by suggesting that “A character raised in poverty, for example, may have trouble relating to a shopping-addicted heiress.” McCloud’s art participates fully in this hackneyed formula, depicting a poor girl—we can tell she’s poor because she wears a torn and frayed shirt—who shoplifts from a stylish boutique—we can tell it’s a stylish boutique because a giant poster advertises “STYLE.” To be fair, McCloud is producing a how-to book; he selects his images for their didactic value, not because he wants to illuminate the subtle gradients of class in late capitalist society. A certain amount of visual shorthand suits his purposes, the simplified images conveying his ideas without distraction, but his immediate and inevitable recourse to stereotype bleeds into those ideas as well.
A few pages after his shopping example, McCloud dignifies his clichés with the dubious title of “archetypes” and encourages creators to use them because they can “insure a variety of desires and world views”—his examples of this variety are Gandalf, Albus Dumbledore, and Obi-Wan Kenobi—“while tapping into universal values that transcend any one genre or culture.” McCloud repeatedly refers to audiences’ “common heritage and experiences,” urging artists to appeal to them, but his storehouse of visual stereotypes and stock characters only looks universal if your tastes have never ranged beyond the most formulaic and derivative works of Western pop culture. McCloud claims that tapping into this heritage is one of the “basic storytelling goals that most writers seem to agree on,” invoking an anonymous artistic consensus to license his recirculation of the same devalued images.
No images are recirculated more frequently than the icons that litter Making Comics. McCloud jokes about his love of categories and diagrams, but his penchant for communicating his ideas through simplified visual symbols is just as pronounced—and, sadly, just as worthy of ridicule. This may seem like a superficial stylistic complaint, but McCloud’s creatively impoverished icons too often block his arguments from advancing beyond superficiality, leaching meaning from the concepts they are supposed to convey; thus, comics’ rich, varied interplay of words and pictures is reduced to a letter W and a letter P, tugging each other on a semi-trailer labeled “STORY” or sitting on a park bench and bickering like an old married couple. (Or, more accurately, like a popular cliché of an old married couple.) The more reductive and obvious the symbolization, the more obsessively McCloud repeats the symbols. The barrage of icons, charts, and categories gives Making Comics the feel of a particularly pandering management-theory text, or a PowerPoint presentation that never ends. The most apt analogy, especially given McCloud’s interest in online media, may be a website. Making Comics is filled with maps and layers for the reader to navigate in and out of, and buttons to mark the way—but they’re redundant and our guide tells us how to follow them in excruciating detail.
Equally oversimplified, but more troublesome, are the reasons McCloud offers for telling stories through comics. From its first page, Making Comics places a premium on immersive storytelling, on making comics that create “a reading experience so seamless that it doesn’t feel like reading at all but like being there.” Although he admits that other styles of comics exist, McCloud once again invokes an artistic silent majority to justify his emphasis: “I do think this is the goal most of us start with: to tell a story that swallows the reader whole.” He later says this goal “is where making comics starts. It’s why comics exist.” He doesn’t deny that there are other reasons for creating comics; he simply denies them primacy. This focus on immersion is perhaps an outgrowth of McCloud’s Understanding Comics theories on closure and audience involvement, but rather than reexamine and strengthen those theories, and perhaps answer some of the criticisms they have generated over the years, he builds ever more elaborate armatures on top of them.
In Chapter Six, McCloud outlines “four tribes”—another set of classifications, each tribe receiving its own icon that appears no less than seventeen times in nine pages—to describe four different motivations for making art, four different traits that can dominate an artist’s style. It would be pointless to nitpick these formulations, as McCloud himself concedes they may be reductive, futile, and too easily misapplied, but one particular blind spot reveals much about the assumptions that underlie McCloud’s model. Of the six possible pairings that can result from combining his four artistic dominants, McCloud considers only five. Although he aligns the “Animists” who are devoted to content-driven, immersive storytelling with the “Iconoclasts” who cast a jaded or critical eye on real-life experiences, saying they both “see art primarily through life’s lens,” he doesn't provide any examples of artists who successfully blend the two approaches, as he does with every other pairing. (Joe Sacco leaps immediately to mind, as does Eddie Campbell.) McCloud’s schematic isolates “content” from cultural critique and self-reflection, as if those were not themselves kinds of content, and he seems to think that Iconoclasts and only Iconoclasts are defined by their resistance to “pandering and selling out.” Even worse, McCloud repeatedly associates Animistic “content” with transient juvenilia, yet he promotes Animist ideals throughout Making Comics, prescribing the style that he explicitly separates from honesty, integrity, and social conscience.
For all its problems, Making Comics still presents attentive, revealing formal explorations of the comics medium. The nine-page essay on “Understanding Manga,” which tabulates and classifies the storytelling techniques that distinguish manga from American superhero comics, is vintage McCloud. Unfortunately, the rest of the book makes it increasingly clear how limited that approach has become. Even when he’s conducting his brief but illuminating formal readings, McCloud still focuses on manga’s propensity for provoking reader identification and immersion, identifying these qualities as the source of manga’s success in Japan and around the world. While he may have a point about their commercial benefits, his narrow focus reduces all manga techniques to reader participation effects. Throughout the book, McCloud urges artists to build connections with their audiences either through immersive techniques or by repeating what their audiences already know and understand—his first storytelling suggestion is to “look for stories that are rooted in your own experience, and that speak to the experiences of your readers.” These bromides are so general that it’s hard to argue with them, except to note how much they leave out: McCloud says nothing about seeking out new or different experiences, nothing about challenging readers to confront truths they do not already understand. Perhaps those skills cannot be taught in any book, but by failing to try—and failing to ask his readers to try—McCloud sells comics short. He has written a book about creative production that has little attention to or need for creativity. Even if we take it on its own terms as a motivational book for budding artists, I have to wonder what kind of comics Making Comics would make.