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Inventing Comics:

Scott McCloud’s Definition of Comics.

by Dylan Horrocks

(first published in the Comics Journal #234, June 2001)

Copyright 2001 Dylan Horrocks

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Erasing History

The problem with comics is that people associate them not with what they could be, but with what they have been - ie. their history. So McCloud must first find a way to get rid of that history, which he does by employing a handy old dichotomy: form Vs. content.

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pg.5, last panel

McCloud shows just how useful this dichotomy can be in the following - crucial - page, which is worth showing in full. McCloud dramatizes a common metaphor (‘form as vessel’): (1)

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Scott demonstrates perfectly what makes this dichotomy (and metaphor) so useful. Even if most comics make you want to puke, he suggests, you can still admire the ‘form’ of comics. In one fell swoop he has removed all other considerations - genre, style, publishing formats; in short, the whole embarrassing history of comics - and focused our attention on their pure, shiny form. Which, as you can see, is an equal sister to such respected media as the written word, music and visual art.

This ‘form,’ then, is what Scott will define. In fact, he’s already defined it - back on page 5:

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pg.5, panel 1 (and following)

So there it is - Scott has found his ‘Art of Comics.’ Eisner’s ‘Sequential Art’ is where Scott’s search for a definition begins and ends:

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pg.7, panel 1

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‘Sequential Art’ is a useful definition for Scott because the ‘hidden power’ - or ‘invisible art’ - that he most wants to draw our attention to is ‘closure.’ For Scott, ‘closure’ allows pictures to transcend the traditional limitations of the single image, becoming narrative. It is this process that Scott values most about comics. How appropriate, then, to elevate it to definitive status.

Nowhere in Understanding Comics does Scott attempt to justify why ‘Sequential Art’ should be seen as the one definitive element in comics to the exclusion of all others: the combination of words and pictures, the use of certain conventions (eg. speech balloons, panel borders), particular formats, styles, genres, etc. Take another look at how Scott begins to construct his own ‘proper’ definition:

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pg.7, panel 1

‘...Seems like a good place to start?’ That’s it? That’s the best argument he can come up with for why this is the definitive aspect of comics?

Basically, yes. The reason Scott bases his definition on Eisner’s is that he likes it. The reason he likes it is that it is useful: it highlights the things he values most about comics. He doesn’t try to convince us that his definition is more ‘correct’ than any other, nor that it most accurately describes what people usually mean when they use the word ‘comics.’ Instead he persuades us of its usefulness. He seduces us with its beauty. (2)

But Scott also uses an extremely clever bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand to slip his definition into our mental dictionaries. It takes him just two panels:

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pg.4, panels 3-4

This is how it works. Eisner identified his ‘art of comics’ with the term ‘Sequential Art.’ Scott takes this same concept, rewrites it as a dictionary-style definition and renames it ‘Comics.’ That’s the really clever part. Essentially, he has taken one term - or concept - (Eisner’s ‘sequential art’) and grafted it on to the old word ‘comics.’ Same old word - new meaning. The only clue that the old word has been replaced is that line ‘plural in form, used with a singular verb’ (which, I guess, indicates that ‘comics’ is short for ‘The Art of Comics):’ (3)

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Pg.9, panels 5-6

Pretty clever, eh? It’s kind of like a rhetorical Invasion of the Body-Snatchers - you take a newly invented term, but instead of coining a neologism, you make it outwardly resemble the old term you want to replace. The new meaning colonizes the old word, like a virus. Actually, Scott has humorously dramatized this strategy in the same panel by continuing his dictionary entry with three alternative definitions. The zipatone that highlights Scott’s new definition all but obscures the older, less desirable ones:

‘2. Superheroes in bright, colorful costumes, fighting dastardly villains who want to conquer the world, in violent sensational pulse-pounding action sequences! 3. Cute, cuddly bunnies, mice and rolypoly bears, dancing to and fro, Hippity Hop, Hippity Hop. 4. Corruptor of our Nation’s Youth.’

From now on, if Scott’s tactic works, whenever we talk about ‘comics’ we will really be talking about ‘sequential art.’ This is the trick at the heart of Scott’s manifesto. It is polemic at its finest - making ‘the way I want things to be’ appear as ‘the way things are.’ This is how an ideology colonizes our vocabulary, until its agenda is invisible and we unwittingly see the world according to its terms.

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Note here that Scott equates "the artform" with "the medium," which obscures the fact that ‘medium’ is used in two different ways. It is often used to refer to the physical materials or tools from which an artwork is made: film, video, paint, ink, paper. But it is also sometimes used in the sense Scott uses it here: to refer to an ‘artform’ such as movies, painting, poetry, etc. According to the former use, the medium of comics could be said to be ‘ink on paper’ (or, if Scott has his way, ‘pixels on a screen’). But ‘comics’ are just one use to which that medium can be put; ‘comics,’ then, could only be called a medium in the second sense of an ‘artform,’ rather than a ‘physical medium.’

That Scott may be confusing these different uses of the term is suggested in the next panel, when he includes as ‘media’ both ‘video’ and ‘film’ (which are certainly ‘media’ in the first - ‘physical’ - sense, but which would usually be lumped together as ‘moving pictures’ under the ‘artform’ sense). All the other ‘media’ he identifies - including comics - are only ‘media’ in the ‘artform’ sense. The significance of this will hopefully become clearer below, when I take a closer look at the ‘form-as-vessel’ metaphor.Back


Scott does argue that ‘sequential art’ is a phenomenon occurring in comics which is "neutral on matters of style, quality or subject matter." But he doesn’t try to suggest that it is the only such phenomenon, nor that it is unique to comics. Once he has established his definition in his minds, of course, it will become possible for him to argue both such things - in a circular argument (for example: ‘Sequential art’ is unique to comics because all works that contain ‘Sequential art’ are comics). Back


The singular verb also symbolically unifies the often factionalised comics community - particularly the two camps of ‘comic books’ and ‘comic strips.’ Back


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Copyright 2002 Dylan Horrocks