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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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The Creation Myth

In Chapter Six of Understanding Comics (‘Show and Tell’) Scott discusses the relationship between words and pictures - not only in comics, but in the history of communication. He invents a kind of creation myth, in which pictures give birth to writing. Over time, words and pictures grow further and further apart from one another, until Rodolphe Topffer recognizes ‘their interdependency’ and brings ‘the family back together at last’ by inventing the modern comic. The chapter concludes with Scott expressing ‘a certain vague longing for that time over 50 centuries ago -’

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Of course, the historical accuracy of this is debatable. The relationship between words and pictures has always been more complex than Scott suggests. For one thing, he ignores the role of the spoken word, which may predate pictures and certainly predates pictograms. An alternative history, for example, might trace the development of the use of signs, showing how visual, spoken, gestural, musical, written and other languages have all grown in parallel, constantly feeding off each other. Words are coined as verbal representations of pictorial techniques, just as many pictorial devices seek to recreate rhetorical ones.

Even the great shifts in the arts that Scott outlines are spurious. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, for example, art and literary criticism were caught up in a debate about ‘pictorialist poetry’ and ‘literary painting,’ with described the general feeling that there was altogether too much mingling of the arts going on. Such critics would have been surprised to hear that ‘words and pictures had drifted as far apart as possible,’ as Scott suggests (pg.149). (9)  After all, this was the time of William Blake’s painting-poetry synthesis and the heyday of political caricature (including, in the 1780s and 1790s, a craze for political comic strips).

But this chapter isn’t intended as a serious history. It’s a myth; a kind of genealogy (or origin story) for comics, which goes something like this:

1. There are pictures, which are used to tell stories and show things.

2. Pictures give birth to words.

3. After a long estrangement, words are reunited with ‘their parents, . . . pictures’ in the form of comics.

Comics are, according to this mythology, our chance to return to an original, pure language of communication - essentially a language of pictures.

The War Between Words and Pictures

The battle to preserve the (imagined) boundaries between the arts has often been expressed as a battle between words and pictures. Words (and therefore poetry and prose) have been seen as ‘essentially’ narrative, because they are experienced in sequence and therefore across time. Pictures, on the other hand, are ‘essentially’ spatial, because they are perceived all at once, as relationships across space. Furthermore, pictures are seen as ‘motivated’ signs (ie. they resemble the thing they represent) and are therefore best suited to depicting visible, concrete things. Because words are ‘arbitrary’ signs, however, they are able to represent things that can not be seen.

Therefore, the argument usually goes, poetry should stick to telling stories and discussing ideas; poetry that dwells on visual images and scenes (‘pictorialism’) is bad poetry, because it is trying to do something that pictures do better. It focuses on its deficiencies rather than its strengths; in a sense, it betrays its own form. The same is true of pictures that try to tell stories (‘narrative pictures’) or convey ideas (‘rhetorical pictures’) rather than concerning themselves simply with scenes, places, arrangements of color and shape - in short, with the sense of sight.

Whether or not he is aware of the long history of such debates, Scott has been informed by them when he stresses that comics are ‘spatially juxtaposed pictorial . . . images.’ The essential element in comics is the placement of pictures in sequence - thereby solving this age-old dispute between words and pictures. This is why Scott has recently boiled his definition of comics down to ‘Space = Time.’

‘...Maybe the purest example of comics that I’ve come up with is a picture of two squares, two boxes or panels, sitting next to each other on a blank white background. If it’s not comics, it’s just a picture of two squares; if it is comics, then that’s a picture of one moment and then the next. That’s about as far as I can reduce it. And the simplest description of that phenomenon is ‘space equals time.’ Representing time spatially.’

(The Comics Journal #179)

Scott is not saying here that pictures equal words. His equation is about ‘representing time spatially’ - as opposed to textually. So in comics, pictures can convey narrative, just as words do. Comics, then, are something quite different to a ‘hybrid’ of words and pictures. Rather, they are a new invention in the field of picture-making, allowing the artist to depict not only space, but time. In Scott’s view, words are irrelevant to the ‘essential nature’ of comics, as he explains to R. C. Harvey in the Comics Journal:

‘...Words and abstract images can be included [in comics] but pictorial [images] is the necessary, essential element; the others are optional. It must have pictures. It must have some visual representation of a visual phenomenon.... I see the visual component as being definitive. Without pictures, it’s simply not a comic. Whereas I feel confident that there have been wordless comics.... So when talking about words and pictures together in comics, we’re talking about a vital and huge subset of what’s being done with the medium, but it’s not hardwired to its very substance the way pictures are.’

In a sense, comics are a new language, preserving the grammar (ie. spatial arrangement) of written language, but replacing the actual words with pictures (perhaps fulfilling Goethe’s hope that Toppfer’s ‘picture stories’ will create a ‘healing universal language’). Pictures are now allowed to tell stories - to perform the job of words. In effect, to render words ‘optional’ - replaceable. Perhaps one reason for the current vogue for wordless comics is a desire to demonstrate that ‘sequential art’ can do anything text can - that with the invention of comics, pictures have finally won the war with language and replaced words altogether.

The Problem With Words

‘Language is the key to personhood.’

(Carl Barks)

As he demonstrates in chapter nine of Understanding Comics, Scott perceives communication according to what Lakoff and Johnson call the ‘conduit metaphor,’ ie. language as the conduit through which meaning is transmitted from the speaker to the audience. According to this conception, the challenge of discourse is to smuggle your idea (or signal) through to the listener as clearly as possible - ie. with as little interference (noise) from the medium as possible. The medium, language, is seen as a channel - but a flawed one, which can hinder clear communication.

This ‘conduit’ metaphor of communication supports an essentialist view of the arts. Each medium (words, pictures, comics, etc) has inherent limitations. These limitations can contribute to ‘noise.’ So to improve the chances of clear communication, artists should try to exploit their medium’s inherent advantages and avoid those limitations. This is how Scott puts it in Understanding Comics: (10)

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And this is how he describes the same problem in relation to words in that Comics Journal interview:

McCloud: ‘I have this very precise idea in my head. It’s only when I try to get it into words that it starts to get garbled.’

Harvey: ‘Ahhh, I see. Here we have an indication of the generation gap between us, I perceive. The only way I can get precise about an idea is to put it into words. And yet you have a precise idea before it reaches a verbal stage.’

McCloud: ‘Oh yes, definitely. No, the words don’t create the meaning for me, that’s for sure.’

Harvey: ‘Interesting. A harbinger of things to come, I’m sure.... I’ve always said that you can’t be really precise in your thought until you can convert it into words because words are more precise than the vagaries of thought.’

McCloud: ‘I see words more as a kind of switching yard. And you’ve always got to be careful that as your meaning passes through them, they don’t send you onto the wrong track, or onto multiple tracks.’’

In a number of recent lecture handouts, Scott seems to be exploring a possible solution: replacing words with his own invented vocabulary of pictograms, or ‘sign language,’ each of which represents a precise idea that he has in his head. The aim, presumably, is to avoid having to using ‘tracks’ whose meanings are not entirely under Scott’s control. It is an attempt to recreate that mythological original language he described in chapter six of Understanding Comics: a kind of writing in which all signs are ‘motivated.’ Perhaps Scott hopes that ‘motivated’ signs are somehow more transparent in meaning.

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From one of Scott McCloud's lecture handouts (as published in TheComics Journal #179, August 1995, pg.59)

If this is Scott’s hope, however, the experiment is doomed to fail. Even these new signs will be read by different people in different ways, and never in quite the way Scott intends. All signs, whether words or pictures, exist as the frisson between a complex and shifting web of meaning and connotation - as do our thoughts.

An alternative metaphor for communication is that language (in all its forms - verbal, textual, visual, gestural) is the field in which we construct meaning. It is how we organise our experience of the world. Rather than language being merely a tool for the communication of ideas (which are somehow supposed to exist outside language), it is the very stuff of which thought, ideas and communication are all made. Language, then, is not something to fear - to struggle against in an effort to preserve the purity of our own ideas. Instead, we are all immersed in language - in a sense, we are made of it. In an act of communication, both the speaker and the audience work with language - with that infinitely complex field of meaning - in a way that creates meaning socially.

The Infinite Atlas

‘This book’s revelations about how maps must be white lies but may sometimes become real lies should provide the same sort of reassuring knowledge that allows humans to control and exploit fire and electricity.’

(Mark Monmonier, How To Lie With Maps).

Understanding Comics is one of my favorite comics. It expresses and explores the same love for comics I’ve always felt but, like Scott, found all but impossible to share with people outside the comics community. It argues persuasively for comics’ limitless potential - that they needn’t be restricted to any particular styles, formats, subject matter or media. And it inspires cartoonists to ever more ambitious creativity - to fearlessly explore uncharted territory. When I first read it, it opened up for me new ways of imagining comics. I’d always been interested in the links between comics and such things as Monet’s series paintings, medieval narrative frescoes and (that old standard) the Bayeux Tapestry. But along comes Scott who brazenly takes it one step further: these are comics, he says. They’re not just like comics, they are actually comics.

I found this an incredibly liberating exercise; it changed the way I looked at everything. It redrew my mental map of comics. It reminded me of what I used to say to people back in my teens: ‘Sure, most comics are crap, but try and imagine a comic done by Picasso! Or James Joyce! Or... (etc).’ It reminded me that I’d always intended to write an essay discussing the work of New Zealand’s greatest modern painter, Colin McCahon, (11) as comics (I still don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it).

Since those days, I’d gone through a period when I immersed myself in the history of comics - learning for the first time to really love clumsy old trash like Siegel & Schuster’s Superman, Fox’s cheap and nasty pre-code titles, those crazy silver age DC comics edited by guys like Mort Weisinger and drawn by Wayne Boring and Kurt Schaffenberger et al. . . . In short, I learned to love everything people hate about comics - even Image comics. (12)

Reading Understanding Comics brought those two ways of loving comics together for me - in that sense it helped me to write my own book Hicksville. Part of me has been in a dialogue with Scott’s book for the past six years - and will be for some time yet.

I have tackled Understanding Comics primarily as a work of polemic, which seeks to build a comics nation (on particular terms) because I believe there is a danger that in adopting it as a manifesto, we will forget that for all the exciting new territory it opens up, it is still only one map. Like any map, it presents only one way of reading an infinitely complex landscape, thereby suppressing other possible readings. There are some alternative readings which McCloud is clearly wanting to suppress - those dreaded ‘stereotypes’ that ‘defined what comics could be too narrowly.’ But even these maps can be useful at times - they helped guide me on my journey through the history of the industry, for example. They are, after all, the same maps that guided many of the cartoonists, publishers and readers who built that industry.

Then there are countless new maps we could start drawing for ourselves - exploring the connections between comics and literature, film, photography, graphic design, typography, (13)   performance, diagrams, or (for that matter) cartography. Personally, I find it useful to keep as many maps in my pocket atlas as possible - and to wander outside their delineated borders every time I feel the scenery is getting a little stale. Borders are, after all, artificial inventions designed to control the movement of people, commodities and ideas. They have their uses, sure - but for an explorer, they are merely an irresistible invitation.

So the maps I use most often are those which allow me to go wherever my work takes me - if I can find what I need over in the realm of visual images, that’s where I’ll go. But that doesn’t mean I’ll give up my citizenship of the land of prose and poetry - I feel as much a part of that country as I do a compatriot of Breughel, Picasso, Pollock and Cartier-Bresson. Or for that matter Herriman, Crumb, Herge and Tezuka. There are times when I’ll want to let words take over completely, and other times when I speak entirely with pictures. I see my job as putting things on paper (or, if Scott has his way, on computer screens). I feel no need to limit what shape those things can take.

‘And remember: it’s only lines on paper, folks!’

(Robert Crumb)

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For an excellent introduction to these debates and others in the battle between words and pictures, try W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (University of Chicago Press, 1986). Back


A controversial example of this approach is Gregory Cwiklik’s essay on ‘The Inherent Limitations of the Comics Form as a Narrative Medium’ in The Comics Journal #184. It’s worth noting that many of the outraged replies to his essay did not attack Cwiklik for using an essentialist theory of form, but rather for suggesting that there was anything pictorial narrative could not do. Back


To get an idea of what I’m on about, you can see a good selection of McCahon’s work on the following website:  Back


Let’s just say I love them the way a parent loves their difficult teenager. Back


Michel Vrana once told me about a conversation he’d had with Chris Ware. Michel had been complimenting Ware on his drawing when Ware demurred: "Oh, that’s not drawing - that’s typography." Back



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Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks