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Inventing Comics:

Scott McCloud’s Definition of Comics.

by Dylan Horrocks

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

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‘Theory is contested territory.’

(Thomas McLaughlin, in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia & Thomas McLaughlin).

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a powerful piece of polemic. It is also a work of theory - arguably the most important book of comics theory published in English so far. But Scott makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s a man on a mission. He has an agenda, and he pursues it with all the weapons in his rhetorical toolkit. He is persuasive and inspiring. Of course, all theory is to some extent polemic; theory is about persuading others to think about things in a certain way: a struggle between different ways of talking.

Most discussion of Understanding Comics, however, has ignored this polemical dimension entirely, treating McCloud’s work as simple, disinterested scientific argument. I suspect this is because most of us who have read it share Scott’s agenda. When you’re preaching to the converted, it’s easy to convince them that you’re speaking the Truth - rationally rather than rhetorically.

Nevertheless, Understanding Comics has become something of a manifesto for many in the comics community. It constructs a way of talking about comics that affirms and supports our longing for critical respectability and seems to offer an escape from the cultural ghetto.

Crucial to that ‘way of talking about comics’ is Scott’s definition of the ‘form.’ In a sense he uses this definition to establish the limits of the territory which he will go on to explore - and claim - on behalf of the comics community. But like any definition, it is necessarily an expression of certain values and assumptions. By saying, ‘This is comics,’ Scott is really saying: ‘This is what comics should be; it is what we should value most about them.’ On the other hand, he’s also saying what comics should not be, and, by implication, what we should value less about them.

Let’s take a closer look at that definition, then, and see what it reveals about McCloud’s agenda, and what he (and his constituency within the comics community) value most, and least, about comics.

‘Setting the Record Straight’

This, the title of Understanding Comics’ first chapter, sums up how McCloud sees his mission. He is out to shatter the ‘stereotypes’ that keep most people from appreciating the unique magic of comics. He begins by telling an origin story, the story of his own conversion to the cause:

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Before long, Scott was obsessed with comics and had set out to become a comics artist. But it wasn’t the bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights that had changed his life . . .

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So there it is. The problem with comics isn’t that they are crude, poorly drawn, semiliterate, cheap, and disposable kiddie fare (although most of them are). The real problem is that people think that’s all they are. But never fear - Scott has come up with a solution:

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Here’s how Scott’s strategy works.

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Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks