Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Understanding the Comics Medium

My former MA student Mike Plugh, (who is about to embark on his doctoral work in the fall, congratulations again, Mike!), brought this video to my attention, and it's certainly worth including here on Blog Time Passing for a number of reasons.  While I haven't really gotten much into the subject, the medium of comics (as in comic strips and comic books) has come up here on occasion, and I have admitted to the fact that I have been reading comics all my life (see, for example, my post from a few years ago, More Conversations).

I've also noted that I think that Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a nonfictional, philosophical examination of the comics medium rendered in graphic novel format, is an excellent addition to the media ecology literature, and I've used it in graduate classes on a number of occasions.  The two sequels to Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics, are not quite as good as the first, but still interesting, and worth reading if you're at all interested in the medium, or visual communication in general.  The sequels also get into the impact and potential of digital technologies, which makes them relevant to the study of new media as well, and the third volume, Making Comics, is especially relevant to new media scholars.

So here is Scott McCloud giving one of those TED talks.  The opening, biographical presentation may not seem all that relevant to some, although he does bring it back into play at the end, and the overall theme of vision carries through the entire talk.

The name McCloud is certainly close enough to McLuhan to generate a sense of connection between the two, and McLuhan is his main media ecological influence, as you can tell by this presentation.  But there's also a subtle connection to general semantics as he claims a scientific orientation, and talks about abstracting, albeit in terms of images and visual communication, another example of how the concept of level of abstracting needs to be supplemented by the idea of mode of abstracting (see my previous posts, Language vs. Speech and Art, Abstracting, and Autism).  What he presents here really only gives you a taste of what's in Understanding Comics, however.

What stands out about this presentation, though, is his demonstration of the potential of digital, online comics, at the end of the talk, particularly in relation to, and as an alternative to hypertext.  The examples he gives are all from other comics creators, but you can find some of his own experiments on his website,, under the menu item of Webcomics

The idea of the screen as a window that reveals a fraction of a larger image, one that requires you to navigate through the terrain, the environment, is not unique to this particular art form (it's pretty basic in video games, after all, and in anything that requires a scroll bar for that matter, including basic word processing).  In fact, it's fairly intrinsic to digital media, but provides an invigorating boost when applied to comics, as can be seen from the examples he shows, and the ones he included on his site.

I have gone to his website and shown students some of this Webcomics in various new media classes I've taught where we've covered the topic of form, generally as a supplement to discussions of hypertext (so I was pleased to see him represent the digital comics in that context as well as in this talk).  One basic point in media ecology, going back to McLuhan, is that when new technologies are introduced, people try to use them to do the same old things they were doing with the old technologies, not recognizing their true potential; McLuhan argued that it takes artists (comics artists included) to probe the boundaries and uncover the possibilities of any new medium.

The one step McCloud has yet to take, at least as far as this video and his books are concerned, is to discuss the comics medium as an environment, an environment that becomes all the more visible, and dynamic, in this new, digital form.  What we need is a media ecology of comics!  Right, Mike?

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