Sunday, March 22, 2009

Understanding Comics

Cory Matheny
Prof. Ellis
Literary Analysis
March 22, 2009
The central focus of “Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” seems to be an articulation of the origins and potential significance of, what he calls, ‘closure.’ For McCloud, the idea that comics mimic the processes of everyday cognition through the process of closure makes comics a unique media. As McCloud notes, Marshal McLuhan first theorized that comic books were one of two “cool” media – media that has the ability to ‘involve’ the audience. This phenomenon thus makes comics as a unique media that deserve more than passing pop-culture recognition.
Because of the process of closure the mind is forced to ‘fill-in’ the gaps and thus requires the mind to build a bridge, so to speak, from one frame to the next. This bridge which is built over the ‘gutter’ of the comic actually helps the mind to understand the flow of the strip, and to remain engaged in the process of reading. Because the mind is permitted to fill-in the gutter with whatever fill it chooses, the mind, according to McCloud, actually finds the movement from event to event, or scene to scene, less contrived that a ‘traditional’ media: the mind understands the movement of characters or plot as it deems appropriate. Further, because the mind is granted the power of choice it is continually involved in the process of creation. In this way the strip is never fully complete. Further, one could argue that a comic strip is an infinitely unfinished effort because the ‘final’ work is always and continually reinterpreted by each viewer.
Similarly, the comic strip ‘forces’ the reader in ‘involve’ themselves into the story because they are continually, and in varying ways, invited to envision themselves as the comic. McCloud notes that artists like Art Spiegelman purposefully place masks onto their characters so that the reader may understand that character from an infinite number of perspectives: the reader is invited to project h/er own expectations onto the character present in the work. However, as McCloud also mentions, the reader can be alienated from the same character or object if the artist chooses to ‘objectify’ the agent. According to McCloud, this is often done by providing the object with an abundance of detail relative to the background against which it may be placed. Thus, the artists may manipulate the reader and force/ allow the individual to be either active or passive in their participation depending on what the artists deems appropriate.
This pattern is further complicated by the interplay of images and words that, through the use of image based or language based abstraction(s) allows the reader to float in and out of participation. As an example, the artist may abstract language just as an image is reduced to a series of interpretive lines so that the reader is forced to infer what is or is not intended in the work. As McCloud articulates in his ‘cosmology of comic expression,’ (p. 52) the artists can chose the type and method of ‘closure’ s/he wishes so to generate the effect s/he envisions: abstract images, poetic language; base language realistic imagery etc.
Personally, I do not argue with McCloud’s understanding of the process of closure and how it is manifested in comics. However, and perhaps this is, more precisely, a critique of McLuhan, I do not understand the difference between Art Spiegelman and Ernest Hemmingway. If, as McCloud argues, Spiegelman’s art functions because of its use of closure and its subsequent manipulation of faces, language, and reader involvement than I question how these process differ from “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this short story Hemmingway allows the reader to become a voyeur, who, unaware of the origins of the argument that dominates the story, is invited to interpret, deduce, and, if all else fails, insert one’s own understanding so that the story may take shape around a, now, assumed narrative. True, this is not an example of closure, but it is a manipulation of the reader by the artists and it is the involvement of the reader at the behest of the artist.

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