Postscript: Understanding Comics

Panel from Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" defining the term

Towards the end of January, the 99% Invisible podcast ran an episode with eminent comics creator and scholar Scott McCloud about the design features of comics. It’s a great episode that provides a good thumbnail sketch of some of comics’ most important formal elements.

When pressed to give a full definition, McCloud explains that comics are a distinct art form of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.”

But in everyday usage, there’s no need to get that formal or technical. McCloud believes calling them “comics” is fine, as long as people realize the medium has the potential to do more than just funny strips in the Sunday paper or action-packed graphic novels.

99% Invisible

I first read comics in grocery checkout lines. My grandmother used to do every month’s shopping at the big Makati Supermarket all the way in Alabang1Why she did this still baffles me to this day, and when the wait got long, she would buy me an Archie digest from the racks by the cashier. I was around 5 or 6 at the time.

My grandma herself, and my grand-aunt, her older sister, read the strips that appeared alongside their favorite section (the crossword, natch) of the daily newspaper. I’d wedge myself in the circle of their broadsheet-lifting arms and read with them: Pugad Baboy, Loveknots, Dilbert, The Phantom. Eventually, I discovered that local newsstands carried floppies of popular titles like Spider-Man, and some indulgent relatives gifted me with trades of Asterix and Tintin.

I say “floppies” and “trades” now, but that’s the retroactive application of grown-up vocabulary. As a kid, I didn’t think of content having a medium, let alone of comics being a distinct one with its own terms and structures and conventions. That consciousness came later and in spurts.

First, there was high school. I discovered comics’ capacity for ambition, lyricism, and pathos all at once with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. The surreal visuals resisted the careless way I’d used to fling all reading matter into the same imagined pile. This, each page seemed to say, is something else. So too were the manga I picked up from my classmates, the offbeat limited-runs and obscure titles I’d learned to scrounge up myself, the opulent collected editions (that seven-volume boxed set of Calvin and Hobbes!) I stared at in the bookstores.

(Oddly enough, I never got into the flagship superhero titles. I first came to know Superman through the alternate-universe Red Son; I learned about Batman obliquely, through Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing. Instead, I read Runaways, Chew, Fables, Transmetropolitan, 100 Bullets; and then I followed Immonen and Ellis over to Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., found other titles like Ex Machina, Letter 44, and Persepolis, stumbled upon the work of Jeff Lemire, Art Spiegelman, Guy Delisle, Michel Rabagliati, Alison Bechdel, Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, and on, and on, down various branching rabbit holes that brushed against superheroes rarely.)

But I stayed at the level of vague recognition. I read comics, I discussed and praised and lambasted titles I came across, but I never thought much about comics itself. Not, at least, until I thought to write a “mini-thesis” on comic-book autobiographies.

Something beautiful happens when you learn to view two seemingly disparate domains as a single, coherent unit. It’s a bit like the magic of a comics page itself: how juxtaposing panels changes their context and how they’re read, one illuminating the other. In this case, the rigor and depth of analysis required by academic study revealed new dimensions of comics to me. (At the same time, seeing the lofty notions and abstractions of theory applied to something as “current” and, in some ways, casual as comics—and seeing that approach work!—completely changed how I view literary studies.)

I started learning about form, visual and narrative theory, comics as a genre and as literature. Scott McCloud seems to be the universal entry point for this stage, thanks to the lucid and approachable Understanding Comics. But neither annotated bibliographies nor theoretical frameworks stop at one title, so I read the work of Thierry Groensteen, Neil Cohn, Hilary Chute, and others. Suffice it to say that by then I had a better idea of comics’ depth as a category, a field of study.

It felt like crossing a line, at least in terms of being a comics reader. I’d developed an eye for the minutiae that added up to an effective page, issue, volume; I’d learned vocabulary that helped me discuss what I saw in clear, precise terms.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a better way of reading. Everyone reads in their own way, and comics don’t need to be taken as thesis subjects to be appreciated. It’s a different approach, one of an endless possible number—that’s all.

Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou offers similar lenses to viewers of his YouTube channel, Strip Panel Naked. I only found the series from a link in the 99% Invisible episode with Scott McCloud, but Otsmane-Elhaou has been making videos for more than a year now. (Prior to YouTube, he published Strip Panel Naked articles over on Comics Alliance.)

While there are other podcasts and article series covering comics’ formal dimensions, Strip Panel Naked is the only one I’ve seen so far that zeroes in on specific examples and dissects them in extensive detail. The videos themselves are clear, well-crafted, deeply researched, and never boring. Best of all, they fall well below the 10-minute mark. Strip Panel Naked’s video library is a fantastic resource for “comics people,” whether new, enthusiast, professional or somewhere in between.

Here’s my favorite video so far, tackling a brilliant section from one of my favorite titles, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye: