November 30, 2011

Where did comics come from?

One of my primary goals here is to construct a definition for comics for myself so that I feel comfortable discussing what the medium is and is not. In order have a solid definition, I feel I need to understand the medium's historical roots. To that end, I'm going to wrestle with two divergent historical models, those of Scott McCloud and that of R.C. Harvey.

Scott McCloud is best known for his 1993 book Understanding Comics,1 and that's where my first historical model comes from. McCloud's definition, which he constructs for readers piece-by-piece, is "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer." This definition, as pointed out by cartoonist Dylan Horrocks,2 is both more and less inclusive than most working definitions. Whether generously or greedily, this definition includes any artistic works that contain two or more images (words are optional) intended to communicate the passage of time and thus narrative. Thus comics, for McCloud anyway, includes early 20th-Century "silent novels" by the likes of Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, William Hogarth's serial prints, medieval depictions of saints' lives and deaths, and even older examples. Indeed, it is hard to see what exactly makes these things different. 

"The Life of St. Martin of Tours," 14th Century (artist unknown):4

William Hogarth's "Before and After":6

From Frans Masereel's Story Without Words:3

From Jason's Hey, Wait:5

Thanks to McCloud's pointing it out, I am convinced that these examples all do pretty much the same artistic and narrative "thing" for a viewer; I am not convinced, however, that they can all accurately be called "comics." Still, I do believe that comics are part of a long tradition of creating narrative by using two or more images in sequence.

This images-in-sequence requirement is also what makes McCloud's definition more exclusive than some. In "How Comics Came to Be"7, cartoonist and critic R.C. Harvey demands that any definition acknowledge comics' ancestry among single-panel gag cartoons. Harvey presents a very convincing case by detailing a lineage that begins by explaining that the word "cartoon," although originally used to to describe sketches for tapestry sketches, came to take its modern meaning (animation aside) as long ago as the 1840s. The English magazine Punch responded to Parliament's call for patriotic murals by publishing a series of "satirical drawings about government and calling them 'Mr. Punch's cartoons.'" This form of cartoon was then refined through history, peaking with excellent works by the likes of Peter Arno, whose word and image are totally dependent on each other for communicating the intended meaning. Harvey also takes the lineage backward to the single-panel, image-and-caption graphic works of artists like Hogarth and Goya. Concluding this portion of history, Harvey declares that "the modern gag cartoon is the haiku of cartooning, and no definition of the medium can be complete without embracing it."

Francisco Goya's "They've already got a seat":9

"Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians" from 1852 edition of Punch:8

Peter Arno's "But I can't!":9

Harvey also recounts the history of the newspaper comic strip as it developed from this kind of single-image cartoon into multi-panel strips that are perhaps most familiar today, doting particularly on Richard Outcault's Hogan's Alley (star of "The Yellow Kid") as the catalyst for the transition, and Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff as the first fully-formed modern multi-panel strip. Hogan's Alley, it seems, was the first widely-distributed work to break with the convention of using a caption, although speech landed on the character's shirt before other strips began to use speech balloons. Mutt and Jeff, in Harvey's opinion, represents the peak in both the use of the speech balloon and the comic strip structure (a series of panels ending with a punchline and a narrative connection to "next week's" strip) as we know them.

Hogan's Alley's Yellow Kid:11

1918 Mutt and Jeff strip:12

I will have to take Harvey's word on his evaluation of which examples of single- and multi-panel comic strips are most notable, but I have to concur that excluding the single-panel gag strip seems to ignore a major part of comics traditions and conventions. Additionally, McCloud's insistence that the passage of time is only present when more than one image are placed side-by-side comes off as a little narrow-minded and a lot inaccurate. A more precise explanation might declare that that single-image or single-panel works suggest the passage of time (in the sense that we understand them to be the "during" of "before-during-after"), while multi-image or multi-panel works depict the passage of time (though they certainly suggest much more passage of time as well)...

With these kinds of declarations and observations, I'm verging dangerously close to the tempation of settling on a definition. Since that's not my aim in this post, I'll stop here and simply conclude that the roots of comics most certainly lie in many places, most notably the wide range of single- and multi-image works of visual art that humans have been creating for as long as we can remember.

1. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
2. Horrocks, Dylan. (2001). Inventing comics: Scott McCloud's definition of comics. The Comics Journal, 234. Retrieved from
3. Image source:
5. Image source:, © Jason.  
6. Image source:
7. Harvey, R.C. (2009). How comics came to be. In J. Heer and K. Worcester (Ed.), A comics studies reader (pp. 25-45). Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi.
8. Image source:
9. Image source:, © Peter Arno
10. Image source: 
11. Image source: 
12. Image source: 

November 13, 2011


If you're reading this blog, chances are good you know about the upcoming Tintin movie.1 There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this movie, including its impressive credits list: director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), writers Steven Moffat (Dr. Who, Sherlock) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and many worthy actors including Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Andy Serkis. In other words, there are some very competent people involved with this project and it should prove to be a really fun, really pretty adventure.

I think there are also a lot of reasons to be skeptical or even angry about this movie as well. The first is the why-did-they-do-that-to-my-childhood that I think many people feel about this kind of project. If I remember correctly, my older brother did not want to see the "enhanced" version of the first Star Wars movie in particular because it would feel like a pollution (my word choice) of this very significant part of his childhood. I think that's a very valid point and a worthwhile consideration when choosing which experiences to participate in. I don't think it's exactly the same situation with Tintin, but it's certainly similar.

The second reason to worry about this movie is a general sense of they-won't-do-it-right that can be both snobbish overreaction and also completely on the mark, not that it's unique to adaptations of comics, of course. Sometimes it's just skepticism over the film's take on the story, given bizarre choices like killing off several important and beloved characters in the third X-Men film, some jarringly early. (To be fair X-Men 3 wasn't an adaptation of any specific work, but rather of a set of characters.) Sometimes it's just a feeling that the people involved with the movie just don't "get it," no matter how good their intentions. This is how I felt about the first Hellboy2 film, which I thought ignored a massive load of source material and basic character identities in favor of quick, unsubtle exposition and cheap laughs.

In any case, I think I have successfully cut through these two categories of negativity (not to say I don't share them) and figured out my own specific concerns over the Tintin movie. A major part of the reason that the comics work so well for me is the simplicity of the art. Hergé, Tintin's creator, developed a style of drawing that used outlines, mostly solid colors, and very little else to communicate form, movement and expression. This was the birth of "Clear Line," a style practiced by many cartoonists up to today. It is among my favorite cartooning styles and the kind I aspire to teach myself, someday. 

Hergé's Tintin3

Of course, it's unusual to see a drawing of Tintin this big, unless you smash your face into the books. (I won't stop you.) But it gives you hard evidence of the simplicity of his linework, which is easy to forget about in beautiful sequences like the one below.

From Cigars of the Pharoah:4

However faithful to the spirit of the Tintin stories, the Spielberg film apparently wants nothing to do with the spirit of the art.

Spielberg's Tintin:5

That's not completely fair. The film is very visually accurate in that it follows Hergé's lead on detail in scenery, including vehicles, architecture and clothing style. It is also very visually accurate in that the caricaturish nature of his faces is preserved.

Hergé's Ivanovitch Sakharine:6

 Spielberg's Ivanovitch Sakharine (left):7

But this accuracy is what troubles me. There is something very unsettling about seeing impossible faces with impossibly believable texture. Maybe it's just a case of falling into the uncanny valley,8 but I also feel that having all that textural detail filled in to such depth actually works to distance me from the characters and the story rather than engaging me as one might assume. This is an idea that Scott McCloud discusses in Understanding Comics, where he suggests that "this is the primary cause of our childhood fascination with cartoons [here meaning animated TV shows], though other factors such as universal identification, simplicity and the childlike features of many cartoon characters also play a part. The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which allows us to travel in another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it!"9 I happen to think that McCloud may be hyperventilating a bit here, but I also agree for the most part. Douglas Wolk notes in his excellent Reading Comics that this is a problem within the world of comics too. Writing in 2006, he comments that "quasi-realistic painted comics by the likes of Alex Ross ... are very popular, but they suffer from a commitment to looking 'just like the real thing.' Ross's painted upgrades of standard superhero-comics imagery are stiff and glossy, as misguidedly 'realistic' as colorized black-and-white movies... They exude grand seriousness, but they leave too little to the imagination."10

From Alex Ross's Shazam! The Power of Hope:11

It's technically impressive, and very pretty, but it's ultimately alienating because it leaves nothing for your imagination to fill in, and it's the same problem I have with the Tintin movie. Of course, I get it: if you were inclined to perfect the art of the high-density computer-animated film, it is a logical choice because of the very qualities that turn me off of the project. And maybe filling in the minute detail is actually a way of honoring the fact that it's a motion picture adaptation, doing exactly what its source material couldn't do -- Watchmen, after all, stunk in my book because felt like a movie that just used the comics as storyboards, truly honoring neither medium.

Nevertheless, I remain skeptical. If I see Tintin, I'll be sure to write about it here; don't hold your breath.

Top Image Credit:, © (presumably) Paramount Pictures
1. The Adventures of Tintin at Internet Movied Database:
2. I just wanted to take a moment to apologize for my inconsistent italics here. I'm having trouble keeping track of when I'm referring to a character, a franchise, or a title, each of which would be treated somewhat differently. Sorry!
3. Image source:, © Casterman
4. Image source:, © Casterman. Apologies to Jason Lutes, who wrote this blog post in 2008. I obviously took these ideas to heart, but I hope my post does not feel like a rip-off.
5. Image source:, © Paramount Pictures
6. Image source:, © Casterman
7. Image source:, © Paramount Pictures
8. The uncanny valley at Wikipedia:
9. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
10. Wolk, Douglas. (2008). Reading comics. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.
11. Image source:, © Alex Ross and DC Comics

November 6, 2011

NC Comicon Report-Back

This Saturday I attended the NC Comicon1 in Morrisville, NC, and it was just great! It had been a long time since I'd been to such an event, and I really had no idea what to expect. I attended partly out of personal interest, partly to see if I could make some allies for my Comics Librarian quest, and partly to witness an event from a programming perspective. Last year, my co-worker Amy Godfrey and I put on Durham County Library's first ever Comics Fest,2 and, while I'd consider it a success, I still feel like I have a lot to learn about organizing events like this.

One highlight of the day was a panel discussion entitled "History of Comics and Comics as History." The "History of Comics" portion was given by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections at Duke University's Edwin and Ted Murray Collection.3 Using examples from the collection, Hansen gave an excellent overview of the history of American comics, demonstrating comics' impact on popular culture and vice-versa. I was particularly interested to learn the ways that WWII affected the popularity of superhero stories. They were especially popular during the war, when even fictional heroes were a welcome addition to the fight against Japan and the European Axis, but their popularity dropped off after the war's end due to an actual or perceived lack of interest after the fictional heroes' real war was won.

For the "Comics as History" portion, UNC Ph.D. candidate Ben Bolling4 presented a fascinating argument for considering superhero comics as a demonstration of the idea that history is not monolithic or totally "knowable" by individuals or cultures. Bolling described the ways that, because of their ongoing, serial nature, superhero comics allow readers to engage in the characters' stories at any point in the timeline and engage , in spite of the periodical changes and revisions made by successive generations of publishers and comics creators. This engagement is possible because of what Bolling calls "irreducible elements," including traumatic events like Bruce Wayne (Batman) witnessing his parents' murder, but also significant interpersonal relationships like that of Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and Mary Jane Watson. I hope to feature both Bolling and Hansen in this blog at a later date.

I also attended a panel/interview with Howard Chaykin, which was much more interesting than I'd imagined. Chaykin, most famously the creator of American Flagg!,5 was opinionated, incredibly foul-mouthed, and very entertaining. He also had some very interesting things to say about whether comics is an art or a craft (the latter), his influence on younger cartoonists (unhappy about Todd McFarlane's6 being inspired by him), and more. I really enjoyed hearing what he had to say as soon as I stopped cringing, which is great because he totally would've called me out if I'd left early.

Beyond the panels, I had a good time visiting the artist tables (where I was introduced to Jeremy Bastian's excellent Cursed Pirate Girl7) and the crazy, crazy dealer room. I'm sorry I missed the costume contest on Sunday, but there were plenty of good'uns around: a lady Boba Fett, Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the littlest Mothra. I'm already looking forward to next year's.

Image source:
1. NC Comicon website:
2. Jarrett Krosoczka's writeup of the Comics Fest:
3. Duke University's comics collections with a link to Will Hansen's profile:
4. Ben Bolling's profile at the UNC Department of English and Comparative Literature:
5. American Flagg! at Wikipedia:
6. Todd McFarlane at Wikipedia:
7. Cursed Pirate Girl at Kickstarter: