I’m not sure about you guys, but I would hardly call myself a fan of modern art. I mean, between Andy Warhol’s neon florescent soup cans and Jackson Pollock accidentally spilling paint onto a canvas, I’m not sure I really grasp the meaning here. Is there even one? Is it one of those lame, modernist takes on “the meaning is there is no meaning, maaaaaan!” Maybe it’s above me.

Or, maybe, as Scott McCloud would have me believe, I’m looking at it the wrong way.

Copyright Jackson Pollock – I call this one, “condiments a la mode” 

The Book

This week, I finished Scott McCloud’s aforementioned “Understanding Comics: The Individual Art,” and the last few chapters dropped some pretty big bombshells on my conventional way of thinking. Just a few heavy-handed bulletpoints that may or may not have anything to do with graphic novels:

  • a single, still picture is a cartoon, not a comic. Comics = sequential art
  • Cultures cut off from the world-at-large tend to develop stylistically independent (like Japan’s manga vs. conventional comics)
  • Creation is a 6-step process, beginning with an idea and ending with the surface of the creation
    • However, the order people take this process in is often non-linear!
  • Comics (or at least cartoons) are an ancient artform, cave paintings and hieroglyphs do count!
  • Human instinct has 2 critical components: Reproduction and Survival. Anything outside of these is… art

I think any teacher hoping to include graphic novels in their courses, even just a few, could stand to throw in a few chapters out of this book. It offers some interesting commentaries on the relevance of cartoons and comics in society throughout different periods of time. Besides that, though, it also offers some interesting perspectives on artwork, and the manifestation of ideas into creative formats.

Regardless of whether or not I think Pollock’s “paintings” count as artwork, McCloud makes an interesting assertion: anything that doesn’t fulfill our primary human functions of surviving and reproducing is art. It’s self expression, even if nothing is being created. McCloud says that if anything aside from our basic animalistic instincts are cutting through, that’s artwork. It’s an interesting and perhaps radical way to look at creativity. This little bit of the book is worth the price of admission in and of itself. Scott has done his research. He’s scoured artists and contrasted their styles, done historical and sociological research, the whole nine yards. There’s a textbook’s worth of knowledge in here, cleverly hidden behind

The Artwork

The six step process of creation, Copyright Scott McCloud

McCloud hides genuine research and good information deep within each line and panel of his book. His art style throughout the book varies wildly depending on the chapter. When McCloud wants the emphasis to be on the information, the art style often takes on an extremely simple look, so we pay more attention to what’s being said. When an emphasis is being placed on the art style, the necessary touches are added; for example, the only chapter of the book to feature any color is a chapter on.. color.

Rather than opt for the lazy way out, when McCloud makes reference to hieroglyphs or the artwork of another famous painter, he does his best to draw these things himself. He emulates the style of other cartoonists (sometimes directly referencing their own panels), and points out the stylistic differences between artists. When discussing the importance of panels and shading, McCloud toys with those particular aspects to demonstrate their importance. The same can be said about most other topics Scott touches on. When he describes the collaborative process between writer and artist, he doesn’t simply opt for panels of himself speaking to us. He shows us:

The Verdict:

McCloud’s book was surprisingly dense for a 9 chapter graphic novel. A little research helped me discover that it’s part one in a trilogy, with the other two dealing with Reinventing and Making Comics. It’s hard to really compress parts of this book down into a blog post, at least for me. McCloud hammers the reader with a wealth of information in an easily digestible format. However, a lot of what he says is augmented infinitely by the panels and drawings that accompany it. It isn’t enough to summarize his points, they have to be seen for one’s self.

Ars longa vita brevis

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Comments
  1. tristyfishy says:

    The cynicism is strong in this one. I dig it. I was there for one of those TED Talks that you mentioned, and we briefly discussed the others. I’ve got to say that they are pretty interesting. This particular TED Talks makes sense to me, and he provides solutions, which to me is good. However, the delivery (as you said) was probably at least a little bit off. Anger is a good motivator, and I realize you would probably know this more than some because of the cynic that you are. ❤

  2. Holy cow this was loaded with information. When I first started reading your post I was drawn in because I agree with your thoughts on how modern art is a little different than what our idea of what art should be. Great post!

    • jamcfarland says:

      I get kind of snobbish and forget that not everyone shares my ideas / criteria when it comes to art sometimes.

      Though I still think most “modern art” is pretty ridiculous.

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