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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Understanding Comics chap. 2

The convergence of UC with “Words and Images” kicks into high gear with this chapter. Of course, the initial two-page spread on “Le Trahison des Images” triggers our attention to the McCloud-Magritte connection; but note also the image of the leaf at the top center of p. 26, the “word-eye” on p. 28, perhaps the experiment with indistinct shapes on p. 32, the argument involving “meaning” and “resemblance” on pp. 46-47 (culminating in the claim that “words are the ultimate abstraction”), all take up points that Magritte had opened in “Words and Images.”

I don’t agree with McCloud on all these points — we’ll probably end up arguing about a lot of this when we meet to talk about UC — but he provides us with a superb argument to evaluate.

Before I start complaining about the bits I dissent from, what impresses me positively? First, McCloud’s willingness to split hairs productively; his attention to degrees of abstraction provides one strong example. Whether or not we buy his explanation of the effect (“increasing abstraction allows for greater identification”), we should appreciate his attention to this element of comics style, and his attention to its relation to other such elements.

Likewise, his argument in pp. 46ff. that (to adapt Magritte’s phrase), “In a comic, the words are made of the same substance as the images”; in our discussion, this point drew a “So, duh?” but as McCloud points out relative to the comics industry, the world operates as though they were ontologically distinct from one another. Let’s grant that I’m pretty good with words; I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag; but that doesn’t mean that the words and the drawings belong to different metaphysical domains. It just means that I manipulate some of them more effectively than others. Once you begin from the notion that these two discourses interpenetrate and affect one another, you can recognize that different people negotiate that overlap differently. I exercise particular interest in typography, and try to enhance the visually-communicative elements of my verbal practice to the extent possible, but some other writers just pound out Times Roman in single-spaced 8.5 x 11 pages. Some people adhere persistently to typewritten manuscripts, and others hand-write everything.

And although I’ll want to cavil with his assigning “meaning” to the lower-right vertex of his pyramid of comics communication on pp. 52-3 (note that that vertex was “language” on p. 51), that pyramid itself represents a highly ingenious heuristic device for parsing graphical communication into its characteristics. One might see whether you could perform a similar exercise for typefaces, or photographs, or other such items. (I’m interested that although McCloud calls attention to the role that words play in comics, he doesn’t differentiate different sorts of lettering in his analysis — but the examples show pronounced differences in the way they represent words, from Cynicalman’s roughly-lettered phrases to the very plain lettering with even color in the lower right panel (I don’t recognize the comic), with the Fantastic Four’s highly varied emphasis and style and Mary Fleener’s wordless panels. (I omit consideration of Hergé’s lettering, since I don’t recall offhand to what extent that changes in the translated versions of Tintin versus the original French.)

I applaud MCloud’s claim on p. 59: “There is no life here except that which you give to it.” That’s true of bare words as much as with photographs, or etchings, or pen-and-ink sketches. We should go McCloud one better and say, “There is no meaning here except that which we ascribe to it” — with the theological reservation that meaning finally belongs to God (Gen 40:8). . . .

Back to Chapter 1
On to Chapter 3


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought UC in anticipation of following along, but lent it it to my daughter, from whom I hope to eventually retrieve it.

Question: If you're "pretty good with words," does that mean you manipulate them pretty well? What does it mean to manipulate words? Does the manipulation of words entail necessarily the manipulation of meaning? If so, then how can one say "meaning finally belongs to God"? If not, does that mean words are separate, distinct and other from the realm of meaning?

April 14, 2007 5:40 PM  
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