Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Angriest Dog in the World

Scout McCloud gave the keynote address at SIGGRAPH, which I decided to check out, since I'll be teaching one of his texts in my social media class in Fall. McCloud started his talk by recounting his recent cross country journey with his kids in which he observed their absorption in virtual worlds even as he was attempting to bring them into more direct contact with the people and places of all fifty real states. McCloud, however, was philosophical about his kids' behavior. As he said, "No one gave us a choice about which world we were born into." Such new worlds are changing and malleable and these new narrative media could create possibilities when not as firmly constrained by market forces in the direction of mass culture.

McCloud rehearsed some of his older theses about the comic book form in which comics present "as a series of choices" that include "choice of moment," "choice of frame," "choice of image," "choice of word," and "choice of flow." He also looked at the history of comics with a broad temporal sweep of the artform of sequential art that included Trajan’s column, the Bayeux tapestry, Aztec codices, broadsheets of tortures, and "true narratives" like the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, which has captions, word balloons, and comic-book-style "senseless violence." Even before the advent of print, McCloud argued that the fundamental organizational strategy was the same: "As you move through space you move through time."

McCloud also characterized his own contributions concentrating on line between digital comics and print comics, which he compared to that between chimpanzee and humans, who seem to share so much genetic material and yet be so different. With the advent of browsers like MOSAIC to facilitate distribution and technology that introduced autonomous sound and motion, audiences could experience "bite-sized pieces" and "choose your own path adventures" that work "like our our mind works." McCloud also claimed that "technology has ideas about what shape it should take," when the fundamental unit of the art experience was "not the page but the window." McCloud posited that the future of digital comics would depend on mobile devices and multitouch displays, and that scrolling was only the most temporary of temporary developments.

McCloud got personal when he explained how the comics enterprise has embraced the long tail in which consumption largely happens through the participation of niche audiences. These niche audiences could include groups who would otherwise be unserved by those aiming for mass markets, such as "mathematicians" or "PhD candidates." McCloud told his own five-minute life story, in which other kids with an interest in graphic stories happened to live in his geographic neighborhood (and grow up to illustrate recent classics like Crispin, The Pig Who Had It All or the new edition of Casey at the Bat). This collective of young kids worked together to produce "quantocomics" but ultimately represented four fundamentally different aesthetics, according to McCloud: classicists, animists, formalists, iconoclasts that in turn recreated art academy dichotomies about form vs. content and beauty vs. truth

(For many years my own favorite comic was David Lynch's Angriest Dog in the World, which appeared in the now defunct LA Reader. For years the frames were almost identical and the pleasure was in studying the smallest of details in the illustration.)

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Anonymous Dr Blight said...

I seem to be alone in finding McCloud's theory-heavy, rigour-lite approach impossibly condescending and overrated. I don't see the difference between him and any other person with opinions and theories built on only the thinnest serious research. I'm happy to listen to academics (self-appointed don't count) who can provide detailed arguments and evidence for their claims, but McCloud seems to have made a name for himself with smart-sounding theories that are attractive to believe, but are insufficiently grounded in research or justification. I'm also happy to listen to the rantings and preachings of Martin Scorsese, or Keita Takahashi, or George Orwell, or David Hockney, or anyone else who has made contributions to culture that I feel are worthwhile, because I grant them some respect and authority based on their work, but in McCloud's case his stand out achievement is writing Understanding Comics, a book whose pedestal-placed popularity I find baffling and whose seventh chapter made me want to destroy my copy for all its sub-Robert-Anton-Wilson pseudo-science and arrogant "let's place whole career stages into minuscule boxes" classification of comic artists. To quote Studio 60, "he's a guy whose only achievement is writing the book". I read Understanding Comics in a state of shock that this didactic and smug work could be considered any kind of handbook or guide to the comics medium, given how superficially it analysed the very texts from which the medium has developed (yes, he mentions important names, but only in passing).

While I am forgiving of Huizinga when he makes just the same kind of unsupported conjectures and generalisations, I think it's McCloud's tone of authority that rubs me up the wrong way, particularly when he naively invokes evolutionary biology in a manner that is certainly not the result of serious research, but which is being presented as explanation, not analogy.

This rant doesn't directly relate to your post but I found your summary certainly sparked responses in me.

"McCloud argued that the fundamental organizational strategy was the same: "As you move through space you move through time.""

For me, betrays the self-conscious-profundity that I have angrily projected onto McCloud's persona.

The following was particularly grating:

"These niche audiences could include groups who would otherwise be unserved by those aiming for mass markets, such as "mathematicians" or "PhD candidates.""

Given my own area of study and experience of mathematicians and PhD candidates I found this a strange comment. I'm frequently surprised by the culturally small-minded mass market consumption of certain mathematicians and PhD students who seem to lack the time for much else than Harry Potter, The Simpsons, The Matrix, Pro Evo, and Coldplay. I guess maybe McCloud is talking about things like xkcd here (which is enjoyed by every mathematician I know), but I just can't help feeling that McCloud is shortcutting his way to generalisations.

Sorry for the rant, and the persistent commenting on your excellent blog. It was a great write up, as most of yours are - I particularly like that whenever you state opinion (which is sparingly) you seem to choose words precisely, as if measuring each with a ruler.

5:17 PM  

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