Comics Scholars Survey Results, November 1995

compiled by Peter M. Coogan

N. Criticism

N.1. What would a rhetoric or poetics of comic contain?

Gene Phillips found that a "unified theory" of how words and pictures work together to convey information without privileging one over the other would have to be a t the center of a poetics of comics. This is because in comics there must always be a disjunction between seeing pictures and reading words, even where the two seem almost seamless, unlike filmed media, where the two occur simultaneously.

N.2. Do we need a rhetoric or poetics of comics?

Yes. Most respondents wrote before Understanding Comics had been published, but as Scott McCloud said, his work should start the debate, not end it. So more theoretical works on comics would be appreciated.

Barb Rausch believes that if comics is to be considered an art form, it certainly does need aesthetic criteria. The works of Eisner and McCloud provide an ideal starting point, but they can be supplemented with reference to applicable critical material from related fields such as animation, film, and TV. Invaluable insights and critical vocabulary exist in the standard comics histories, such as Thompson's All in Color for a Dime, Goulart's The Adventurous Decade, and Berger's Comic-Stripped American.

N.3. What makes for good criticism?

Joseph Witek summed it up thus, "Comics need rigorous, historically and theoretically aware criticism just like any other scholarly area." He and others also spoke to the problem of work being d one on comics without the necessary research, leading to "theoretically naive papers."

Carl Potts suggests two basic ways to approach any art as a critic: 1). the intellectual approach, which establishes a set of standards or a frame of reference, c onsisting of 'universal' traits, against which works are held, and 2) the emotional approach, which judges a work good or bad purely from a 'gut' level response, reasons for which are then rationalized. He prefers the first approach, but remarks tha t the second should not always be ruled out as works occasionally break many convention of structure, yet remain compelling and enjoyable.

Barb Rausch grounded all good criticism in a reasonably broad background in arts and literature, plus a genuine appreciation for comics as a medium, as well as a sense of structure, a sensitivity to subtext, and a strong visual orientation to "reading" pictorial material.

N.4. Where can Scott McCloud'sUnderstanding Comics be improved on? What did he overlook or deal with inadequately? (This question can be extended to encompass Will Eisner and R.C. Harvey's treatises).

Barb Rausch had these criticisms: In discussing the schematic representation of the human face, he did not go far enough: research has shown that human infants are "programmed" to respond to the basic configuration of human facial features and to even the subtlest variations of expression on them. This programming is why a cartoon face as minimalist as Charles Schulz's Charlie B rown can elicit as much response from a viewer as the most realistically rendered features of a figure by Alex Raymond or Hal Foster.

Gene Phillips took issue with McCloud's definition of comics, which seems to privilege the picture over the word. He does not deny that there are comics that can flourish without words, but he sees them as exceptions that cannot be used to define the rule.

N.5. Which comics creators have written or are writing knowledgeably about the work of other creators? If not professionally published, where can these writings be found? In fanzines? On the Internet?

Back to the Introduction and Survey Outline