Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Comics, Icons, and Art

I've been reading a book called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Since my own MFA is in computer animation, I have a particular interest in this odd corner of the world, although I don't really know much about it. So when a student offered to lend me his copy, I eagerly agreed.

schematic drawing of a face
a schematic face
One of the ideas that has caught my attention is the author's contention that it is the very schematic nature of comics that lends them their evocative power. Referring to highly abstracted images, such as a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, as "iconic", he suggests that the more iconic an image, the more universal it becomes. And, he goes on, the more universal an image, the more the audience can identify with it.

photo of deborah sokolove
my photo
Conversely, the more an image resembles everyday reality, the more the viewer is able to put it at a distance, to objectify it. This effect is especially strong when the image represents a human being. As he puts it, "When you look at a photo or drawing of a face -- you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon--you see yourself."[p 36]

The reason for this, McCloud argues, is that a photograph, or a photo-realistic drawing or painting, is fairly close to what we see when we look at another person. But except when we are looking in a mirror, we don't see ourselves that way. In fact, mostly, we don't see ourselves at all. Rather, our usual awareness of our own face is a sketchy sense of general placement. We know how it feels to be inside our own skin, but we don't really know how far apart our eyes are, or the shape of our smile. That's why we are often startled by a photograph or a portrait -- what the artist or the photographer captures does not always correspond to our inner sense of what we look like.

icon of Christ Pantocrater from Monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai id=
icon of Christ Pantocrater
from St Catherine's

I find myself wondering whether McCloud's usage of the word "iconic" describes what happens when we encounter religious icons, such as this image of Christ enthroned. It has more detail, of course, than a circle with two dots for eyes. But, like a cartoon, it is a highly abstracted, formulaic representation of a human being, not a photo-realistic portrait. Does at least some of its power lie precisely in its lack of detail? Does the fact that we do not know anyone who looks exactly like this help us to remember that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine? Does the schematic nature of religious icons make them more universal, allowing us to enter into them in a way that is more difficult when Jesus looks like someone we could meet on the street? Once again, I have more questions than answers.


  1. Lots of characters in comics are iconic, and super human; a lot like Jesus or God in some cases. They're an image of human perfection--something like the perfect bodies we're supposed to have in heaven. And to go further, those superhumans can do what everyone has dreamed about doing: flying, becoming very tiny or very large, being strong enough to lift a house, being heroic, etc. The comic world might be a vision of heaven on earth.

  2. Yes, I think you are right about that. I'm fairly sure that it is precisely in our identification with the hero, whose abilities are so much greater than we are ever likely to have, that much of the power of comics lies. My own question lies in a different direction, having to do with the image itself, rather than the idea. I am fascinated with the contention that the lack of detail gives comics their visual power, since this is in direct contradiction to the frequent assertion that the the power of Renaissance portraits, for example, lies precisely in their fidelity to visual reality and particularity.