Flying the Standard: Part 1 - Defining The Standard

Mon, November 27th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Scott O. Brown, Guest Contributor

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Hello, everyone, and welcome to the first of a five part series titled Flying the Standard. Over the course of this week, I'm going to explore some of our medium's greatest works and do my best to place them in a literary, artistic, and historical context. In other words, I'm going to apply a "Standard," a set of criteria that will help us determine comics' best stories.

Very little discussion goes on these days about what makes a great comic. I'm not talking entertainment value, although that can be important. I'm talking about our greatest comics. The one's that will transcend time and culture, the one's that future generations will return to so that they might gleam some sort of universal truth or understanding of the world around them.

I'm talking about our Canon.

I don't use the word "Canon" lightly. It's a term that encompasses the greatest, most shining examples of craft and craftsmen, and it's isn't easy to achieve. It took American literature three hundred plus years to get where it is today, and worldwide, we've been writing stories for thousands of years. It will take thousands of articles and dozens of books and another hundred years of discussion to truly build one. We've got plenty of time to create our greatest comics, but it doesn't mean we can't start sorting through what we have now and what has come before.

To figure out our Canon, we need that Standard, those basic rules we need to get rid of the fluff and dig deep into potential texts for canonization. Don't worry, we'll keep it light. This isn't English class, and I don't want to bore anyone. We will take that Standard and apply it to anything that can be considered comics, from strip to short story to graphic novel to long form serials.

We need to do this. We need to isolate our great works, and we need to think about the why of them--why they are great, why they have the potential to survive generations, why they're even worth reading to begin with. The Canon is our legacy as a medium. The Standard is required in order to talk about what and why certain works and creators are important. I'm not talking about important to us as individuals. I'm talking about their importance to us as a whole--comics creators, publishers, readers, fans--and to the world outside. It's an objective Standard, not a subjective one. As much as we tend to act like we're living in a vacuum, we're not. Other people are watching. And frankly, that's great. This isn't some bastard artform. It's comics. We define ourselves and the world we live in.

The key thing to keep in mind here is that these aren't reviews. These are discussions, proposals, light analyses, but they're not reviews. Reviews are product warnings. These analyses are meant to provoke thought. With any luck, we'll argue about everything I write in these articles until the end of days. That's what we're supposed to do. This is our attempt to figure out what's really important in comics, comics that offer unique views of the world, comics that challenge us, inspire us, comics that tell us things we can't hear anywhere else.

We know what our Canon is in our gut. Watchmen tends to be the first on many people's lips, and Sandman should be there, too. And Love & Rockets. And Seven Miles a Second, The Golem's Mighty Swing, Peanuts, Barnaby, Maus. The list goes on, and we'll talk about why in time.

This list isn't isolated to individual works. There are creators whose entire bodies of work deserve discussion. Will Eisner, Alan Moore, Robert Crumb, Warren Ellis, Enki Bilal, The Hernandez Brothers, and many, many others. I'm not necessarily proposing that all the above creators are worthy of Canon, but they are worth considering at the very least.

But before we apply any sort of Standard, we need to figure out what it is first. This is always the most difficult part to agree on, as many people, myself included, like to apply subjective standards to the media we consume. But subjective standards won't cut it. Just because it's good to a reader doesn't mean it's actually good in a greater aesthetic sense. I've found some utter crap undeniably entertaining over the years, but I know better than to put it forward for consideration (yet). That said, I'm proposing as objective a standard as I can. To that end, there are three main things we have to take into consideration:

  1. Literary merit, or the story itself.

    The first question we ask in the case of narrative is: is there a moral or intellectual argument? Without a moral argument, there is no literary merit. Is the story about something we can relate to? The reader doesn't necessarily have to relate to the specifics, but the emotions and learning experiences of the main character(s) must reflect true human emotions. Does it stand on its own over time? Is it unique? Well-executed? Does it play by the rules of story? Telling a story has very specific rules. They may be applied directly and consciously or by instinct, but they are there and cannot be challenged.

    The rules for literary merit are pretty simple--the story must contain depth of plot, character, and theme and there must be a moral argument. What is the protagonist's moral need? Is it reflected in his actions and interwoven within the plot and theme? Does he or she learn? Or do we as readers learn through his or her ability or inability to?

    The story should, but isn't required to, offer a unique point of view. In conjunction with the above, using comics as a lens to another culture or perspective, and doing it well, is a great way to rise above the average and meet the Standard.

    The story must work. That is tantamount. A writer can put their own unique spin on anything, juxtaposing sets of images with one another in any sort of fancy derivation, but it doesn't mean jack if they can't string two words together in a coherent story structure.

  2. Artistic merit, or the art itself.

    Does it serve the story? Is it of the proper style and tone to elevate the literary content (or vice versa)? Is it unique? Well-executed? Is the storytelling clear and concise? Is it innovative? With art, we cannot apply the same standard to comics that we do to Fine Art. The art in comics has to tell the story sequentially. Average art can be elevated by a great story, and bad art can ruin genius.

    The art must tell a story while being competently drawn. And the important component is if the art is integral to the telling of the story. Is it in the proper style? Dark and moody for horror, or cartoony and simple for a gag strip, etc. Art makes the comics, but it needn't be Fine Art. It need only be appropriate and competent.

    In fact, the rules of Fine Art do not apply. The techniques of Fine Art can be used, but the rules are different. Fine Art has a heavy focus on innovation and craft in the creation of the images. Comics only require clear, concise art that has strong storytelling and fits the content. Whether painted, digital, pen & ink, or pencil, comics art only works when it tells a story.

    For all that, the most important aspect of the art after competence is storytelling. If the images are ill-thought or inappropriate, then the story isn't being told properly. Good comics storytelling is done with clear, concise images in a sequence that tell the story. The moment the images and/or the panel-to-panel transitions aren't clear, or their content is not concise, it fails to rise to the Standard.

  3. Historical Context.

    Is the story important for reasons other than its content? Was it the first of a kind? Was it massively, commercially successful for cultural reasons that still resonate today?

    The qualifiers for historical context are straightforward--did the work change the medium, for good or ill? Works that meet the literary and artistic ends of the Standard can certainly fall here, but there are a handful of historically important works that have no business being part of our Canon for any other reason than their historical significance, if at all. But we will discuss that in part three.

There you go. Those are the basic ground rules. I've oversimplified them for the purposes of laying a groundwork for us to build on and begin our discussions, but they'll serve us well as a starting point. We can discuss the nuances of all three until we're blue in the face, but all the Standards in the world do not matter unless we start applying them.

The application is where it gets tricky. I'm starting with two books that I fully expect those of you still with me to agree on. They are books that meet the Standard because they actually attempt to create one--Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud.

I'll be honest, that other Scott really started this discussion. Indirectly, anyway. He sat down and thought about this stuff. Then he wrote and drew a book about it, ostensibly the first notable look at the components of comics within the medium itself.

So let's apply the Standard to Understanding Comics. First of all, it's not a narrative in the traditional sense. It's an essay in comics form, and succeeds beautifully at that. Remember the old essay structure from high school English: introduce the argument, support your argument, summarize your argument? McCloud asks "...How do we define comics, what are the basic elements of comics..." (1). He starts exactly as I did here: he states his intent--to explore what makes comics comics. He sets up a rough definition of the medium, exploring modern conceptions with historical examples to make his case. Then McCloud breaks it all down for us.

Comics are reduced to their component parts. McCloud begins with the "Vocabulary of Comics," where he talks about the images and symbols that are used in comics to help communicate ideas which he calls "Icons" (26). These range from pictures, to the common symbology we use in day to day life, all the way to letters and words. Then he moves on to the usage of gutter to denote time and space and the use of narrative techniques. Then he sums it all up in the end.

Does it have literary merit? Yes it does. As an analysis of the medium, it becomes a book of theory and craft, and a very unique one at that. Does it have a moral argument? No, but it has an intellectual one--we can learn about how comics work by deciphering their component parts. I propose that Understanding Comics meets the literary Standard.

Moving on, how about the book's artistic merit? McCloud keeps himself a visual abstraction as he narrates the book and easily shifts style to reflect each point as he needs to make it. Its simple drawings keep the focus on the content and the point that is being made. It integrates without overpowering. The storytelling is clear and concise. McCloud takes pains to communicate his ideas as clearly as possible, from his cartoonish appearance as the narrator, down to the choices of panel transitions. Everything is presented precisely as it needs to in order to understand his point.

And finally, this book is also historically important. Like I said, no one had ever done this before. And frankly, no one has done it since, well, except McCloud himself (if I am wrong, and others have done similar work under the radar, please let me know). McCloud's book was the first one to use comics to talk about and demonstrate the craft of them. From the use of gutters to the use of varying abstractions of art to the use of time, he covered damn near all of it, and gave us a bit of a history lesson while he was at it.

All those things in total comprise comics. They are its techniques and language. By the end of the book, McCloud shows us how all these components work, from gutters to panel content to juxtaposing words within the images. He gives us a theory and vocabulary with which to discuss the artform. You can agree or disagree with his definition of comics and his theories all you want. No one had ever attempted to define comics within their own medium before.

For our Canon, Understanding Comics is the philosophy that holds the craft of comics together, the keystone. The entire Canon that we will uncover and discuss converges on this point. Understanding Comics is our dictionary. Our artistic theory. Our tool of discussion. Without it, we have to establish our vocabulary before we can move on. Luckily, McCloud has lain a foundation for us to build on.

I found it interesting that McCloud invited an open discussion at the end of this book and no one took him up on it on the same scale. He covered all the bases, and what he didn't ended up in Reinventing Comics. But Reinventing Comics' purpose wasn't to further define the medium as the first book did, but to give us an overview of the various ideologies and social movements within comics. From there, it then challenges us to think of comics in terms of delivery through new media (i.e. the Internet). We should include it, because it is an extension of the discussion he began in the first book.

It has literary merit because McCloud uses Reinventing Comics to give readers a historical context for the various social movements in comics while at the same time, proposing new approaches to the medium that will allow it to survive on the ever changing media landscape. Its artistic merit is the same as Understanding Comics. McCloud uses the same artistic techniques here as he does in the first book, for the same reasons, and to the same effect. Historically? Well, it's not as earth-shattering as the first book, but it's still important as an extension of his arguments. But historical importance is not a requisite, merely a bonus.

So there, we've got two books with which to start our Canon. Understanding Comics is in our Canon because it helps us build a vocabulary with which to discuss comics theory. And now we include Reinventing Comics, for picking up where the first left off and expanding our thinking.

The best part about starting with McCloud's books is that they, in and of themselves, help establish the very Standard we hope to apply. I'm not going to break every book down by panel, but if a work uses many of the tools McCloud outlines, well, we may have to take a closer peek.

You'll notice I don't mention two other works of comics theory: Graphic Storytelling and Comics & Sequential Art, both by Will Eisner. Those books aren't comics. They should be read by all means, but they were written as prose and don't qualify. But we cannot ignore them. So those two will become our first footnotes. When Eisner has something to say about theory, we listen. But we'll get to him later in the week.

We have our rules. We have our keystone works. Now, let's roll up our sleeves and get dirty. Next, I'll discuss the various formats of comics from strip to mini-series to long form serial, and some works that rise to the Standard of each.

At this point I send out an invitation to anyone reading this--if you have anything, anything, that would lend itself to supporting this discussion, let me know. My library is not exhaustive (as one of my editors pointed out while we discussed comic strips), and anything that will help us with this discussion would be appreciated.

Thanks! And I'll see you next week.

Today's books:
Understanding Comics, Harper Paperbacks; ISBN: 006097625X


Reinventing Comics, Harper Paperbacks; ISBN: 0060953500


Comics & Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press; ISBN: 0961472812


Graphic Storytelling, Poorhouse Press; ISBN: 0961472820

And thanks to Paul Hanna, who will be applying an editorial standard to these articles.

Scott O. Brown is a comics writer, editor, and publisher. He lurks underground consuming toxic levels of caffeine and information. You can find him online at http://sobstories.blogspot.com/.

 
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