What is the original?

For my blog post this week I want to focus on the Scott McCloud reading we did: “Vocabulary of Comics” in Understanding Comics. One of the reasons I choose this particular topic to talk about is because, as an English major, we are always finding something to analyze. Whether this be understanding what a particular phrase or line means, understanding a character in the book, or understanding what symbols are used throughout the text. Things are always up from interpretation. That interpretation will always be different from someone else interpretation. I like how McCloud discusses this ambiguity with the vocabulary of comics and the pictures of comics. One of my favorite pages in the chapter:


All of these “icons”, as referred to by McCloud, say that these are really not those ideas. For example, underneath the stop sign it reads “this is not a law” and underneath the “SPLAT” it says “this is not a sound” (McCloud ). Firstly, using these icons as examples really does leave the reader wondering what each icon really is in. Secondly, if a stop sign isn’t a law, and SPLAT isn’t a sign then what do we call these things? Are they just a category of icons like McCloud refers them to? Or are they even Real?

From a deconstructionist lens, one could argue that no matter what category of icons these symbols or words or pictures fall into, they are never the original or never the absolute. Author Lois Tyson argues this in her Critical Theory Today A User Friendly Guide, “Deconstructive Criticism”. She argues that since language and interpretation is so ambiguous, we will never have a solid original image or picture of an idea or object. She uses the example of a tree. When I think of a tree, I think of a specific brown trunk with huge green leaves on it. Another person might think of a tree as a pine tree, a palm tree, a tree with no leaves, etc. Since we all interpret different images and ideas how can we come up with this universal image for one object and idea? (Tyson 249-280).

I think that McCloud is touching on this concept of ambiguity and also taking it a step further with why are we so accepting of these images as portraying our ideas? He gives a good example of this:


In this panel McCloud is talking about how we becomes so accepting over simplified cartoons compared to detailed photographs. If things are up for interpretation and there is no universal image for a human face then why does the cartoon face seem as Real as the detailed photograph? As McCloud asks us, why are we so enchanted by the graphic novel? If all these images and texts are ambiguous why do we love them so much specifically when critics argue that they aren’t real?

McCloud argues that “amplification through simplification” is a way of eliminating details to focus on specific details. He continues to argue that cartoons allow the reader to focus on an idea and that is what gives them power (McCloud 30). Although I do understand what McCloud is saying but I disagree with this statement. If a cartoon focuses on an idea and that is what gives it power than wouldn’t he be arguing that the image is giving meaning and insinuating an idea? And if so, then he would be contradicting his argument from earlier that a stop sign doesn’t mean a law and SPLAT doesn’t mean a sound. This is where I disagree with McCloud.

To me, a cartoon or graphic novel draws my attention with the detail and creativeness of the pictures. Although these pictures are up for interpretation and can be understood differently in other reader’s eyes, the graphic novel represents the authors interpretation or ideas.  I think we take for granted this aspect of the graphic novel and comics. Yes, that seems like a simple analysis but how often do we talk about it under these terms? Almost never do I hear someone in a classroom say that the author’s interpretation is what draws me in. Diversity of interpretation is, to me, what makes the graphic novel and cartoons. I think that the attempted universal image that we see over and over again is something we get use to and adapt too from reading particular authors work. To me simplifying an image or icon takes away the magic of the picture and strips it to is basic form.

While Lois Tyson argues that we will never have an original image to be a universal and language will also be ambiguous I think McClouds arugment of amplification to simplification is flawed. While cartoons/graphic novels do have power with their images, the detail is where the power comes from. Without the detail wouldn’t all cartoons and graphic novels look relatively the same?


McCloud, Scott. “The Vocabulary of Comics” Understanding Comics. Chapter 2. Canvas. Web.

Tyson, Lois, “Deconstructive Criticism” Critical Theory Today A User Friendly Guide. Taylor and Francis Group. New York and London. 2006. 249-280 Print.

  1 comment for “What is the original?

  1. December 7, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    This (semiotics, truth claims, representation of a thing vs the thing itself) is something we didn’t get to talk much about in class, but it’s definitely an area of interest that works well under a deconstructive lens. When I’ve had time, I like to pair that discussion from McCloud (starting with his riff on Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” image) with Foucault’s discussion of that same image, as explained by the media scholar WJT Mitchell. Mitchell points out that the heart of that seeming paradox is the conflict you identify here — the original painting is called “The Treachery of Images” — whereby the stop sign technically isn’t a law, but really it is because we obey it. Or the word “splat” isn’t literally the sound splat, but also it really is that sound because whatever we hear in our minds when we read SPLAT is recognizably different from what we hear when read POOF.

    I’m not sure where McCloud falls on this question, and I think what you’re finding here is evidence of his lack of clarity about this point — or maybe it’s just that he wants to use this observation in the service of more operational and practical discussion of how to use it.

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