Monday, October 10, 2011

Cartoon Concepts

I've read several recent posts quibbling with McCloud's assertion that it is easier for readers to identify with cartoon images. While I may not entirely support his viewpoint myself, I do think he does a fair bit more justification of this claim than has thus far been acknowledged on the blogosphere.

McCloud explains cartoons as "a form of amplification through simplification" (30). In his mind the cartoon trades visual realism for conceptual resonance. Realistic details are potentially distracting, and in their absence the audience is able to focus on the distilled concepts highlighted by the cartoon style. This distinction is echoed by his proposal of the separation of human experience into two categories: the realm of the concept and the realm of the senses (39). Our identities, according to McCloud,"belong permanently to the conceptual world" (40). We identify more with cartoons because they appeal more directly and efficiently to our sense of identity on it's own turf, if you will, in the conceptual realm. Our sense of our selves is conceptual, McCloud points out. When we are aware of our own faces, it is not in their full detail, rather we have a concept of them "a sketchy arrangement...a sense of shape...a sense of general placement" (36). This does not mean that we must always identify with cartoon figures, but rather that their design lends itself to this possibility if we are so inclined.


  1. One thing to note about McCloud's reference to anime towards the end of our reading: I am a big fan of anime, and have watched several over the years. The artistic style can, and often will, vary as much as the story lines, ranging from simplistic to extremely realistic. Take Hayao Miyazaki, for example. His characters are often fairly simple in their design, but I could wax eloquently on his backgrounds. The artwork is superb. To me, the main deciding factor is what the artist is trying to convey. If anyone feels differently, please chime in.

  2. Identification may not be the right word for what people do with cartoons. Relation is better than identification because cartoons are in a completely different dimension. An interesting concept I was thinking about while reading McCloud's statements of the human race being "self-centered" (32). This is so true that we must make a replica of our entire race in a completely different dimension where we, to simply put, cannot physically exist (the 2nd dimension). Not all inhabitants of the 2nd dimension are humans, but we must populate another area of space in order to better understand ourselves. I believe the use of cartoons for adults is a simplified, yet complex, way of communication. There is less room to sway the meaning or message the author/artist is trying to convey. Any abstraction or "gap" the text may leave is filled with an image that colors the grey areas people are so fond of questioning. The cartoon is an art form with virtually no ends, it can mimic reality and represent the impossible yet still be considered the same "genre".

  3. Ockam's Razor is a philosophical theory which states: all things being relative, the simplest answer is often the right one. It holds true in scientific discourse and research, but can also be applied to your idea of conceptual resonance. All things being relative, the simplest concept is often the easiest to understand. It's much easier for a cartoonist to depict the ocean as an endless blue shapeless blob next to the beach on a page or on a television screen than to be photorealistic. Accordingly, it is much easier for a child who reads or watches the cartoon to comprehend the ocean as a simple image rather than as a complex one.

    The same can be said of cartoon characters. By and large they are simple in design, which allows for a great range of emotive power because the particulars of their appearance are almost always nonexistent. They're also easy on the eyes: their faces and bodies are rounded and soft, their eyes large and expressive and their movements simple. What easier way to reach an audience of any age than to simplify?

  4. Ariel, I think it's interesting what you say about cartoonists essentially erasing the "gray area" of abstraction in their works. In Persepolis, it seems that Satrapi definitely does create images of abstract concepts. For instance, the narrator states, "Every night I had a big discussion with God" (8). We see an image of God, but no description. It seems to me that this technique of visualizing the abstract is used both to simplify the story, and to allow the reader to bring in his/her own experiences. Because Satrapi doesn't need to describe ideas like "God" or "sadness," she can focus more on textual descriptions of the political situation of the time. Thus, the reader is guided through the parts of the storyline that might not accord with his own experience, and is left to interpret the images how he will. While visualizing abstractions does indeed add some concreteness to the concepts, it also allows the reader to more adequately compare himself and his experiences to the ideas that the author is suggesting. Therefore, while cartoons may present a more uniform reading experience than straight-up texts, they also leave room for interpretation.

  5. It seems to me that Persepolis reflects this idea of trading visual realism for conceptual resonance. The pictures in Persepolis, like those in McCloud's "Vocabulary of Comics" do not include particularly realistic details, and one of the goals of the book is to portray concepts associated with Satrapi's experiences.

    McCloud writes in reference to "Maus", "American audiences are just beginning to realize that simple style doesn't necessitate simply story" (45). I am wondering whether Satrapi is going less for identification of her readers with her characters and more for portraying truly complex, nuanced issues in a way that places more emphasis on understanding concepts than on connecting with the characters in the story. To most Americans, the 1979 Islamic Revolution is completely unfamiliar - and, as Satrapi tells the story, it is not a revolution with only two sides, one of which is ultimately good and the other bad. This simplified drawing style allows her to emphasize concepts over detail.

    My favorite frames in the book are found in the bottom left corner of page 302. There are two drawings of Starapi, and the text explains that the revolution was smart enough to know that when people are worried to a great extent about dress ("Is my veil in place, are my trousers long enough, can my make-up be seen?"), then people do not have time to worry about where their freedoms and safety have gone. To me, this is powerful not because of the drawings - these frames lack of detail and business even compared to other frames on the page, which causes me to focus more on the words and the concepts. The basic, non-busy pictures in this frame reinforce the concepts without distracting from them.


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