I’ve recently read two fascinating books by cartoonist Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics and Making Comics. There is significant overlap, but I would choose the first for greater emphasis on art and graphic design, and the second for more emphasis on storytelling and practical matters. It was well worth reading both, even though I have no intention of drawing comics.

McCloud has a gift for simplifying without oversimplifying. For example, he neatly breaks down the choices to be made in writing with pictures into selection of moment, frame, image, word, and flow. He discusses these elements while keeping in mind the bigger picture, using them to help us understand what comics artists do and ways they can do it. They also serve in analyzing genre and cultural differences, as in his appreciation of Japanese manga. Especially interesting for me were discussions of closure–how we mentally fill in the transitions in a flow of discrete images–and the “masking effect”, the phenomenon of simple, abstractly drawn characters being more effective in leading us to identify with them, rather than observing them.

But what I’m bringing to A&P now is a breakdown of artistic approaches that McCloud outlines. Depending on where one falls on two axes–favoring tradition vs. revolution and concerned more with art or with life–one is roughly classified as Classicist, Animist, Formalist, or Iconoclast. The diagram below shows that Classicists are strong for art and tradition, Formalists also care about art as art but favor the new over tradition, etc.


Despite all the necessary caveats, this scheme provides a potentially interesting launchpad for discussion. Its explanatory power, if any, stems from the observation that a particular artist tends to favor one perspective, and others to a lesser degree, but seldom feels drawn to the diagonally opposite postion. All perspectives are important, and McCloud gives many examples for the case of comics.

For myself and for now, the best fit is probably the Formalist corner: less concerned with specific content (life) than with how it is rendered or transformed (art, form), and much more interested in finding something new than in following a tradition. How about you?