This Week: Persepolis & McCloud
This week we are reading book one of Persepolis alongside Scott McCloud’s supercritical and still mind-blowing-after-all-these-years book, Understanding Comics. McCloud’s book to me is still the best book out there about writing, reading, and making comics. If you haven’t read McCloud yet, please do! Read it cover to cover. Read it again. Then read your favorite comic book and finally understand why you felt what you felt at certain times. MIND BLOWN.
So, let’s start with the first couple chapters of McCloud. One of the coolest McCloudian ideas that you can ponder for eternity is his diagram of “The Picture Plane.” This diagram essentially illustrates that there are three points that make meaning: icons, reality, and language. As an image slides along from close to photograph all the way to abstraction or symbol to language our brains make meaning in different ways. The more photographic an image, the less wiggle room our brain has to make new meaning. The more symbolic the image (a smiley face for example) the more we put meaning onto that image ourselves. Think: emojis. SO MUCH MEANING IS MADE from such a small icon. Feast your eyes on “The Picture Plane” below, which can be found on pp 51 in his Understanding Comics.
A Few Key Points from McCloud’s Understanding Comics
*I’m not going to go over all the key concepts in his book, because you should really buy his book (as my students have). But here are some teasers.
Icon: 'Any image used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea.'
The 'universality' of a cartoon image: 'when you enter the world of the cartoon -- you see yourself. ... We don't just observe the cartoon; we become it.'
Combination of 'iconic characters with unusually realistic backgrounds ... allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.'
Characters drawn more realistically are 'objectified.'
In comics, words are the ‘ultimate’ abstraction.
The picture plane as a triangle with Reality at the left bottom corner, Language at the right bottom corner, and Picture Plane or Art Object at the pinnacle. The Picture Plane is 'where shapes, lines, and colors can be themselves and not pretend otherwise.'
Closure: a comic shows parts of thing that the observer then perceives as the whole.
The gutter: the space between the panels of a comics; our imagination takes the two images that border the gutter and transforms into a single idea.
"If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar." OMG I LOVE THIS LINE.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is one of the best books written in any genre in the past twenty years. Yes, I am a fan. :) It’s so powerful that it inspired a generation. She takes so many risks and the narrative and illustrations are authentic and raw. While some early on criticised her illustrations for being rudimentary, the claim was strangely silly. If you consider McCloud’s idea of “The Picture Plane” and the simplicity of her character renderings, Satrapi’s coming-of-age-tale becomes universal. We can see ourselves in her character’s position, dealing with all the sorts of things that teens deal with. And with something they shouldn’t have to: war.
This week in my course we are applying McCloudian theories of comic storytelling to Persepolis. Some panels defy categorization. Some of my favorite pages exist outside of time — the image is literally panel-less and seeps into our consciousness FOREVER.
If you are reading the book, pay attention to moments where the image and text juxtapose each other, as well as scenes, pages, and panels that change your connection to time. When an image doesn’t have a panel framing it, it defies gravity. The simplicity is the point.
I also love hearing from authors, no surprise, so here’s an interview with Satrapi where she talks about the book.
Next week? Book Two of Persepolis!