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REVIEW: Inventing Comics

An under-quoted passage in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics reads, "Our attempts to define comics are an on-going process which won't end anytime soon. [...] Here's to the great debate!" Cartoonist Dylan Horrocks has accepted that challenge.

"Inventing Comics: Scott McCloud's Definition of Comics"
Dylan Horrocks
published in The Comics Journal 234, June 2001
also available at the author's website or as this printer-friendly PDF version (use the "booklet" printing option for best results), released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0  (CC BY-NC 3.0)

First published in The Comics Journal in 2001, "Inventing Comics" begins by pointing out that Understanding Comics is not just a work of theory, but a work of polemic: "By saying, 'This is comics,' [McCloud] is really saying, 'This is what comics should be; it is what we should value most about them.' On the other hand he's also saying what comics should not be, and, by implication, what we should value less about them."

Horrocks follows this important observation with a rundown of what McCloud's definition includes and excludes, as well as dubious aspects of his other definition-oriented comments, such as sequentiality as the essential quality of comics over other possibilities, an essentialist approach to studying the arts in general, an aversion to high text-to-image ratios, a blurring of "medium" and "art form", anti-print bias, and much more. Voicing these concerns shows the significant value of "Inventing Comics": it questions the motivations and implications of McCloud's ideas rather than accepting them as just making sense. (It should be noted that Horrocks isn't a jerk about these things: he clearly appreciates the importance of Understanding Comics, and he thanks McCloud for being "gracious and enthusiastic about my clumsy attempt to dissect it".)

Understanding Comics and "Inventing Comics" make for an impressive one-two punch of an introduction to comics theory, and I recommend reading (or rereading) them in immediate succession. McCloud's book is an amazing, accessible, comics-about-comics statement of philosophy, and Horrocks' also accessible essay adds further dimension to that philosophy by examining it with a nuanced, critical eye. That's beneficial for anyone interested in comics theory, but it's especially important that librarians investigate the complexities of definition, given how much of our work depends on categories and classifications, which in turn affect issues of access and readership among the people we serve.