Read Chapter 16

Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud

CITE AS: Gutierrez, P. (2016). Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 208 - 221). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 16
Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud
“You—you’re the comic book guy, right?” At first heard as flattering, then mildly annoying, and finally self-affirming in the quietest and most powerful of ways, it’s a phrase that, usually with the beginnings of a grin, those who half-recognize me have used countless times in greeting me over the years. Even when the grin isn’t present physically, it is there, in intonation or a certain brightening of the eyes. But what is behind it? Simply the brief pleasure of connecting my face or name to some stray bit of prior knowledge? Or is it reflective of what it means to be associated with comic books generally? Often I have suspected that a coded reference was at work, one predicated on how endearingly quirky or nerdy comics were, thus making the entire interaction mildly patronizing before it has really started.

Of course if all this sounds more than a tad neurotic, mea culpa and then some. Please know, however, that it’s a neurosis with something of a cultural bent, a sore spot both intensely personal and grandly impersonal. Being identified as a comics guy would, if only for an instant, prompt me to regress to that practically friendless twelve-year-old who, upon discovering copies of The Uncanny X-Men in the local five-and-dime, felt that the universe had shifted and revealed some private corner of wonder. Yet at the same time, the nonprivate nature of such an exchange, typically at a cocktail party, triggers dread (wonder’s secret sibling) at the prospective burden of explaining it all, of answering the unstated question that looms behind the curiosity—namely, why comics of all things?

So let us first be clear about context. Until recently it has been hard to be a comics fan in the United States—let alone a comics-friendly educator or comics scholar—since before I was born. With the cultural witch hunts of the 1950s,and the subsequent dominance of a lone genre, superhero adventures, for the next several decades, the bias against the medium became so entrenched and pervasive that even its supporters seemed resigned to it. As someone who fell in love with comics in the 1970s, looked for ways to bring them into my teaching when I entered the field. In the late 1980s, and became a creative professional in the industry in the 1990s, I can recall that this outsider status occasionally served as a perverse badge of honor. In the long run, though, it became exhausting for me and (at the risk of making an outrageous presumption) everyone else who took comics seriously. Into this sad state of affairs came Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993), and suddenly everything began to change. It crystallized many things that longtime comics readers instinctively knew while simultaneously legitimizing the object of our love to those with whom we had longed to connect—tastemakers, academics, librarians, and that most elusive demographic of all, thinking adults.

Confession time: that “suddenly” a couple of sentences back is wrong, but since I’m now openly acknowledging its wrongness, perhaps it can be spared being called a flat-out lie. While Understanding Comics landed hard and sent crater dust far into the stratosphere, it seemed to take more than a decade before McCloud’s wisdom consistently entered the realm of praxis. My evidence for this claim is both anecdotal, based on the vanguard maneuvers I’ve been witness to, and exceedingly personal, perhaps myopically so. Indeed, as you continue reading the rest of this odd ode, keep in mind that whatever its faults, the experience is without question preferable to reading two of my résumés, which is what you would have been subjected to a decade ago if for some reason you were at all interested in my career. And the fact that that particular type of bifurcation is no longer necessary is a testament to the impact of McCloud’s work.

To be clear, those two résumés weren’t just alternate versions of each other—they were dueling documents, with my personal contact information being the only real area of overlap. One listed my career in pop culture, with my writing and editing of comics given prominent placement. The other represented a serious-minded account of my K–12 experience, both in the classroom and in the publishing houses that market into it. After all, as a freelance developer of curriculum and the instructional materials that support it, it simply wouldn’t do to spotlight much in the way of what had to be a frivolous hobby of some sort. This two-faced approach to my own career chafed, to put it mildly—especially since the area that I gradually seemed to be staking out for myself concerned high-interest media and how to leverage the associated outside-of-school literacies.

Eventually this came to look like examining pop-culture fandoms across media, and I was grateful to publish my work on the topic in esteemed journals such as Language Arts and Screen Education (Gutierrez 2009, 2011) As a blogger for School Library Journal, I explore the intersection of fandom and critical literacy, a natural-enough fit as librarians always seem to be a bit ahead of the game in terms of embracing both the teaching-and-learning potential of student-selected media and the independent, fiercely nonacademic habits and discourse that young people bring to their favorite texts.

Yet even when the concept of fandom literacies (i.e., the cognitive and communicative skill sets that fans consistently bring to the fan object) wasn’t my focus, I was concerned with the intimately related notion that the pre–“media literate” know more about media than anyone, including themselves, might reasonably expect. The idea was that not only is there more behind pop culture than many suppose—that itself isn’t original at all (see{AU: Correct that you don’t mean “compare”?} Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You [2005])—but also fans, even casual ones outside of organized fandoms, already instinctively “get” certain things. In fact, it is this evolving but largely hidden understanding that often deepens their appreciation of pop culture. With students, however, a “let’s save analysis of pop culture media for college” rationale seemed to be the unwritten law that most of us working in, or serving, K–12 populations seemed to obey.

Indeed, the goal of gently overthrowing this assumption was the impetus behind the first-ever media course I taught, back in 1991, when I realized that there was no reason fifth- and sixth-graders couldn’t learn the language of moving-image media. They already knew about different kinds of shots: they just didn’t know what they were called, so they noticed them less, questioned them less, and reflected on them less. And this is the same approach, of activating what might be called latent knowledge, that I used more than fifteen years later, when I taught even younger students how comics were made, a process that culminated in their working together as a team; they “kind of” knew this stuff already. That is, it was half-buried in their schema and just needed to be brought out into full relief. And the same thing, dare I say it, is largely true in terms of digital literacy, too.

The fundamental belief that there’s more to it—which in a K–12 context means more than certain gatekeepers give credit for, more than students themselves are aware of—was at the heart of McCloud’s motivation to pen Understanding Comics in the first place. It also shows why his book grabbed that wide-eyed, twelve-year-old me and introduced him to the thirty-year-old version, the one who ended up loving the medium all the more for having what he already sort of knew explained back at him in all its glory. Because I guess that has always been my approach as well—not just to comics, but to pop music, sports, television, the digital expressions that fandom takes, and other neglected, often denigrated forms of culture: there’s more to it.

Here’s McCloud on his own middle-school self, the one who became “totally obsessed with comics,” both reading and then drawing them: “I felt that there was something lurking in comics . . . something that had never been done. Some kind of hidden power! But whenever I tried to explain my feelings, I failed miserably.” Hence the impetus, much later, for the grown-up McCloud to take up the challenge of explaining what had previously seemed frustratingly inexplicable, to tackle a project that would be no less than “an examination of the art-form of comics, what it’s capable of, how it works” (McCloud 1993, 2).

Clearly the phrase hidden power is a key one, or at least it has been to me, for it speaks simultaneously to the faith of the fan, to the practitioner, and to teachers and students of media literacy.

So sure, I’d been familiar, experientially, with the art of comics, but I wasn’t quite sure how it operated; thus the brilliant simplicity of McCloud’s subtitle: The Invisible Art. In fact, that credo of “there’s more to it”—isn’t that the start of all inquiry? Namely, what exactly is that “more”? Where and how can it be found? And what are its implications—how does that “more” affect how media work on us and through us? To me, this is media literacy, and media literacy education, in its purest and most potent state.
On the Indivisibility of Art and Media
In fact, it always shocked me that Understanding Comics wasn’t immediately considered a core text of the media literacy education movement in the United States. As proof of its merit in this respect, one need only revisit how the author outlines his central questions in terms that could not be more recognizable to the media literacy crowd: “[How] do we define comics, what are the basic elements of comics, how does the mind process the basic language of comics—that sort of thing” (McCloud1993,

Already, by declaring such straightforward objectives, it begins—that all-important process of focusing on how a given medium actually works regardless of what it ostensibly says. McCloud describes this as the “aesthetic surgery” that is necessary to “separate form from content” (McCloud 1993, 5). Moreover, and of special cultural import in the context of comics, the notion of value-free analysis was subtly introduced: marginalized content and highbrow aspirations alike were effectively rendered beside the point. Yet that didn’t mean readers were in for an arid exercise in pure theory. No, there was fun on every page, usually multiply so.
Did I not mention that McCloud’s seminal work was itself a comic?

I guess not. Moreover, because of this, it served as a prime piece of evidence in its own argument—the medium’s unique strengths to speak engagingly and lucidly to its audience. And make no mistake: “medium” was McCloud’s word, not mine, although it speaks to a distinction that I and countless others have had to make between the defining traits of all comics and their varied manifestations, both in genre and format (i.e., graphic novel, “floppy” comic book, newspaper comic strip, etc.).

The end result, however, of all this playful metacreativity was not a simple piece of procomics chauvinism. On the contrary, McCloud constantly invoked the confluence of other media, either in comics themselves or in his thoughts about them. This was never done ostentatiously, to buttress comics’ reputation with the accepted. Rather, his facility with making authentic connections to everything from fine art to advertising was not only internally logical but liberating, externally, to anyone like me. Incidentally, this informed my own turnabout from hesitancy in introducing comics into literacy education to  leaping between the affinity shared by comics and anything—literature, myth, games—in pretty much all of my media literacy work. Eventually this led to my looking for, and building on, pedagogically, shared connections in terms of composition; the result was a book I wrote on scriptwriting that attempted to show educators how students who wrote comics could transfer their skills to writing for other media, such as film and video (Gutierrez 2013b).

Ultimately, I think that what I and, I imagine, others responded to so deeply in McCloud’s analysis was the way it moved effortlessly between media and art. All too often, concepts seem to be culturally compartmentalized, almost as if somehow reflecting the hemispheric division of the brain itself. For McCloud, though, one can’t be separated from the other. Indeed, his book culminates in a grand yet exceedingly straightforward presentation of what he calls the six-step creative process that applies to “any work in any medium” (McCloud 1993, 169; emphasis in original). After first positing that much of human activity is, in fact, art, including “language, science, and philosophy” (McCloud 1993, 167), he clarifies each of these half-dozen stages: idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface.

While there is much that could be said, and, yes, refuted about McCloud’s ideas in this area and much that is inspiring about them, the most striking thing is that such a far-ranging thesis was conducted from within the realm of comics; again, yes, other media are cited, but the entire argument not only flows from McCloud’s own understanding of comics but also—let’s not forget—is put forth via comics. The lesson here was not lost on me, and in the new century I began advocating the use of comics as an underused springboard to media literacy (Gutierrez 2007). What this looked like in practice was an elementary-level course I taught called What Makes a Superhero Super? It engaged students with the promise of the familiar and the fun, but as we explored superheroes over time and across media, the curriculum was undeniably one of media literacy: the idea was to lead with comics content and then introduce media forms as a natural follow-up, and it worked. To be clear, one doesn’t need to be a fan of a specific art form to teach the analysis of its messages and mechanisms. But if we want to reach young people, why not start with what they already like? And this doesn’t mean employing a mere bait-and-switch tactic: we’ll hook you on content and then move onto analysis. Instead, the intellectual elegance of Understanding Comics lies in how it shows comics-readers that underlying what they love are signs and systems, the learning of which can actually deepen their appreciation of the art.

The notion that art emerges from the constraints and the strengths of any given medium is also hardly news. But McCloud’s contribution was to argue successfully—and this success was due largely to the fact that his argument took a form that offered a demonstration of its own validity—that the art of comics is sufficiently complex and profound to merit inclusion in all those wider and more legitimized cultural conversations. In this regard it’s important to remember that McCloud was not an academic with a side talent of drawing didactic comics. No, McCloud understood the art of comics as a practitioner first and foremost, from the inside out, if I may be permitted to invoke a cliché.

When he undertook Understanding Comics, then, it wasn’t as an illustrator or designer who just happened to dabble in the medium but as a master cartoonist whose best known work, the science-fiction epic Zot! (2008), was (and is still) widely admired in its own right. The richness of its storytelling should come as no surprise to anyone who encounters it after his nonfiction work on comics; nor should the fact that the later, online version of Zot! reflects McCloud’s restlessness as an experimenter, as an artist who wanted to test and refine the precepts of both Understanding Comics and its follow-up for the digital era, Reinventing Comics (McCloud 2000). Perhaps most famous and startling in this regard is the third part of Zot! Online, wherein a 6,000-pixel-tall panel depicting free-fall requires the reader to keep scrolling in a way that, obviously, would be impossible in the print medium. Yet the form follows the narrative function: to convey the vertical vastness of such a fall, not just to tire out the fingers of his readers or to show off the possibilities of new technology (an idea worth bearing in mind when, it a different context, it becomes necessary to distinguish between the use of “ed tech” and authentic digital literacy).

In short, this is thinking-informed-by-doing, and vice versa, which just so happens to align nicely with a central tenet of mainstream media literacy pedagogy: the importance of actual media production to the learning process. To separate considerations of art too severely from those of media is not just messy and perhaps dishonest intellectually but also hampers the ability to learn, understand, and, ultimately, teach. More about this later; first let’s take a quick look at what McCloud discovered when he explored comics from within.
Constructedness and Creation
Though its economy, aesthetic pleasures, and scholarship are to be applauded, the first chapter of Understanding Comics offers what might seem like a predictable and even rather standard historical apologia for comics: they’ve always been around, from ancient Egypt to popular woodcut narratives. It’s in that second chapter, though, that things get intensely interesting because that’s where, though with a tone that’s far from polemical, McCloud tackles the chief gripe about comics head-on: their supposed simplicity, even primitiveness, in terms of visual representation.

Thus begins his book’s focus on those middle steps of the creative process, after comics are selected as the medium of choice and yet before the final stages of what might be called practical technique. The central question of this territory might then be phrased as “How is meaning itself relayed via comics’ formal elements?” To this end, McCloud begins with a somewhat counterintuitive claim that, paradoxically, seems completely intuitive once he’s done explaining it. That apparent reduction of physical specifics into the caricature-like tendencies of comics? It doesn’t mean that comics become generic in the sense of eschewing the detailed and the realistic in favor of a lazy, lowest-common-denominator artistic strategy. On the contrary, the abstracted form that, say, human faces take on—and this is just but one example from a more profound analysis of what McCloud terms “icons”(1993) —help evoke the most specific thing of all: the reader’s recognition of self. After all, the more finely rendered the image, the more loudly it announces itself as a distinct, external entity, while when it’s stripped artfully back to its essence, it becomes a serviceable mirror for the audience. Thematic and narrative engagement thus flows more freely, as we insert ourselves into a comic in ways that are medium-specific.

Such considerations lead seamlessly into an equally eye-opening examination of seamlessness itself. That is, Understanding Comics then moves on to the compelling topic of closure, a term that refers to the audience’s participation in a text via extrapolating the whole from its parts, essentially coauthoring the text from fragments of representation. McCloud convincingly shows how closure lies at the heart of many diverse art forms, how it conjures a solid and accessible reality from all those carefully arranged slices of content. Though he doesn’t use the term “suture” in his discussion of movies, film-studies folks will be quick to recognize it as a variant on the same conceptual theme; we get woven into the work of art, embedded as it were, and usually by covert means. And of course this is, in part, what makes comics so invisible.

Perhaps most significant in McCloud’s quest to make the invisibility slightly more visible is his groundbreaking examination of the role of the gutter in comics. If you’re not familiar with the term, know that the neat thing about it is how it reflects the unseen or invisible in a literal way, as it refers to the (understandably) overlooked space that exists between panels. Years later{AU: Please clarify time passage: years later than what?}, as a direct borrowing from McCloud and citing his work explicitly, I’d conduct “comics and literacy” workshops for teachers and librarians in which I’d connect the instinct for closure that readers exercise via the gutter to commonly recognized reading and comprehension skills such as making inferences. The point was obvious: with comics, readers are constantly filling in the gaps of the text, and the best comics, interestingly, often hide this process most adeptly. We see Spider-Man look out a window and then, in the next panel, we see him swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper—we never need to see him leap out the window, as we can assume this action transpired in the gutter. This part of my presentation would work for the purposes of getting educators to think about comics in new ways, but it would also model for them the same interaction that they could have with their students: What’s not shown? How can you imagine that not-shown? And would you, if you were the creator, have chosen something else not to show? This same approach eventually showed up in my work on digital literacy in terms of the way that fans draw conclusions and make predictions based on incomplete or ambiguous pieces of online information (Gutierrez 2011). This may seem like a stretch, to connect comprehension strategies across media and student reading levels, but it’s precisely that high level of transference that builds habits, if not in the student then certainly in the teacher. In short, the goal is always be looking at not just what you bring to the text, but what, in some way, you’re expected to bring. And that’s not merely an interesting tangential observation to literacy of all types—it’s intrinsic to it.

In his analysis of the gutter, McCloud goes much further than my generalities here would imply, establishing a taxonomy of different transitions, such as moment-to-moment and subject-to-subject. My favorite, by the way, is aspect-to-aspect, in which one might witness isolated parts of an event and subconsciously infer that larger, unifying whole from the facets of it that are presented (e.g., otherwise unconnected panels depicting fallen leaves, a scary mask, and a pumpkin signal a Halloween setting). Arguably, one sees this device more in artier comics, but the point, thanks to McCloud, is that suddenly one has a name for this type of storytelling. Again, ask comics fans and they’d know instantly what’s being discussed here, but when a name is given to the phenomenon, thus differentiating it from other options available to creators, the concept takes on a new kind of utility. It becomes something to note, to evaluate, to value—which, in turn, serves to link readers with creators in yet deeper ways. No longer simply identifying with characters in a narrative, readers who practice critical thinking gradually come to identify with the authors themselves, experiencing text as a series of extrinsic choices as well as intrinsic dramatic incidents.
The Death and Life of Comics
The fact that McCloud’s Understanding Comics sold surprisingly well and seemed to be universally acclaimed makes it easy to overstate the changes it wrought. After all, it didn’t single-handedly save comics, especially after the disastrous early 1990s implosion of the speculator market and the subsequent collapse of so much of the retailer base. The steady rise of the graphic novel and manga, both in sales and stature, as well as other factors (e.g., the new online connectedness of fandom) surely had much to do with rescuing an industry that had already fallen off the cliff and was now hanging on to a few strands of dry grass. Nonetheless, McCloud’s book served as an accelerant splashed upon still-glowing embers. It allowed both the intelligentsia and the general public not simply to give comics another look but to make that look far more thoughtful and extended than ever before. In short, the terrific graphic novels that surfaced in the late 1990s and early 2000s directly benefitted from the newfound esteem that comics enjoyed as a result of McCloud’s efforts. At once a “Comics for Dummies” and a “Comics for Smart People,” Understanding Comics set off ripples in multiple ponds. And every time a new stone landed in the water and splashed the cultural status quo in the face, I applauded wildly. Never before, at least to my knowledge, had a media literacy text served to catalyze such newfound interest in the medium that it sought to explicate.

If you wanted to work in the field of media literacy, what could be more inspiring? Eventually all those ripples expanded, as ripples are wont to do. In both K–12 and media literacy circles (which, of course, are not mutually exclusive), I sensed McCloud’s work setting the stage. For what exactly, I wasn’t sure. But after being present to innumerable conference presentations and journal citations, there could be no doubt that not to act on his insights was becoming akin to cowardice.

So, yes, I ended up contributing to all those ripples myself. I was fortunate enough to get platforms that ranged from major comic conventions to annual teacher gatherings. The strategy was simple: be that specific someone who married many of the major themes in what might be termed conventional media literacy education (conventions that were themselves not sufficiently old to be called “traditional”) to what we could teach about the art and business of comics, such as target audience, representation, branding, the production process, the commercial impulse, and the concept of creative ownership.

But I wasn’t the only one. While I and James Bucky Carter and Katie Monnin and many others sought to marry the incredible artistry of comics to the lofty goals of K–12 curricula, several others followed more directly in McCloud’s footsteps: master cartoonists and even creative geniuses saw that their role of educator—both to the general public and to schoolkids—was integral to their professional identity and perhaps even their artistic identity. I’m talking about people like Gene Luen Yang and Eric Shanower, who freely made educational resources available on their websites. Others were even more directly involved with teachers and students: Josh Elder, a Batman and Superman scribe, founded a nonprofit called Reading with Pictures that sought to get “comics into schools and schools into comics.”{AU: Please cite source for quote and add to references.} Acclaimed graphic novelist Kevin C. Pyle started teaching courses to kids of the same age that I’d been working with, except he brought a more thorough firsthand knowledge of the medium as a result of being both writer and artist (full disclosure: both my own boys have studied with him). Meanwhile, the team of Matt Madden and Jessica Abel took a break from their own amazing work to produce Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (Abel and Madden 2009), a how-to book for young creators that became so much more as they supported it with outreach into schools and online. Most spectacularly of all, James Sturm, the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies and a hugely gifted talent, teamed up with some former students to create Adventures in Cartooning (Sturm, Arnold, and Frederick-Frost 2013), a metadidactic guide to the power of comics that is a direct descendent of McCloud’s work, although it is aimed at kids.

What does all this have to do with media and digital literacy, though? Only everything. In recent years a variety of digital tools, both online and local, have made the process of creating comics much more user-friendly for students (Gutierrez 2013b), and schools have been surprisingly quick to embrace these innovations. The quiet breakthrough in this regard hasn’t passed unnoticed by some of the strongest advocates of media and digital literacy (Gutierrez 2013a)—no longer does one have to possess specific training and skills in draftsmanship or design or have access to specialized materials. Rather, the art of composing comics can be done in purely McCloudian terms, as students can use prefab figures or upload their own photographs and other digital images: this frees them up to consider the building blocks of storytelling itself such as sequence, time, structure, and so on. In short, they learn the medium by doing, and, again, the art is inseparable from the media literacy.
And let’s not forget, not for an instant, that school is culture; indeed, it is what shapes and informs the culture that we’ll be stuck with, for better or worse, in years to come.

Of course, on many other levels besides formal education, the convergence of comics culture and culture as a whole is still occurring, but the good news is that for several years now I’ve had a single résumé. Over time, the very deficiency I’d detected in myself became a strength—media literacy education, and K–12 education in general, came to embrace comics, and without warning I found myself in the right place at the right time. I’d been invisible beforehand, to be sure, but I’d never been absent, and now my own outside-of-school literacies turned out to be more valuable than I could ever have imagined. For proof of this, one need only consider the inclusion of this chapter in a book such as this.

Comics, like any art form, survive and thrive when the walls between audience and creator, between practitioner and teacher, and between student and neophyte artist are dissolved in a grand love of the medium and an understanding of it. Heart and mind, working together, and inspiring more of the same. That’s McCloud’s legacy to me and so, so many others.
Abel, J., and M. Madden. 2009. Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. New York: Macmillan.
Gutierrez, P. 2007. “Sparking Media Literacy with Comics.” Diamond BookShelf. Available at
———.2009. “Good and Plenty.” School Library Journal 55 (9): 34–39.
———. 2011. “Blockbuster Central.” Screen Education 62:34–39.
———. 2013a. “4 Questions for Richard Beach about Literacy and Digital Comics Creation.” Connect the Pop, January 18. Available at
———. 2013b. The Power of Scriptwriting: Teaching Essential Writing Skills through Podcasts, Graphic Novels, Movies, and More. New York: Teachers College Press.
Johnson, S. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You. New York: Penguin.
McCloud, S. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Kitchen Sink Press.
———. 2000. Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form. New York: Paradox Press.
———. 2008. Zot! New York: Harper Collins.
———. {AU: Please insert citation for Zot! Online.}
Sturm, J., A. Arnold, and A. Frederick-Frost. 2013. Adventures in Cartooning. New York: Macmillan.


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