mccloud understanding cmx

Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” is the best critical analysis of the comic medium ever written. Equally as  important, it’s also a very entertaining comic in its own right. McCloud points out that all mediums and art-forms have a long history of self examination and exploration from within the movement itself, yet comics have only done that very minimally, with the work “Comics and Sequential Art”  by the master of comics Will Eisner being a notable exception, yet that work was written a half century ago, leaving much room to be covered.

“Understanding Comics” is part history lesson, part art criticism, part psychology, part sociology and part science. He breaks everything down to the root, the origins and the methods. How do comics work? What differentiates them from every other medium? What are they capable of and what should they strive to be?

The art is tremendous here as well. It’s very simplistic and “cartoony” predominantly, McCloud notes later that basic, “cartoony” work is adaptable and perceived to be very relatable to a wide margin of people. In a sense, we can all place ourselves in the shoes of a more simplistic looking cartoon or comic character more than a very detailed realistic looking picture which will automatically exclude many people on physical matters alone. Yet in McCloud’s exploration of artistic styles and methods comics use, sudden panels will look photo-realistic, or impressionistic, or even of a “high art” quality. McCloud is seemingly capable of any sort of art style he should desire to use, which makes his use of more supposedly “simple” methods all the more admirable. In the chapter on motion, the art runs and jumps and spins through the pages like a film, and in chapters on layout and composition the material will slow to a freeze point so that every important matter can be dissected.

The entire work is highly readable, never does it become dry, dull or overly like a textbook. This book deserves to be used in art classes, literature classes and sociology classes across the board because it is very bright, very academic, very deep yet unpretentiously so. A critical analysis that is utterly entertaining, at times humorous and informative of many broad areas that can be appreciated by those familiar or totally unfamiliar with the medium, with pieces of information that can teach even the most sophisticated and knowledgeable fan a thing or two new, it’s hard to beat this book with any remotely similar.

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So as an avid music fan, a reader of popular music history and the sociology and culture that surrounds it, I’m quite aware that for decades the recurring theme was for youth to hate the music of their parents generation, and for parents to not understand or approve of the music of their children’s generation. It was simplified into the idea that if you don’t understand it, if you don’t get it, or if it shocks and offends you, you’re just too old. Now for serious music fans, for those folks who scratch much deeper than a love of music that offends and “defines a generation,” this has always been a shallow view. Of course it’s rooted in truth – bebop scared the be-Jesus out of older adults when it roared into play in the ‘40s, rock n roll scared middle class suburbia in the ‘50s by breaking down racial, social and sexual barriers, psychedelic music in the ‘60s with connotations of free love, drugs and peace blasted the Elvis generation into shock, Heavy metal, sleaze, glam and androgyny did it again in the 70s, hip hop and death metal in the 80s, more explicit rap and metal and their bastard fusion amongst a whole other slew of experimental genres that confused many over 30 repeated the trick in the ’90s.

Now we’re nearing the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Sitting comfortably back and looking at the best of the past quarter century plus of popular music, a music fan with a wide taste for variety and an open mind can find true art from each movement, and a lot of great music from the underground that ran through that entire time as well.

So near the end of this decade, what do we have to show musically? Was there any strong emergent genres, even a new strong subgenre from 2000+? Any new musical movements of note even? If there are any examples I am unaware of them, and if so this is really a new thing, because the 2000s are the first decade to not produce a unique, original or even slightly new form of popular music.

This is not to say there hasn’t been any good music over the past decade, there certainly has. Much of it has been later career work of already established greats – Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Tom Petty, Prince, U2 and others released top notch and in some cases career best work. Some acts who first gained popularity in the ‘90s stepped up in creative and successful artistic ways – Outkast, Eminem, Radiohead, Coldplay, Nine Inch Nails, The Drive by Truckers, Wilco and a slew of others proved they weren’t just ‘90s acts by making their best work. College Radio, Indie Rock and underground music were s great sources – Spoon, Neko Case, Ween, the Roots, the Spooks, Starsailor, Lupe Fiasco, the Hold Steady, Ryan Adams, The White Stripes, The Black Keys, Tom Waits and plenty others made great records, great songs, and played great live shows.

Now, we have the gift of being able to enjoy an entire history of popular music taking multiple variations – bebop to avant garde jazz to fusion, rockabilly to metal to punk, outlaw country to alt country to cowpunk, delta blues to funk to hip hop, gospel to soul to coffeehouse pop.

Yet the striking sadness concerning the path popular music has taken in recent years is the almost complete disappearance of quality music from the radio. Most of us album loving folks who still spin vinyl and view albums as cohesive works bemoan the so-called “death of the album,” but with continued strong songs and albums we can deal with digital and still get triple pressed 180 gram remastered vinyl for our turntables and high quality CD for our cars on certain albums if we desire. No, the real sadness is the overwhelming abundance of absolute irredeemable garbage that pumps its way onto the airwaves, in the videos and to the top of the billboard charts, music that is beyond questionable in quality and substance. Asher Roth’s despicable “I love college.” Lady GaGa’s recycled Brittany Spears puke. The second-rate Paula Abdul wannabe Ciarra. Nickleback. TI. Souljah Boy. Toby Keith, Gretchen Wilson, Big and Rich. I could go on ad nausea but I won’t. If you look at what was actually popular in the 50s—Elvis, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis; in the ‘60s-The Beatles, Rolling Stones, John Coltrane, James Brown,; the ‘70s- Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, Willie Nelson, Black Sabbath; the 80s- Public Enemy, U2, REM, Michael Jackson, Guns N Roses; the ‘90s – Nirvana, 2pac, Nine Inch Nails. Now of course I’m listing highlights. As you progress through the decades it becomes a matter of cherry picking the best of the popular, because from the ‘70s on each decade has yielded a lot of popular radio hits that are just trash. By the time we get to the nineties it’s very noticeable (Limp Bizkit, Creed, Master P) but by the time we get to today, try turning on the radio and hearing anything that isn’t about a strip club (pop station), a boot in the ass of a foreign country (country station) or the desire to rawk and/or go home and/or slit wrist (hard rock station) and you’ve hit the jackpot. Of course there are good popular acts that still remain “good” in the artistic sense. Of course there’s a place for big, dumb or cheesy, mindless fun in music as well. And yes, there’s a ton of under the radar beautiful music being made today as well. Yet whether because of the conglomeration of power, the absolute control and standardization of radio by companies like Clear Channel who are McDonaldizing pop music, because of tastes that are formed to like what the big dogs want the people to like and expose them to, because of a desire to not “think” because there’s enough troubling information on the news, because of the move from books to handheld techno gadgets that have to some degree “dumbed down” what is entertainment, because of reality TV and shock jocks, I really don’t know but there is an obvious change now and it’s not just a case of a new generation “just not getting it.”

Popular and critically acclaimed have historically occasionally overlapped. The Beatles are the biggest example of that, perhaps the only band that ever managed to be simultaneously the most popular band with the biggest hits as well as the best reviewed and revered amongst music journalists. Today, the gap between acclaim and popularity is a virtual gulf. What’s sad is that those of us who love music still can find it in many, many places with a bit of work, but many great artists will never have the chance to continue in their field because they simply lack adequate exposure. Many songs of great quality will languish and never reach their potential by never being heard and loved by the people that would love them and be positively affected by them. Yet such is the case, and I know there’s bigger issues to worry about–but music helps get through those other issues quite often.