A Few Words from a Man Who Speaks with Pictures
On the evening of September 17, students and faculty filled every seat in Gannett to listen to a man talk about comic books. Scott McCloud, the guest speaker for the 27th Fox-Adler Lecture, spoke about his graphic novel Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994) as well as the graphic novel’s fight for relevancy in the world of literature. McCloud’s lecture, “Comics and the Art of Visual Communication,” was a persuasive argument in favor of comics and revealed the existence, and importance, of visual literacy.
First, on a seemingly irrelevant topic, McCloud proved that there is no such thing as empty space. While air is composed of Oxygen and Nitrogen, it’s also full of radio signals, TV signals, cellular signals, and Wi-Fi. SkidmoreSecure may not be the most reliable of networks, but McCloud illustrated how information is in constant circulation, even when our phones are supposedly off and away in our pockets.
We live in the “information age,” and this lecture partially focused on how such information is presented and received, and how visual images can either help or hinder this process. McCloud discussed how images can act as a memory anchor, and help students or audiences retain the information of a lecture. Anyone who has ever made a PowerPoint presentation knows that bullet points and images are the go to for filling up slides and getting the main ideas to an audience. However, when the image of a llama appeared on the screen, there were a few giggles as McCloud addressed the problem speakers face with easily distracted audiences, and potentially distracting presentations. Even relevant bullet points can be distracting, as people could be reading the final bullet point when the presenter is still speaking on the first one.
However, there is certain information that we pick up on without Wi-Fi, PowerPoint presentations, or even words in general. When we are born, we already posses the ability to read and understand facial expressions, and these expressions are the vocabulary and grammar of comics. McCloud’s novel, written like a graphic novel, illuminates the history and meaning behind comics and the graphic novel. Comic artists have taken advantage of this innate skill and have truly highlighted the art in this art form in what McCloud called “facial calligraphy.” Despite the Peanuts’ faces being so abstracted, with their noses and eyes on the same level in a line across their faces, readers can still interpret Charlie Brown’s emotions, and follow the progress of his story.
McCloud soon broadened his topic by turning from reading facial expressions to the idea of visual literacy. Online, McCloud is constantly posting images that were meant to visually convey important information, such as a warning sign in a hotel telling residents to avoid the elevator and take the stairs in the case of a fire. However, he leaves it up to his viewers to translate and caption these images, and finds that the interpretations are far from the intended messages. While these captions were entertaining, McCloud made his point that visual literacy, both with reading and writing in images, is important in society.
However, because they are comprised of images, comic books and graphic novels are not considered as intensive reading. McCloud brought up a slide that presented a question that a parent had asked the Internet: “Do comic books count as real reading for kids?” Through this lecture, McCloud defended the profound importance of comics, and illustrated that graphic novels, like heavily worded novels, provide another venue through which readers can escape reality and immerse themselves in another world, and are certainly nothing less than “real reading.”
McCloud defended the importance of comics and was armed with nothing but a slideshow and a cue stick. His first line of attack was a riddle: What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino? Eliphino (pronounced, ell-if-I-know)! Of course the joke was funnier when he said it, and his fascination with the hysterical pun proved from the beginning that this was not going to be a conventional academic lecture. Students and faculty alike found his lecture incredibly entertaining and enlightening. Afterwards McCloud remained in the lobby and signed his books, and there were copies for purchase. Some of these books sold out. While McCloud signed books, sketchbooks, and posters, the large group of people that remained after the lecture to talk to this comic book author, prove that there is hope for comics in academia, and that there is more to these “picture books” than a mere lack of words.