Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics should be essential reading for anyone who aspires to write about the visual arts. Deconstructing how comics function by matching form with ideas or narrative, McCloud carefully lays out a strong basis for a theory of comic images. Far from being limited to the realm of the graphic novel or two-dimensionality, the book supports a strong case for understanding meaning through form while also presenting a different way to write about art. Rather than leaning on theory and examples, the book itself serves as both example and theory. McCloud uses comics to reflect on comics, just as it’s increasingly familiar to see audiovisual essays reflect on cinema.
The relationship between comics and the screen has been pretty one-sided, as filmmakers and producers have adapted comic books into some of the biggest box office successes of all time. Beyond superheroes, movies like Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), Persepolis (2007), Akira (1988) and Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) are also based on comics. But what about the other way around? What happens when comics look back at the screen?
The most famous example of comics serving as film criticism comes from Alison Bechdel’s collection “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Initially published in 1985 under a strip called “The Rule,” this 10-panel comic has come to direct conversations about representation of women on screen. Often abstracted from its original source when discussed, it’s worth going back to look at how Bechdel uses the comic form to present this idea. The narrative is simple: two women, Mo and Ginger, walk past a movie theatre. Ginger asks Mo if she wants to see a movie, Mo explains she has three rules before she decides to see a film (the film must feature two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), and seeing that nothing is playing, the pair head home.
The details of the comic only enhance the experience, offering context and emotional grounding. Written during the height of Reaganite cinema, the posters that the pair walk past are all vulgar displays of exaggerated masculinity. This highlights not only the contemporary cinema landscape that helped bore the special need for this kind of measure, but similarly worked as an extreme example that supported a brief discussion of Alien: sometimes the encounters that qualify a film to “pass” can be so short and brief, it cannot be judged before you watch the film. Unless, of course, it’s Rambo or Predator, where there are no women characters at all. Without ever being pointed to or referenced directly, the posters offer an important layer in the cinematic criticism.
Perhaps most potently, the second to last panel reveals the much deeper anguish of the entire experiment. As it becomes clear that no film playing at the cinema will fulfill the conditions of “the rule,” the two women are presented breaking the fourth wall, shoulders slumped forward and completely dejected. It was never that they didn’t want to go to the movies, it was that movies were not being made for them.
While something like the Bechdel test has long entered the mainstream, it seems more often than not that comics of which serve as some kind of film criticism still exist on the fringe. While the fan culture surrounding superheroes has undeniably long gone mainstream, the independent comics still stand somehow outside of society. Part of the appeal of comics as criticism lies in the same appeal as a video essay, in that it utilizes images to express nuances and a multiplicity of meaning, but it also goes beyond that. It represents voices that are often marginalized within the critical community as well, which is why they are especially valuable to seek out. When done well, they not only express what cannot be said with just words, but they touch on ideas and sentiments rarely touched upon in any kind of mainstream criticism in a way that actively subverts traditional forms and biases.
As a final note, I would like to open up the comments to suggestions of comics, graphic novels and particular strips that fit the bill of some kind of film criticism. On Twitter, I received a number of suggestions, such as “Filmish” by Edward Ross, “So Long Silver Screen” by Blutch, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Kim Deich, “Vic et Flo ont vu un ours” by Denis Côté, “Video Tonfa” by Tim Goodyear and “Rick Trembles’ Movie Picture Purgatory” (among others). If it’s of interest to readers, I’d love to put together a reading list in the future on this specific subject, so let me know if you run into anything.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.