[Guest Post by Aaron Meskin]
What is the fundamental appeal of the cartoon? Scott McCloud argues that the popularity of the abstract and simplified cartoon style in comics stems in large part from its capacity to encourage reader identification. “We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it” (Understanding Comics: 36). McCloud’s hypothesis has become a commonplace among theorists of comics. So, for example, Henry Pratt suggests that “people buy comics whose characters they can identify with, and because cartooning aids the identification process, comics that use cartoons are highly marketable, and hence cartooning dominates the medium” (“Relating Comics, Cartoons, and Animation”: 372).
I’m sceptical. I guess other people are also sceptical. In Qiana’s great How Do We Talk About Animals That Talk? post she raises a question about McCloud’s claim:
“Here again, reader identification plays a key role. Scott McCloud argues that we are more inclined to identify closely with illustrations that are more abstract or cartoony. This is certainly the case for a possum like Pogo, but there is something about the precision of Guarnido’s illustrations… that challenges this claim. Is this because all animals, no matter how conceptually rendered or realistically drawn, always remain abstractions to us?”
Qiana asks us to consider whether the cartoon style is the only one that encourages identification—perhaps it can also be encouraged by realistic drawing styles. If so, there is no simple relationship between degree of realism and identification. But Qiana does not challenge two key parts of McCloud’s picture: (1) that abstraction of some kind or other is crucial to identification, and (2) that identification is central to understanding viewer engagement with comics. I think we should reconsider both assumptions.
I’m attracted to the view that identification in fiction typically involves the process of imagining or believing that one is similar in various salient ways to a character. Is there any reason to think abstraction or simplification facilitate this process? McCloud suggests we treat cartoons as representations of ourselves because although our experience of others’ faces is filled with rich detail our awareness of our own faces is simple and abstracted. “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face—you see another face. But when you enter the world of the cartoon see yourself” (Understanding Comics: 36). I find the psychological mechanism described here murky, and I am tempted by the thought that abstraction has nothing much to do with identification. In fact, I suspect that it tends to militate against it.
More fundamentally, I am suspicious of the suggestion that viewer identification plays such a central role in explaining audience interest in and involvement with comics. Do we really tend to buy comics whose characters we can identify with? I think I buy comics because I like the artist or author or genre of the comic. Or because I like the characters or find them interesting. Identification doesn’t seem to me to play much role in those decisions. Does it play a central role in the decisions of most comics consumers? And do we need to explain audience response to comics in terms of identification? After all, most of the time we seem to take a third person perspective on the events in comics. Or so it seems to me. Does it seem that way to you?
[To get more of Aaron on comics, check out his Teaching and Learning Guide for: Philosophy of Comics at the Philosophy Compass!]