[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!]


About roytcook

Roy T Cook is CLA Scholar of the College and John M Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He is the co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Aaron Meskin & Frank Bramlett), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach).

3 responses »

  1. Thanks for this post, Aaron – and for making me think a bit more carefully about a topic I enjoy. While I tend to place a lot of emphasis on reader/viewer identification in my own study of comics, your questions are making me realize that the term “identification” is not as straightforward as I and others have articulated. In the quote you cited from McCloud, he uses faces as an example, but my understanding of how we identify does not only occur in the visual realm. I’d want to include the character’s emotions, psychological states and desires (no matter how virtuous or repugnant) as part of what shapes our level of engagement too.

    I don’t think that we can ever be fully aware of how much this more intangible kind of identification directs our choices when deciding upon which comic to read. It seems like writers and artists who are skilled at what they do find ways to enable the identification process even when the characters are not as abstract or cartoony on the surface (I guess this was sort of what I was trying to get at with my thoughts on Blacksad but Gaiman’s Sandman also comes to mind for me here.) So I guess I still want to hold on to #2 on your list of assumptions — about the central role of identification — but concede #1 about abstraction not necessarily being crucial to this process. Great questions!

  2. noraam says:

    Hi Qiana! Ok, but why are you so attracted to the view that identification plays such an important role in our engagement with comics? Honest question…I’ve never really understood why one would think identification plays that central role. I mean, I guess people who engage in cosplay are identifying with characters in some sense. But that does not strike me as a manifestation of the, um, standard way people engage with comics. 🙂

    Or is it?


  3. roytcook says:


    I just wanted to basically repeat and further emphasize something you said (although you might not approve totally of what I take to be merely a rephrasing of your point):

    It seems to me that there is, within much work on comics in particular and narrative art in general, an assumption that engagement (and the value that comes from certain types of engagement) is intimately tied up with identification in some way. But this seems obviously false, at least if meant to be a generalization regarding all engagement. Setting comics aside, it would seem to suggest that certain works of speculative science fiction that are explicitly intended to describe worlds as much unlike our own, and beings quite unlike ourselves, cannot be engaging (in the theoretically substantial sense) because we cannot identify with the situations and beings in the appropriate way. At any rate, it seems like our engagement with comics can stem from many different kinds of processes – identification being merely one of them.

    I actually think that underneath it all, this might be what leads McCloud astray. Perhaps what he is really interested in is not identification, but engagement, and as a result of his identification/engagement ambiguity is led to mis-emphasize issues regarding similarity between characters and reader (as well as mis-understanding aspects of how such similarity might work – buttressed with some bad pop psychology – but that is another story).

    On the other hand, however, we should be careful not to over-stress engagement at the expense of identification either. Clearly, identification, in some sense, underlies our engagement with some comics, and this is of course particularly resonant when the reader or the character identified with (or both) is a member of some particular underrepresented or mistreated group (or is intended to be metaphorically identified with such a group – e.g. the X-men). Even if McCloud’s story about caricature and simplification of facial features is silly, there still seem to be important questions regarding identification that are raised by comics.

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