No, really, he did.
My senior year of college, I had to complete two theses — one creative, to fulfill the requirements of my BFA, and one academic, as the culmination of my time in the Honors program. The last long-form academic thesis I’d written was my senior thesis in high school, in which I, for some reason, delved into the history and practice of racial profiling. As a white teenager in suburbia, I really can’t tell you what drew my to the topic. We were probably told that our ideas had to be “Important” with a capital I. I admit that I did not get out of the project what I should have.
For college, we were encouraged to be a little more creative, and to choose something that “spoke to us,” or allowed us to explore our majors in a new and exciting way. It felt so liberating, to be 21 and able to dive headlong into whatever topic I wished, to live for months studying something wacky or fun or otherwise fascinating. I toyed with the idea of doing something about food and literature, studying meals and mealtimes and eating rituals in everything from classics to contemporary tales. But then, I chose comics.
Armed with only a vague thesis statement (“comics are, uh, important”), some half-assed ideas of which theorists to study up on, and a stack of TBR comics, I dove into the search for fitting academic books on comics. Surprise, friends: there aren’t too many. Not as many, at least, as say, general books on music theory. And as I began reading into the subject and writing my paper, I realized how ridiculous this was — haven’t people been drawing pictures to tell stories since the cave paintings? Shouldn’t there by more dedicated to the topic than a couple of theory readers?
It didn’t take me very long to find Scott McCloud and his sacred trilogy: Understanding Comics; Reinventing Comics; and Making Comics. McCloud’s books were the first I’d found that blended personal experience in the industry, comics history, and art and literary theory — and they were actually comics, to boot! If I had an artistic bone in my body, I would have gladly followed in McCloud’s footsteps and illustrated my thesis. Unfortunately, art (despite being in an “advanced” art class in eighth grade) is not my forte, so I contented myself with following McCloud’s comics doppelgänger into discussions of panel placement, pacing, and why human beings love or hate comic books. I learned a lot.
Comic books, comic strips, graphic novels, comics characters, comics artists, comics creators, comics editors, comics publishers, and everyone and everything somehow related to the medium are Important (yes, with a capital I). My thesis research proved that to me, and I see it in the series I follow and the books I read and the conversation that audience members, hardcore fans, and creators are able to have about comic books in relation to racism, sexism, misogyny, and any number of other prejudices and issues facing American society today.
I recently saw this clip from Fox News, in which three (white, conservative) anchors denounce the news that Captain America — now Sam Wilson, previously known as the Falcon, a black man in modern America — would face white supremacists during his tenure as Cap. One of the anchors feels the need to crow, “Keep politics out of comic books!” That is one of the most ignorant things I’ve ever heard.
The clip goes on to show the anchors discussing how they would like heroes to go back to a time of taking on “real” bad guys, how it would be okay if Cap was punching “terrorists,” the way he punched Hitler back in the 1940s to boost America’s morale in World War II. They discuss the fact that it appears (to them) that Captain America is targeting average, everyday Americans, and that offends these three bozos.
At best, what these “anchors” have to say is incorrect; at worst, it’s blatant racism, against people of any color that isn’t vanilla. To begin with, Cap socking Hitler back in the 40s was political — it was a way for creators of the time to “fight” on the homefront. Superhero comics are political, and anyone who says otherwise is flat-out wrong. Comic books and the heroes who inhabit their pages are reflections of the times in which they were created and the values of the creators, the publishers, and the readers. And it’s as clear from Fox News’ reaction to this new storyline as it was from Wertham’s attacks in the 1950s that America is broken, and those in power do not wish to have it fixed.
This new Captain America reflects the makeup of American society today, where people of color are marginalized, oppressed, and assaulted, and it shows a true American hero — because, last I checked, to be “American,” you need only be born here; it has nothing to do with skin color, Fox — taking on one of the many the evils that plague the country. The new Cap run reflects America’s heroes, threats, and issues. It’s shameful to have a news program that is supposed to act as an unbiased source of the day’s stories attack a black hero, to defend violent white racists, and to imply that “terrorists” (meaning, I’m sure, anyone of Arab descent or following the teachings of Islam) would be a more suitable villain for Cap to face.
Do these bozos really not realize that the “Supreme Serpent” is most likely a Grand Dragon allegory? That Captain America is fighting Marvel’s version of the Ku Klux Klan? Cap isn’t “coming after ordinary Americans”; he’s literally tackling a hate group. What could be more heroic than that?
I understand comics — at least, kind of. And I wouldn’t be able to shout about their importance or their influence from the rooftops without Scott McCloud’s help. I wouldn’t be able to shape my own characters and ideas without the pushes in the right direction I got from McCloud, from art theory, from comic book history, and from the dozens of other theorists I read or works I threw myself into. I know I didn’t go as deep into the history or theory as I could have and I know there are still books I need to read, but I learned a lot of that from the preliminary reading I did — namely, McCloud’s works.
So, thanks, Mr. McCloud. An email was the least I could’ve done to thank you.
(Also, I’m reading The Sculptor finally, and it’s stunning.)
Interested in reading more on this topic? I kept a list of books I used for my thesis at Goodreads here (plus a few goodies I discovered later). If you have other books on comics theory that you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments below!
If you’re an X-Men fan, visit my Tumblr project, Is It an X-Man?, in which I try my best to teach a good friend about comics.