Thursday, September 29, 2011

Scott McCloud tries to open up the world of comics in his book Understanding Comics, in order to make readers appreciate the art form. Comics are not simply what we view in the Sunday paper and McCloud distinguishes a number of aspects within them that are also seen in more “renowned” works such as Lynd Ward’s various woodcut novels. Many of the properties that McCloud discusses can be applied to Vertigo by Ward. In particular, his use of frame shape deserves some attention. While McCloud spends an entire chapter explaining the importance of frames, he only spends a few of them emphasizing the shape of these vital icons, claiming that “while differences of shape don’t affect the ‘meanings’ of those panels vis-à-vis time, they can affect the reading experience” (McCloud, pg. 99). After reading Vertigo, I’d have to disagree with this theory. Although Ward’s images comply with the rest of McCloud’s ideas of how the frames can control time and space within a story, I think Ward is also making a strong statement with their shape. Yes, they certainly affect the “reading experience”, but they also tie in to the themes of the novel. Ward is abandoning the typical rectangle shape that is so overused in order to emphasize his beliefs and give the image another level of significance.

One strong example of this is the first image in “The Elderly Gentleman,” which portrays the old man holding a rose, staring off into the distance at a pristine looking, developed city. When I first came across this page, the sloping sides, flat top and pointed bottom immediately brought the image of a shield to my mind. By placing the elderly man smack dab in the middle of the engraving, Ward has made him dependent on this shield that he has created. By interpreting the frame shape in this way, the image takes on a whole new meaning. It no longer is simply a lonely old man taking in the scenery, but Ward is able to get his ideas across more efficiently to the reader.

Throughout the novel, there is a consistent flow about the evils of capitalism in America. It is seen as the girl’s father tries to commit suicide, as union riots become violent, and as the boy is forced to sell his blood in order to survive. The heart of all this evil comes down to the elderly gentleman, who stands as a direct representation of capitalism. The way the old man is portrayed in this image allows Ward to emphasize his personal political standpoint. While the world seems to be crumbling around him, the old man is able to hide behind his corporate creation which shields him from the horrors he is fueling. The industrialized city sits at the top of the image, almost as if on a pedestal as the old man stares up at it. This is where his stability and strength lie and he is fully dependent on it. Ward is able to portray the old man as weak and heartless by incorporating the imagery of the shield. The old man is able to both turn a blind eye to what is happening around him and avoid the consequences of his actions.

To emphasize the old man’s and capitalism’s weakness, Ward uses bleeding to fade the image out at the bottom. McCloud discusses the technique of bleeding with the purpose of making an image appear timeless (McCloud, pg. 103), but here, Ward is using it in the opposite way to represent transience. By having the shield fade away, he brings to light the fact that capitalism does not have to define our country forever. Without his shield of corporate America, the old man becomes nothing, alone in the empty white space. He is detached from the surrounding image, implying that this is not a permanent shield and can be removed with enough force. Throughout the novel, Ward does an excellent job at expressing his political beliefs to the reader in the absence of words. The story itself clearly describes the horrors of capitalism, but Ward goes even farther to incorporate this theme, using every available resource he has. While McCloud doubts the effect that shape can have on the meaning of a frame, Ward rivals this idea by integrating imagery into the borders of his works.


McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1994.

Ward, Lynd. Vertigo. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009.

“The Library of America interviews Art Spiegelman about Lynd Ward.” The Library of America, 2010.


  1. I find your argument interesting. i agree that the shape of the image can definitely affect the meaning and i think you did a good job at pointing that out. i really like the interpretation of the image as a shield. i seemed to get somewhat lost in the final paragraph, but i think over all you did a good job arguing against McCloud. i would only suggest to make the final paragraph more clear or maybe compare this image where Ward is using the shape to clearly affect the reader to one that is more standard and less clearly affecting to the reader (showing that Ward did it for a reason). i do think your argument that Ward felt that the shape of the image is important does come across though.
    on a side note you say that Ward uses bleeding in this image, but to my knowledge and according to McCloud, bleeding is when the image goes off the page. i don't' think what Ward does is technically bleeding. He more so, as you say, is placing importance in the image's shape and position on the paper, but that's just a vocabulary thing.

  2. One note before I forget: pay attention to what Christy said re: bleeding if you revise, and be sure to look it up/cite/verify (I plan to do so myself, but not this second).

    I found this argument bold and extremely interesting. I thought that, given your emphasis on reading the shape of the frame, you maybe spend too long in the introduction - you questioning (or rather, pushing/expanding) McCloud's ideas, but you could get to that point a little more quickly.

    I found the idea of the shield here, and the meaning of the shield, both excellent and plausible.

    HOWEVER, in you revise you want to back up what seems dangerously close to being a series of speculations. I find your reading plausible (in context with Ward's politics, especially), but you might want to think through more carefully both why you see the frame as shaped like a shield (many plausible alternatives were brought up in class - why is a shield best?), and why you read that shield-iconography the way you do.

    When I read this, I immediately grabbed my copy of a Ward-illustrated edition of *Beowulf* from 1939. There are many images of shields in this text - all of them are round. This does not itself mean that you're wrong - it's just an example of how you need to think things through a little more carefully. Historically (I'm about 95% sure) triangular shields are always associated with cavalry (including knights - maybe relevant to your argument). And, of course, when the image or idea of a shield is important, typically we portray it as triangluar: Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

    Knights of Columbus

    This extended example is meant to indicate that you're in interesting and productive territory, but that you need to do much more both to show that this is a shield, and to explain (either in the context of the work or historical/cultural context) why it matters.