Comics, Storytelling, and TherapyScott McCloud’s (1993) text ‘Understanding Comics’ is an interesting introduction to the history, creative development, and visual narrative of comics. His analysis of the medium provides an argument designed to lend credibility to comics as an art form worthy of comparison to more traditionally recognised visual arts such as painting and film. McCloud (1993) proposes his theory of comics, using concepts that have been derived from the traditional canon of art and film history and critique. All critique of the visual arts will apply concepts of form, structure, narrative, imagery and symbolism, theme and content, understanding meaning, audience response, and cultural values to explore the art of the medium.
McCloud’s (1993) discussion of the visual iconography, form and structure appear to lend their concepts most directly with film media. When reading 'Understanding Comics' I was reminded of Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ (1997), a seminal text on film storytelling and screen writing. McCloud’s (1993) chart of the pictorial vocabulary of comics and his categorisation of certain comic artists along the axes of the picture plane, representation of reality and the abstraction of language appeared very similar to McKee’s (1997) story triangle which categorises certain films structures along the axes of classical design, minimalism and anti-structure.
Image reproduced from S. McCloud (1993) Image reproduced from McKee (1997)
These authors are discussing different elements of their chosen media, the conceptual perspectives they use to describe and understand the formal processes of creating the art bears some similarities. McKee (1997) is specifically exploring the formal elements of the film plot and structure, while McCloud (1993) is exploring the visual vocabulary of the comic. Despite these differences, conceptual associations can be drawn between classical archplot and realistic imagery, which bears the most similarity to realistic portrayals of real-world images and events; between miniplot and symbolic language, which are images and events amplified through simplification; and between anti-plot and non-iconic abstraction, in which form and style is given greater priority over meaning. Both authors here use this method to delineate these with the goal of exploring the medium’s formal structures and to inform the reader about creation and design of the art work. McKee (1997) argues that a film script “… must be well made [author’s italics] within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form” (p.3).
McKee’s (1997) criticism of avant-garde screenwriters who aspire to ‘art film’ but who have not honed their craft through developed knowledge of the craft is expanded on by McCloud’s (1993) discussion of the six steps to creation of art. Those filmmakers who reject commercial archplot design elements to focus on the anti-plot ‘art film’ are similar to the novice comic artist who is preoccupied with the surface appearance of modelling his work on other forms but without development of understanding the formal structures of the art form. These art works are frequently criticised for being ‘style over substance’ because the artist lacks the skill in working through the remaining steps to develop knowledge of craft, structure, idiom, form and idea (McCloud, 1993).
Image reproduced from McCloud (1993).
McCloud’s (1993) discussion of the idea or purpose of the art struck a chord for me in thinking about therapy. While I appreciate that therapy is a dialogic form and not usually a conceived as a form of visual media, some therapeutic models draw their theories from concepts used in narrative and visual media analysis, for example Narrative Therapy and Art Therapy. Therapy may not be an object of physical media; however it is a medium for communicating messages about human nature and experience, which is a goal to which all art forms aspire. McCloud’s discussion of the six steps to skilful comic artist lead me to an association with Maslow’s (1954) hierarchy of needs, which proposes five stages of human growth and influenced Roger’s (1961) theories about becoming a fully functioning person.
Image reproduced from Maslow (1954).
McCloud (1993) argues that art is everything which is not necessary for human survival or reproduction, a concept which can be extended to human functioning. Physiological needs and safety are necessary for survival, belonging (or at very least temporary social connection) is required to reproduce, however a human can survive without self-esteem and self-actualisation. Rogers (1961) suggests that the creativity of developing a new scientific theory as an equally valuable endeavour as “creating new formings of one’s own personality as in psychotherapy” (p. 349). Therapy, like creative expression and professional achievement, is one tool that humans use to explore existential purpose and achieve that highest level of actualisation. McKee (1997) describes his goals for storytelling in terms of expression of values: “The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth – the essential values.” (p. 17). Research Psychologists apply their knowledge to the development of scientific understanding, while practicing Psychologists and therapists apply this knowledge in a unique manner which can only be described as art. McCloud (1993) argues that creators of both comic art and other art forms who have mastered Idea and Purpose are “pioneers and revolutionaries – artists who want to shake things up, change the way people think, question the fundamental laws that governs their chosen art” (p.179). In the same way that art allows us to convey concepts about what it means to be human, throughout history Psychologists have revolutionised the discipline of Psychology by development of new understanding, theories or models have contributed to our understanding of human nature.
Through comparison of McCloud’s formal analysis of comics with both McKee’s analysis of screenwriting and Maslow’s psychological theory of motivation, I have argued that parallels can be drawn between comics and both film media and psychological therapy. Achieving a formal understanding of these artistic processes is crucial for a comic artist, a screenwriter and also a practicing psychologist. These skills are studied and developed by the artist in order to effectively communicate a message about human experience to the audience; whether that is a reader, a viewer, or a client.
Maslow A.H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Dealing with change and uncertainty
It’s been some time since I last wrote. The past few months have been full with many changes, some positive, some negative, some expected and some surprising. These periods of change can often be upsetting, confusing and anxiety-creating when we experience set-backs, unexpected developments and moments of fear about the possibility of failure. I know that I'm not immune to these reactions, as much as the next person. While I can apply my skills and knowledge to tolerate any distress, I'm aware of the signs of feeling overwhelmed, resentful of the situations that caused unwanted change, difficulty making decisions, and narrowed focus to just thinking about those areas of my life that were impacted by the changes. These are natural responses to coping with change. If they carry on any longer than necessary or interfere with other areas of life, they could become problematic.
A common saying goes “change is the only constant”. Changes occur every day, regardless of whether we want it or not. The difference in how we respond to change is whether it’s an intrinsically motivated change or an extrinsically motivated change. When we go looking for change we generally adapt to these changes easily, for example when we want to buy a new car, these changes are exciting, rewarding and positive. However when change thrusts itself upon us, such as when our job is no longer available and we need to seek new employment, often these changes are harder to accept and create more resistance and emotional responses. Humans are contradictory in the sense that we feel safer with the status quo, and yet we constantly strive for bigger, better, more. These two opposing forces of stasis and change create considerable tension that has to be constantly managed.
These kind of occupational changes are common for those who work in freelance or contract positions and self-employment which is common within the media, arts and entertainment industries. The latest data suggest that up to 40 per cent of Australians hold precarious or insecure employment; that is casual, fixed-contract or self-employed. My observation is that people who work in this way often adapt to changes quite easily. There are two theories that explain this trend: either people who work in these industries adapt to constant changes by a process of learning, or that they have certain personality characteristics which thrive in an environment of constant change. The reality is it’s probably a combination of these two factors – if you feel anxious about change there are skills you can learn to manage and overcome this anxiety, but if your personality isn’t suited to a certain type of work you will experience ongoing challenges if you continue to work in that environment.
Acceptance can be a very difficult lesson to learn, but it is crucial for confidence, self-esteem and professional success that we are aware of our limitations and accept ourselves for who we are. It’s a key lesson I teach my clients who feel stuck in a negative situation: if you repeatedly apply your skills to change your situation with no success, the only other option is to accept that factors outside of your control make this change impossible. The only valid responses in this circumstance are either to stay and change the way you respond to the situation, or leave the situation. Of course, the most appropriate response depends on what the situation is. Many people have burned themselves out attempting to change an impossible situation that’s outside of their control, and some have linked this as one causal factor for experiencing situational depression, also known as adjustment disorder. This is why acceptance-based therapies, such as MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) are effective treatments for depression.
So what can you do to improve resilience and adaptation in the right environment?
What other ideas do you have for coping with change? Join the discussion at Connected: Media Psychology’s Facebook or Twitter pages.
 Howard. A. (2006) Positive and negative emotional attractors and intentional change. Journal of Management Development, 25 (7), pp.657 – 670.
 Lives on Hold: Unlocking the Potential of Australia’s Workforce Report of the Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia. (2012) p. 5.
 Klainin-Yobas P., Cho M.A.A., Creedy D. (2012). Efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions on depressive symptoms among people with mental disorders: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 49 (1), pp. 109-121.