Most people know Marshall McLuhan for a
handful of catchphrases. Slogans like “the medium is the message”
still tumble from the lips of zealous freshmen, even if they’re not
quite sure what it means. Yet there’s more to his legacy than a few
choice sound bites and a cameo in Annie Hall.
In the 1950s, while he was teaching English literature at the
University of Toronto, McLuhan began to publish a series of dense,
intoxicating books about the ways mass media affect our lives. Some
readers — those who could parse his neologic — deified him, and
his ideas spawned fields of study that are still kicking today.
They’re the basis of Toronto’s McLuhan International Festival of
the Future, which was held in September for its second straight year. Over 10 days, events across the
city explored McLuhan’s theories and illustrated the ways they
inform our lives. For McLuhan, a medium was anything that extended
our influence, from telephones and typewriters to clothing and
clocks. His belief in the alphabet as the seat of Western power gets
the most attention, and his writings on the “global village” seem
positively prescient in the internet age. Yet one medium that’s
rarely mentioned in McLuhan retrospectives is comics. What could MM
have had to say about that fandango?
Actually, quite a lot.
In his first book, 1951’s The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan
reproached the Man of Steel, calling Superman’s crime-fighting
tactics “the strong-arm totalitarian methods of the immature and
barbaric mind.” He was more favourable a few years later when
surveying the medium as a whole. He devoted an entire chapter of his
seminal book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man to
unpacking the intangible ways comics ape and infect our culture.
(Marymount Manhattan College professor Kent Worcester and Toronto
writer Jeet Heer include this chapter in their erudite anthology
McLuhan saw comics as extensions of the woodcut and photographic
media, “a world of inclusive gesture and dramatic posture.”
“[T]he modern comics strip and comic book,” he wrote, “provide
very little data about any particular moment in time, or aspect in
space, of an object. The viewer, or reader, is compelled to
participate in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by
the bounding lines.” These are qualities of what McLuhan termed
“cool” media, lo-fi creations that force us to fill in the blanks.
They contrast with “hot” media like film, which make the viewer “a
passive consumer of actions.” Comics, in his words, are cool.
He scrutinized Mad magazine, which, at the time
Understanding Media was published in 1964, was hitting its
stride as an agent of screwball subversion. To McLuhan, Mad
was “a ludicrous and cool replay of the forms of the hot media
of photo, radio and film.”
“Mad is a kind of newspaper mosaic of the ad as
entertainment, and entertainment as a form of madness.” It exploited
the fact that ads, according to McLuhan (who considered Hollywood
movies ads for popular culture), were “not meant for conscious
consumption,” so that “any ad consciously attended to is comical.”
“The comic strip and the ad, then, both belong to the world of
games, to the world of models and extensions of situations
McLuhan clearly had a soft spot for funnybooks. He contrasted the
genteel fine-art world with popular art like comics, “the clown
reminding us of all the life and faculty that we have omitted from
our daily routines.” He saw in Al Capp’s classic strip Li’l
Abner and its “predicament of helpless ineptitude” a “paradigm
of the human situation, in general.” And he cautioned that the rise
of television, an even more inclusive medium, devalued comics as
purveyors of far-flung drama.
All this came decades before the growth of the graphic novel and
the Western embrace of comics stories and techniques from France,
Japan and elsewhere. McLuhan studied the nascent comic form, its
melding of words and pictures, divorced from its content — which he
argued was a medium of its own.
In this way, comics haven’t changed in the time since McLuhan
published his definitive works. His theories are as provocative to
the comics fan as they are to the technophile, even if, like the
medium itself all these years, his writing on comics is mostly