Marshall McLuhan on the Cool Medium of Comics


Superman, Supergirl & Krypto (Art by Curt Swan, 1962)

McLuhan’s Cool Comics

by Guy Leshinski   –   Sept. 28, 2005

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
Arguing Comics.)

 Superman Cover, Oct. 1967

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 elsewhere.”

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 ignored. (Source:


The best book by far for understanding comics is Scott McLeod’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993), which was, as acknowledged by its title, influenced by Marshall McLuhan.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is a comic (a graphic novel technically) on everything about comic. First published in 1993, it is one of the most famous works of Scott McCloud, American comic artist and author. In this book, McCloud digs deep into almost all comic aspects: the history, vocabulary, the underlying principles, the various elements and how they work. It presents detailed graphical explanation on comics as a form of art and communication medium.

Since its publication, Understanding Comics has gained huge success commercially and critically. Well-known comic and graphic novel authors and artists such as Neil Gaiman, Will Eisner, Alan Moore, Garry Trudeau, and Art Spiegelman expressed their praises for this seminal work of McCloud’s.

Providing abundant knowledge into the world of comic (and graphic novel), from the definitions, history, technicalities, theories, methods, concepts, styles, elements, and many others, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art has become one of the most important and influential works in the modern comic industry.    ( )

Here’s a sample of the book’s approach as read aloud by a Mr. Koch:

Part I of Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.”

One Response to “Marshall McLuhan on the Cool Medium of Comics”

  1. Reblogged this on msamba.

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