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Thursday, April 23, 2009
Because, of course, Jack London sucks harder than many comics, Part II
(My commenters wrote my first response to Bill’s post for me. They nailed it so accurately posting what I’d originally written seems unnecessary. I’m neither kidding nor, it seems, necessary. So in the [likely] event of a [hilariously hi-jinxed] tragedy, Acephalous can [and should] live on.)
Let me start with a statement that will annoy everyone: if a close-reading reveals that a work flirts with the formal elements of its genre or genres—whatever they may be—that work should be canonized. Not that works that fail to engage the formal limitations of their genre are uncanonizable, mind you, but works that succeed both as an example and a critique of a given genre deserve canonization.
But canonization into what?
In an age of inexpensive and practically limitless storage, the question of canonization need not be hidebound to the idea of preservation. Within its first month of operation, Google digitized the 99 percent of the Western Canon, and even though some of those works are too recent to be viewed, they’ll all eventually be released as copyright expiration rolls forward. When I began my Mark Twain chapter in late 2005, for example, only the 1894 edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson was available through Google Book Search; by the time I began revising the chapter in the summer of 2008, I could track revisions of the novel over the span of two decades. Because Twain is culturally significant and canonical, the saturation of Google Books with variant editions of his most important works was inevitable.
When I began working on The Youth of Washington (1904), I had to order it through interlibrary loan. It took three months to arrive. Henry Cabot Lodge’s George Washington (1889), Paul Ford’s The True George Washington (1896), Woodrow Wilson’s George Washington (1896), Worthington Chauncey Ford’s George Washington (1900) and Norman Hapgood’s George Washington: A Biography (1901) trickled in. Had I held off on writing my chapter until I’d looked over all 140 of the novels of English Colonial or Revolutionary America published between 1895 and 1908, I’d still be waiting for interlibrary loan. Now all those Washington biographies are available, as are most of the historical novels I wanted to read for deep background.
Are those novels good? No. Do they deserve canonization? No. Is it significant that as tensions between Spain and America strained and Americans became uncomfortable with the imperial pretensions of their leader, an appetite for works relating to Revolutionary figures or set in the Revolutionary period become incredibly popular? Might that not have something important to say about what Americans thought it meant to be American at the time? Is that not a viable object of study? Do I not ask a shitload of rhetorical questions when I get polemical?
For a few of generations, English professors claimed that cultural knowledge was the provenance of the literary (what with perceptiveness being the core feature of literary sensibility). So when a scholar wanted to know how things stood between America and Europe at a given time, they would not turn to any of the countless travel narratives written by Americans in Europe and Europeans in America, but to the most acutely literary accounts of the current state affairs. To wit:
The problem with Lucy’s account of the canon and cultural knowledge should be obvious: however you define the literary, it is not the same thing as cultural knowledge. An alternate canon, based on how a text registers and reflects the conventions of its time, is required; a subset of that canon would include texts that fought against their cultural constraints in order to articulate something convention had difficulty accommodating. No matter what you call those texts, they are the ones deserving of close-reading.
Note that I slipped from speaking of genres in the first paragraph to cultural conventions in the last. I did that on purpose. Genre focuses too intently on what a thing made from words looks like. ("My novella’s a long short story in 10-point Times Roman and a short novel in 14-point New Courier,” says the aspiring writer.) From the get-go, however, these things made from words contained stuff like this. Texts have always had visual components, and while those components are sometimes abstracts (as with the afore-marbled page), the introduction of visual representations of the world into the textual economy of a novel alerts readers to the presence of a realist ethos. But remember:
Verisimilitude is not an end. It is an always imperfect—because always filtered—means. What matters is not the presence of supplementary gestures of verisimilitude but the manner in which they interact with the text. For example, this comic sucks:
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
What’s wrong with Reading Comics? Quite a bit, actually.
Because late to the party is better than never, I’m reading Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics. When I’m not maybe being mocked, the book is a compelling read. This is a problem. Since tradition dictates picking nits with blurbs, I’ll start with the quotation from the Los Angeles Times printed on the cover:
Of all the Times blurbs to pick with nits, this one may not even be the best. From the back cover:
Everything is here.
If everything is there and there is deliciously quotable—but let me begin with the second blurb, because it concerns a minor point. No matter how you define “everything,” Reading Comics does not contain it all. Wolk periodically informs the reader of this fact:
There are . . . several very big names I’m barely mentioning or neglecting outright in the following pages: Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb . . . (137)
And we can ellipses away there because this is a book about comics that barely mentions or outright neglects Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb. Why the Times would make claims the author explicitly rejects I don’t know—but I suspect its decision relates to the tone of casual expertise Wolk displays throughout the book. Every reference I catch—about half of the ones Wolk drops—complements his argument; however, the way you wear your erudition lightly on the web differs from how you do it in print. The book’s delicious quotability is a byproduct of its learned chattiness, and if the medium is ever to attain academic respectability, its expositors will need to try a little harder than this:Continue reading "What’s wrong with Reading Comics? Quite a bit, actually."
Friday, November 21, 2008
How not to use Theory’s Empire
Scanning through the critical literature on Kafka—the dissertation finished, I’m free to pursue old ideas—I run into an essay which uses Theory’s Empire in the very manner the anthology’s critics assumed everyone would. I will, however, Google-proof my exasperation by replacing all mentions of Derrida and things Derridean with cognates of the word carrot. The essay begins:
The 2005 volume includes major reassessments of poststructuralist theory, notably [The Carrot’s] . . . . The emphasis on “undecidability” in Kafka can be viewed as symptomatic of the influence of [Carrot] Theory embraced by the American literary academy in the 1970s and 1980s . . . . But [lowercase-c carrot’s] skeptical effect undermined the certitude that Kafka was a politically important novelist. For its detractors, the [carrotist] view that there is “nothing outside of the text” ignores that texts like Kafka’s have shaped human lives and human history.
Reductive enough for you? No? How about this?
Wellek, who helped to introduce [Carrot] theory to American literature departments, now asserts that [carrots] have destroyed literary studies, while Frederick Crews argues that “[the Carrot’s] judgment that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ automatically precludes recourse to evidence.” In Crews’s view, “both [the Carrot] and his myriad followers think nothing of appropriating and denaturing propositions from systems of thought whose premises they have already rejected.” Thomas Nagel goes further in condemning “post-modern relativism” as a “quick fix” which puts reason to sleep. In Theory’s Empire, [the Carrot]’s language is described as a “maze,” a “prison house of language,” a “limbo of combined attention and nonassertion."
These assessments appeal to raw authority. Crews and Nagel hate on [the Carrot] and rightly so. Why? Because [the Carrot’s] language is as empty and invidious as that of Kafka’s bureaucrats:
[T]o what degree do [the Carrot’s] rhetorical devices and ingenious language games resemble the language of the Courtiers who torture Joseph K.?
Care to guess what conclusion the author draws? I take comfort in the thought that everyone will admit this is an awful appropriation of the thought forwarded in Theory’s Empire—that it is to academic argument what posts on Kos are to nuanced political thought—but remember that this sort of anti-intellectual response is exactly what the anthology’s detractors warned would follow if it ever gained traction. While I think this falls under “the abuses” instead of “the uses” of the collection, I still feel the queasy creep of wrongness starting to settle in . . . .
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
The Meaning of this Moment
Miriam Burstein is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Brockport and a regular contributor to The Valve. She is the author of Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770-1902.
One of the continuities between Trilling’s only published novel, The Middle of the Journey, and what has been titled The Journey Abandoned is how Trilling’s characters converse. It’s tempting to put down Trilling’s handling of dialogue to the influence of Henry James, but there’s not much Jamesian about exchanges like this:
Kramer, [sic] said, “Vincent, you look tired.” His tone was admonitory, even querulous, and Vincent knew that in this way he expressed and masked the affection he was feeling.
“Do I?” The interest of his friend and former teacher made Vincent feel young and heroic. “I was working late last night.”
“On the book?” Kramer asked. “Is it going again?” He spoke in an almost hushed voice and Vincent knew that Kramer was seeing the lonely light in the little room and was hearing the intermitted rattle of the typewriter. He knew that Kramer was having a vision of his young friend “wrestling” with his work, for only in this way could Kramer imagine the process of thought and creation.
At this moment, Kramer would have liked to say that no idea of material gain, no glimpse of mere popular success must intrude to spoil the purity of the work. He wanted to utter his belief that Vincent’s long months of sterility and despair were the marks of the virtue of his enterprise. He did not say what he believed, but his feminine solicitude shone from his face. All he said was, “I’m glad you’ve broken through again. That’s bound to happen—the ideas find their place.” (29)
Trilling’s characters do not, to borrow a Jamesian turn of phrase, speak “quite wonderfully.” Usually, they speak quite normally; in fact, as in this excerpt, they often speak in banalities. Dialogue is subservient to the “true” intellectual play of mutual interpretation and misinterpretation—which, thanks to the narrator, is fully available only to the reader and not to the characters. The characters’ fictional depths and shallows are well wadded up in their verbal stupidity; if they manage to connect, it seems almost an accident. Trilling’s constant cuts away from one character’s speech to another character’s interpretation of the unspoken suggests an impatience with dialogue, perhaps even James’ dialogue. Either the nuts-and-bolts of everyday speech produce the effect of psychological depth (characters may or may not connect by realizing what the other “really” means) or they prove absolutely adequate to the character’s shallowness (because s/he is adequately summed up in his/her speech).
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Ted Clayton on “Reading Comics”
This is Ted Clayton’s contribution to our “Reading Comics” Event. Clayton is the proud winner of a free copy of Wolk’s book, because he sent me an email in response to my Crooked Timber post on the subject. Other than that, I don’t know a lot about the guy. So let that be a lesson to you. - the former editor
It’s a pretty safe bet that I am the least comics-knowledgeable person involved in this event, so if you’re looking for keen, informed insight into the medium of graphic novels or its practitioners you should probably skip this piece entirely. Like probably everyone else here, I’ve read Maus (both parts) and Watchmen, but that’s about it for me, unless you count Action Philosophers as a graphic novel. As a kid and a teenager I read and collected comic books, but those days are now a couple of decades in the past, although I do still read them in the grocery store if I’ve got a few minutes.Continue reading "Ted Clayton on “Reading Comics”"
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Ian Gordon on Reading Comics
This is Ian Gordon’s contribution to our Reading Comics event. Ian is a colleague of mine at the National University of Singapore - he’s in the history department. He is the author of Comic Strips and Consumer Culture (2002) and, more recently, editor of Film and Comic Books (2007). He’s working on a book about Superman, I think. - the former editor (John Holbo)
I just returned home from attending the Comic Con in San Diego. One of the many dilemmas at the Con was deciding whether to attend a session with Douglas Wolk or a session with Jim Starlin since they were on at the same time. I opted for the latter based not on my long ago remembrance of Starlin’s work, but rather on Wolk’s praise of that work in Reading Comics.
Reading Reading Comics while on the road in Australia and the USA the chapter on Starlin and his handling of Warlock jumped out at me together with the chapter on Tomb of Dracula. To be sure these two chapters took me back to the 1970s when I was in the habit of reading comic books on a very regular basis for amusement and diversion, but it was not so much a sense of nostalgia that gripped me but a sense of rediscovery and that these comics had spoken to me in ways that at the time I could not articulate.
Discussing Starlin’s work on Warlock Wolk gives a potted history of the character and a brief summary of the plot and then moves to a description of the technique: “visual devices … repetition, symmetry, and inward motion,” and then shifts to analysis. For Wolk “those tricks underscore the story’s themes: change that isn’t progress, dichotomous oppositions, looking into the mind instead of out into perceived reality.” Gosh was that the way I was reading it or was I just in thrall to the art, which was like something I had never seen before, and heh I am a story not an art guy so that is saying something. My first response was to re-read the comics, but I am not sure if I even have them in my remaining stash of comics, which are carefully secured in the bottom draw of a filing cabinet in my office in Singapore. I started to get the fan boy sweats - I have just got to have these comics to re-read. And then I arrived at Comic Con.
At his session Starlin spoke of his early years in comics as a time when he was not in the best place, parlance for much of the social and personal confusion of the early seventies. Raised a Catholic in Detroit he shipped out to Vietnam under, as he tells it, somewhat under a cloud and with no other choice. On his return he enrolled in junior college, took a course on psychology from which he derived the genesis of his character Thanos. Starlin’s characters by his own telling were not cast in moral lights of black and white, but rather complex flawed beings. If I understood him correctly Warlock and Starlin’s other 1970s stories, particularly on the Captain Marvel title, were a mediation on religion, American might, and the futility and horror of superheroic powers. All of this conducted within a struggle against Marvel Comics’ corporate style, the indentured servant like status of work for hire artists in the 1970s, and the corroding of American life. Pretty heady stuff. It seems that Wolk got Starlin down pat. All that is left to do is re-read the comics and see if they resonate that way to my older self.
Tomorrow when I go to work I will look for the Tomb of Dracula comic books I know are there. I have not looked at these for some twenty years, but I am pretty sure I have a decent run and I have a desire to read those again too. Wolk points to three great things about these books. First the on-the-fly nature of the whole enterprise, which he sees as finally settling on an overarching mode: “total panic.” Second the randomness of the violence Dracula commits: the first serial killer of literature given visual form in a comic, it was not something to read late at night at the end of a dark country road. Third the way the comic was a “lustily and faithfully executed vampire story.” Forget Marv Wolfman’s purple prose (there’s a name to die for) or rather linger just a moment to realise that the whole point is to be somewhat over wrought; it’s a comic book! As Wolk says in the title chapter this is the “cheap, strong stuff.” The strength of the book as Wolk notes comes from the art of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. Wolk reproduces a page from Tomb of Dracula #42 in which Colan and Palmer use the old technique of motion lines in abundance and to new effect to create a misty ethereal Dracula only just present in corporeal form. I think Wolk captures the essence of the book. It reveled in being a comic book, it pushed boundaries, including the space opened by a change in the comic code and eventually moved on to a black and white magazine free of the comic code.
Maybe there was something in the water in the 1970s, but Colan, Palmer, Starlin, and others like Paul Gulacy, Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, and Mike Kaluta all broke from prevailing styles. Comic Con had a session on the 1970s to which Gulacy and Chaykin were no shows but Starlin and Wrightson attended. Overseen by Mark Evanier it was a fun romp through the years, but I wish Wolk had been on the panel to tease out some more reflections on just why things went the way they did in these times. I wish he had written more about 1970s comics. That said Wolk has got me going back to read those comic books and given how rare I do that for a paid up comic book scholar that’s a good thing.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Kip Manley’s Contribution Is Up: Let Comics Be Comics
Kip Manley’s take on new-minted Eisner-winner Wolk is here:
Much as any good fencer has studied his Agrippa, Douglas Wolk has read his Delany ...
And so it goes.
UPDATE: OK, on second thought, this is not the right time to be coy. Kip has written a great essay! Go read it! It’s about that stuff I was talking about. What is it to read? I’ll snip a bit of the hilarious dialogue he relates:
See, I don’t think of comics as reading.
You don’t think of comics as reading?
What’s the big deal? Why is that a big deal? Comics is about looking and reading. It’s not just reading. It’s a sort of dual process that you undertake. It’s a totally different process than reading a novel, and it’s different than watching a movie, so I guess I think of comics as a separate activity than reading.
It rests right next to the same place as reading.
It’s a couple of doors down.
It’s definitely a kissing cousin of reading.
To me that’s like saying that when I’m listening to you or Cecil talk, that I’m not listening the way I’m listening when I’m listening to music. You’re still listening, you’re still using the same—
I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess I think of comics—it’s something else, it’s a different kind of process. I certainly don’t read Dan Clowes in the way I read, you know, Updike, or something. So it’s a different thing. You have to decode the picture—
I don’t read Cecil Castellucci the same way I read Hemingway, either.
And so it goes. If it quack quack wackos like a comic, and it quack quack walks like a comic, it’s a comic.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Doug Wolk Wins!
He just won an Eisner for Best Book. Tor (that’s the link) has a brief interview with him.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Jim Henley on Some of Origins of Marvel (and Other Comics)
Jim Henley’s contribution to our Doug Wolk event is up. He writes up a nice, thumbnail history, aiming to debunk a certain ‘myth of the fall’:
Once upon a time, the comic-book industry offered a stupefying variety of material. From the late 1930s through the late 1960s you could buy monster comics, romance comics, humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, and, yes, superhero comics. Alas, as the 1970s turned to the 1980s, the two major corporate publishers, Marvel and DC, turned their backs on the general audience - especially children - to saturate the emerging (adult) fan market flocking to comics specialty stores, and since the fan market wanted superheroes and more superheroes, that’s what the Big Two, and a remora-school of wannabes, gave them. As a result, circulations plummeted ...
This, he points out, is backwards. I think he’s probably right. The following interesting and true observation follows in due course. Why did the superhero pamphlet-sized comic die more slowly than other genres?
I think it’s because superheroes really did remain comic books’ competitive advantage: they were the kind of genre story that comics could tell effectively that other media couldn’t. Romance readers enjoyed the rise of Harlequin and Silhouette. Milporn enthusiasts could buy Mac Bolan paperbacks, at least until they stopped reading. Horror fans had numerous low-budget movies that delivered the various kinds of fright kicks more effectively than could drawings on newsprint. If you wanted war stories, you could get them from movies, books or TV. But until recently, other media couldn’t or wouldn’t provide superhero entertainment as well as the comic-book medium could. It’s not that there were no TV shows, no cartoons or no movies. It’s just that, for the aficionado of superheroes, there weren’t enough of them, and many of the ones that did exist didn’t measure up.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Jason Grote: Thoughts On Douglas Wolks’ “Reading Comics”
Anyone able to get on the internet and read this should have ample familiarity with fan culture (as it is the internet, increasingly), but here’s a brief primer: around the 1960s and 70s, subcultures surrounding comics, science fiction, and fantasy began to emerge, coinciding with various counterculture publications that began to apply emerging academic fields like cultural studies to the subject of pop music. Fan culture—supported in large part by mimiographed, photocopied, or cheaply-printed ‘zines, and meeting at a few large conventions every year—presupposed the internet with its creation of a large community that transcended physical distance. One of the purposes of fan culture (conscious or not) was to fill a void created by the mainstream media’s dismissal of popular art forms like comics or rock and roll music. This has always been fandom’s greatest strength—its breathless enthusiasm for its subject. At its best, fan writing offers obsessive knowledge, passionate debates, and thoughtful analysis. At its worst, (as can be seen all over the internet), fan culture can be racist, misogynist, and stupid, or Manichean in its thinking (either uncritically loyal to a creator, character, or brand name or consumed by knee-jerk complaining about how everything sucks).
At the opposite pole, there is traditional formal criticism, a discipline which (with a few notable exceptions) seems to primarily be the purview of fine academics, art critics, or dramaturgs. At its best, this field is cross-disciplinary, combining all of the various traditions of art and speaking about its subjects in various larger contexts—aesthetic, historical, sociopolitical. At its worst, formal critical thought is hidebound and ossified, and can be academic to the point of irrelevance—it often comes off as an experience of pounding a square peg into a round hole.
The genius of Reading Comics is that it combines the best of both traditions.
I quite agree with all that.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Straw Man and Other Superheroes
This is a guest post by Martyn Pedler, his contribution to our Doug Wolk “Reading Comics” Event. I found the following bio of Martyn lying around somewhere on the web, so presumably it must be true. (It’s on the web, right? So it must be true?) “Martyn Pedler is a Fitzroy writer of all kinds of pop- and pulp-fiction. He completed his Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne with a novella about how disappointed we all were when the world failed to end on New Year’s Eve 1999. His fairly terrifying comic book collection is stored safely in long, white boxes under his bed, and no, you can’t touch them.” - the former editor
Right now, respectable graphic novels are winning enough awards that it’s no longer shocking, and superheroes loom larger than ever in the popular imagination. Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics straddles both extremes of comic-bound stories. One of the pleasures of the book is his wide analytical sweep – from Tomb of Dracula to David B. to Grant Morrison to Cerebus the Aardvark. It’s wide enough that Wolk interrogates himself about exactly what he will and won’t include, creating a handily-labelled ‘Straw Man’ who asks questions like: "Have you noticed that that’s mostly a description of what you’re not writing about?"
I don’t doubt the need to clarify this point, as defining what the hell ‘comics’ actually are is a herculean task. I do find it interesting that the first section of Reading Comics shares so much in common with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and that the authors of both books build themselves straw men with which to argue. (McCloud casts himself as a stand-up comedian, while hecklers call him on his taxonomical errors.) Part of Wolk’s argument is that it’s time to lose the "Team Comics" mentality – the rah-rah, comics-are-art-I-swear-! defensiveness that’s come from too many years of seeing comic books languish at the bottom of the cultural heap; perhaps this need to imagine rhetorical opponents tells a different story.Continue reading "Straw Man and Other Superheroes"
Friday, July 18, 2008
Reading Comics Event: Exaggeration
This post is going to change the way you think about comics, graphic novels and the visual arts. Forever.
In Reading Comics Wolk makes a good fist of characterizing two dominant comic styles: the ‘Marvel style’ and the anti-Marvel stylings of the comics artists who reacted against those influential visual conventions. The ‘Marvel’ style (Wolk also calls it ‘the standard style’ and ‘generic mainstream drawing’) is ‘designed to read clearly and to evoke the strongest possible somatic response … people and models are partly abstracted and partly modeled, but always within a framework of representation.’ It is ‘quasi-realistic’, a ‘realism pumped up a little, into something whose every aspect is cooler and sexier than the reality we readers are stuck with.’ . So, not just muscles, but enormous muscles everywhere rendered so that every bulge and dip is egregiously visible. Not just a woman in a swimsuit, but a woman with jarringly enormous secondary-sexual characteristics in an improbably figure-hugging and tiny costume. (Neal Adams’ style, for instance, is ‘photorealist’; but it is, nonetheless, an exaggerated photorealism, ‘a pumped-up sort of photorealism, full of very beautiful people, accurate or at least convincing anatomy … and freaky perspectives that heightened the drama’ [51-2] ) You get the idea.
Wolk then discusses those comics, particularly from the 70s and 80s (to today), that were produced in direct reaction against this style: the RAW artists, Spiegelman, Mouly and the like. More broadly Wolk characterizes the reaction against the Marvel style as a deliberate ‘uglification’, though he adds: ‘when I talk about “ugly” cartooning here , I don’t necessarily mean that it repels the eye—most of what I’m talking about is actually pretty compelling … I just mean that it’s the result of a conscious choice to involve a lot of distortion and avoid conventional prettiness of style.’ So the poles, in a nutsell, are: Style A, exaggeratedly beautiful or muscular representation; or Style B, exaggeratedly ugly or raw. There’s your comic art, right there.
That word—exaggeration—is not one that Wolk uses himself. But that was the word that kept chiming in my head as I read his account, and increasingly I found myself wondering if it wasn’t also the thorn stuck so gratingly into the tender soft tissue of my Organ of Comics Appreciation. Does it all have to be so exaggerated? As it might be: not men and women, but heroes; indeed, not heroes but superheroes. Not the moral greys or quotidian human interaction but polarized Good and Evil on a cosmic scale. Not ordinary grit and grime but Robert Crumb’s exaggerated horriblenesses. There are comics, of course, that aim for visual or narrative reticence, and Wolk discusses some of them, but the impression of reading his book right through is that such comics are a minority feature of the whole; that exaggeration is the warp and woof of Comics as a mode (look at the size of Wonder Woman’s boobs! Look at the length of the complete Cerebus the Aardvark!). And that, moreover, it is a bludgeoning, wearying and counter-productive aesthetic strategy.
One word for exaggeration is caricature. Another word is boasting. That first sentence of this post, up top there, is in one sense ‘an exaggeration’. Or as we might say: a lie.
This is not a good ground for art.
Two things occur to me: one is that, perhaps, the exaggerative aspect of comics styling is part of a larger cultural logic: that, in other words, the visual arts in the twentieth-century followed a logic of aesthetic exaggeration—the representational distortions and caricatures of Picasso, the exaggerated scale and simplicity of Rothko—until a state is reached where exaggeration becomes impossible to escape (so, for example, we might argue that photorealism is precisely exaggeratedly mimetic, and so on). But I’m not sure how persuaded I am by this line. A great deal of twentieth-century visual art, surely, works by understatement, obliqueness, reticence.
The other thing that occurs to me is that aesthetic exaggeration is a peacock’s tail phenomenon. Look at these individuals and their exaggeratedly spray-tanned faces (did they really think they looked good?). Thomas Sherman, there, notes that ‘an aesthetic arms race is taking place’ in the small world of these kids. His photos are ‘examples of what anthropologists describe as display behavior, expressive or stylistic behavior engaged in for competitive advantages, most notably in the areas of courtship and threat.’ Comics is a small world, oversupplied with texts, a hothouse in which visual traits get amplified in an attempt to snag the attention of readers. Bigger! Bigger still! More exaggerated! It is the result of courtship behaviour over several generations; comics that are saying, in their various ways, not: ‘judge me aesthetically!’ or even ‘buy me!’ but, more simply, ‘love me!’ Too, too needy: I am not courted.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Reading Wordless Books
Here’s a postscript of sorts to my ‘is comics a language?’ post.
I just settled down to read a new book, Wordless Books, the Original Graphic Novels, by David A. Benonä (with introduction by Peter Kuper).
It’s a handsome volume, 11 chapters, most of them devoted to individual author/artists - eight in all, plus a chapter on 3 ‘cartoon book’ artists, a general historical background chapter and conclusion. Each chapter gives you generous samples, plus pertinent bio and intelligent commentary on influences, style and technique. So it’s a good introduction. It “represents the major woodcut novels and wordless books, from 1918 to 1951” minus a handful of titles that are listed at the start. So a real effort has been made to achieve comprehensive coverage.
As I happen to own several of these works already, in nice enough editions, it’s a bit redundant on my shelf. But that’s how it goes.
Anyway, here’s the opening of Peter Kuper’s introduction, which seems relevant to the whole ‘comics a language?’ question.
It may seem a little contrary to write about a wordless art form, but a blank sheet of paper doens’t carry much in the way of insight, so bear with me.
In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humanity has developed one unifying language and comes together to build a stairway to heaven. God, as was His wont, destroys the structure and as an added bonus undoes people’s ability to communicate through a single language for all time.
Apparently he overlooked Lund Ward’s picture story God’s Man.
Ward, like Frans Masereel, Otto Nückel, and the other artists included in this collection, discovered a way to sidestep our language barriers and create complex political, emotional, and humorous stories that can be universally understood.
We humans have been using drawings to tell stories as far back as when our ancestors called caves home. Pictures were used to describe their actions - say hunting a wooly mammoth - and the very traces of human existence remain thanks to the artists who scrawled on those cavernous walls.
Throughout human history, image functioned as language - including the Sumerians’ cuneiform pictograms carved on clay tablets, the expressive symbols painted on the tombs in Egypt, and chinese scrolls with silent illustrated epics that unrolled before the reader’s eyes ...
Here we find the same ambiguity. Is it a language? Or does it function as language (but perhaps it isn’t a language)? Is it universal because it’s a universal language or because it’s not a language at all? It’s worth noting that one of the main reasons we are tempted to say ‘comics’ - or sequential images telling stories - is a language is that we read comics. What else would you read except for language? But this is a bit arbitrary. We call it ‘reading’ because these are books. What else would you do with a book except read it? But we wouldn’t be so presuming about, say, the Bayeux Tapestry or cave art. The verb ‘to read’ tends to tag along with certain sorts of artifacts associated with writing. But that is not to say that everything you do with artifacts of that sort must be ‘linguistic’, per se. Also, it’s a bit peculiar that ‘reading’ comes to seem such an important word in these discussions. The essence of the novel is that it is a thing you read. So if these are novels, you must read them. But this isn’t even true. Illiterate people can listen to audiobooks.
Obviously the interest of the question does not lie in beating our ordinary words to death - ‘language’, ‘read’.
I’m not going to try to write this out here, but an idea I’m toying with is this: a lot of theory of interpretation - hermeneutics stuff - is skewed to the assumption that if you are interpreting it, it must be language-like. The fact that you can even have ‘wordless novels’ is a counter-example to a lot of accounts, then. And this isn’t just a case of the accounts neglecting this somewhat forgotten, perhaps marginal class of works. Rather, the fact that a theory of interpretation must work for wordless novels suggests that most theories of interpretation of literary works are barking up the wrong tree. They are treating interpretation of works as a theory of interpretation of words. But, since images aren’t words, that’s not right. Just a thought.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Katherine Farmar’s contribution to our “Reading Comics” event: Belgian Style Waffles?
Her post is up here. She likes the book but makes one criticism. Wolk’s exclusive focus on American comics - while justified - risks missing things one sees if one steps back to take in non-American comics styles and forms.
What do I think of this? In a sense criticisms of this sort are always correct. Focusing in makes you miss the big picture. Stepping back for the big picture loses the details. So the value of this criticism depends on what one actually makes of it. What does Katherine make of it?
The distinctness of the visual and narrative techniques used by Franco-Belgian comics creators is less obvious, but as I discovered after a longish period of reading nothing but Franco-Belgian comics, they, too, have their own language which is subtly different from that used by American creators. And again, the differences are structural and cultural, resulting from different publishing models and from the creators being raised and immersed in a different way of looking at the world.
It’s certainly true that manga does operate by “a slightly different set of rules”. Actually, that is if anything an understatement: manga’s quasi-abstract emotional iconography, splashy panel layouts combined with the use of visual cues in the art to direct the reader’s eye, emotional expressionism, convoluted plots and premises, speech bubble placement, distinctive story pacing… and so on and so forth… amount to not just “a slightly different set of rules” but effectively a different visual and narrative language.
I have a good joke about this one in the archives somewhere. Ah, here it is.
(That’s from an old boucx comic that appeared in Heavy Metal, by the by.)
Right. Now I quite agree that looking outside American comics - looking to the way other comics traditions do it: - teaches us about American comics by really showing how much they all have in common. (Katherine is suggesting Wolk may suffer from slight narcissism of small differences, in dividing up the American tradition. This is the critical burden of the point.) But is it really right to say these differences amount to a ‘different visual and narrative language’? There’s a bit of a waffle between ‘the Belgian-style works by its own rules’ and ‘the Belgian-style constitutes its own language’. Certainly there are rules for drawing manga. Belgian-style punches don’t look like manga-style punches. The sensei wanders around: “make sure your direction lines don’t get mixed up.”Continue reading "Katherine Farmar’s contribution to our “Reading Comics” event: Belgian Style Waffles?"
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
What I Don’t Know About Comics
I came to Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics for help clearing a confusion. This confusion arose from my experience here at The Valve, namely, many of the folks here, our glorious former editor foremost, seemed gaga for comics, yet I wasn’t. Heck, I don’t even own a copy of Maus. If these peers, people I respect, find them important, what am I missing? Am I stuck as the guy in the New Yorker cartoon (cited in the first paragraph of RC): “Now I have to pretend to like graphic novels too?” It’s not as if I’ve got a high art prejudice. Despite being the only Adorno fanboy here at this site, I’m totally gone on pop culture. Pop music (going back about 100 years or so) is my most cherished art form.
But more confusing than that, I thought I was into comics. I read the comics page of the local free weekly every chance I get, and I own volumes of Zippy the Pinhead, Matt Groening’s Life is Hell, as well as Tony Millionaire’s Maakies and Michael Kupperman’s Snake ‘n Bacon Cartoon Cabaret (though with the latter I much preferred to the original strip to the revised book form).
So I looked to Wolk to explain to me the difference between what I was interested in and what I wasn’t interested in, in other words, for an explanation of the genre differences within comics. I have always liked comic strips, the kind of things found in newspapers (of the daily or weekly variety), but I’ve never been taken by what is often called “comic books,” the stuff sold back in the day on those rotating displays at the 7-11.
What did the book show me? As far as understanding the things I don’t like, I still don’t understand, but if you will bear with me, I will share my ignorance with you, gentle reader, in the hopes that I can receive further enlightenment in the comments. But Reading Comics did some much better than what I was hoping for. It has shown me that there were things that I might like very much, new possibilities of delight. And now I don’t have to pretend. I may still not understand the graphic novel (as the following comments will undoubtedly reveal), but my interest has been sparked.