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.”
Learning to draw in both styles requires learning the rules. But if you don’t know the rules can you still understand what the pictures are of, hence understand the story? If I don’t know the rules of French, on some level, I can’t understand French. But a Japanese reader exposed to her first Tintin comic would hardly have trouble understanding what is going on. It’s an important fact that the comics medium is, so far as humans are concerned, a substantially universal language. Which is to say: not a language. You don’t recognize that a certain picture represents a man punching another man by knowing rules of the Belgian style, or any other artistic style. You know it because it ‘looks like’ a man punching another man. You have some more basic ability to process images. I’m not being absolute about this. It’s not that there are no pure conventions in image-making styles. (Manga is full of bizarre conventions (to American eyes.) It’s just that the set of images that have been chosen in different comics styles to represent punches is substantially less arbitrary than the set of words chosen in different languages to mean punch.
This is a very old debate, of course. (I wish I had Noel Carroll’s “Is Film A Language?” handy. He answers ‘no’ and I think he’s basically right.)
But what really follows? Take my comics example. You’ve already gotten the joke, I take it. It’s funny to see captain Haddock learning to fight manga-style. In order to get the joke, you have to know who Captain Haddock is, and be aware of what manga is like. But this is not knowing a language. This is knowing facts. It’s like saying: in order to understand why the kid in the YouTube video doing the crazy light sabre act is funny, you have to have seen Star Wars and be aware of the kind of cultural place it has. That doesn’t mean: you need to know the rules for Star Wars-style artistic representation. You need to know certain facts. Knowing facts is not the same as knowing a language. (We should not necessarily recreate certain medieval metaphors of ‘reading in the book of nature’ when we write about ‘reading in the book of comics’ - even though we’re really reading comic books. Get it?)
Again, an old discussion about the degree to which visual representation is conventional.
What’s the critical payout? Here is Katherine from an old post she links in her new one:
I never realised how much thinking I had to do to navigate an American or Japanese comics page until I didn’t have to do it any more.
The trouble is, there’s a limit to how much visual dynamism you can get into a static panel grid. I sometimes wish Anglophone and Japanese artists were more willing to use regular grids, if only because they’re easier to read and work perfectly well for straightforward storytelling, when more complicated page structures can be distracting and fiddly.
The problem, it seems to me, is that if you now insist on talking about the differences - about your likings and dislikings, affinities and reactions - always in terms of different ‘languages’, you end up treating appreciation as ‘understanding what the language is saying’ and disliking or rejecting as ‘not understanding what the language is saying’. So, for example, she ends up hinting that Wolk’s relative indifference to manga must be due to a lack of understanding of its language. But it is seems to me there’s no reason to presume a lack of appreciation is due to a failure to know any comics language. (It may be that, of course. But it needn’t be. We need a way to talk about this that doesn’t presume.)
In short: the difference between Japanese-style and Franco-Belgian-style comics is not really analogous to the difference between Japanese and French. At least the analogy is strained. So if we insist on talking about the difference as if such analogies hold, our critical points will be similarly strained.
How might Katherine respond? I appear to be poised to reduce comics to the stories they tell. You can understand the comic if you understand that Captain Haddock punched Spider-Man and that the reason Spider-Man is down on the ground in the next frame is that time moves forward and punches hurt and other basic facts about the world (as opposed to facts about language.) The reason any normal human being can pick up a comic and, after mastering relatively few strictly arbitrary conventions (left to right, or right to left, or hooked on boustrophedonics or whatever) read it, is that mostly the stuff you need to know is stuff about time and space and causality and what properties objects in the world have.
But there is so much more to appreciating comics art than just telling what pictures are of. And making pragmatic inferences about the spatio-temporal and causal connections between and implications of actions depicted in frames.
Yes. Use of negative space, for example. (This is Katherine’s choice of examples.) In general, formally distinctive features. To reduce comics to what they are of is to lose what is distinctive about them. But: it’s not clear this is a matter of meaning. And if not meaning, then why call it language? (That is not a rhetorical question.) What does Japanese, manga-style use of negative space ‘mean’? I’m not confident that is a good question.
So, on the one hand we have an unquestionable level of meaning in comics. The level at which a certain picture is of a human being punching another. This is representation, but not clearly language because we process it, not by knowing rules of syntax and semantics, but by recognizing what something ‘looks like’, hence what it is supposed to represent. (Again, I don’t mean to be dogmatic. There are degrees, obviously. I grant this.)
On the other hand, we have an unquestionable level of conventions and rules - formal styles and formal distinctiveness. But this is not necessarily like language because it is not clearly a matter of meaning. If we insist on theorizing the function of form as a meaning function, we beg certain questions.
Thanks for your contribution, Katherine. I enjoyed your post. (Sorry to worry one point to death but it’s something I’ve been worrying about independently, so I seized on it greedily for my own nefarious philosophical purposes.)
Let’s get more discussion going on aound here! (I’ve been busy, but now I’m back for at least a few days, to make sure this event goes well.)
"It’s like saying: in order to understand why the kid in the YouTube video doing the crazy light sabre act is funny, you have to have seen Star Wars and be aware of the kind of cultural place it has. That doesn’t mean: you need to know the rules for Star Wars-style artistic representation.“
Doesn’t knowing the first two things kind-of entail the third? I mean, watching Star Wars and understanding its importance is also to kind of inhale the second-hand-smoke of the rules for Star Wars-style artistic representation. It would be possible to show the YouTube clip to someone who had no idea what Star Wars was, and to explain to him all about it (’see there’s this really popular film from the 1970s ...’) and he might go ‘ah, I see’ but he wouldn’t see as clearly as somebody who has actually already seen the film and already understood how important it is to popular culture.
Is comics a language?
(Taking for a moment “comics” to mean everything encompassable by McCloud’s blinking eye, or heck, all the way up to “temporal map.")
It certainly wanders in that direction. If it’s a language, one would have to concede it’s a language that’s dead simple to learn. (There’s perhaps a much stronger argument to be made for the “deep structure” of panel-to-panel transitions, say. —I’m not entirely laughing up my sleeve!) —There’s a level of abstraction and even arbitrariness in not just comics conventions but the simple act of cartooning itself. Deucedly easy to grasp, yes, but still something that must be grasped. There’s something about the way that comics can organize space and time on the page that makes me think of how American Sign Language affects grammar and tense—a spatial language is necessarily different than a verbal language—but this is only a “wouldn’t it be neat if” tickle in the back of my brain. I can’t possibly begin to say I’ve done anywhere near enough reading on the subjects involved.
But if one speaks of comics as a language, I think it’s still just the one language, an ur-tongue, say: it’s needlessly complicating to think of manga as a different language than comics than bande dessinée. (Look! How “comics” went from “the whole shebang” to “Yankee-style as distinct from the other two largely recognized schools.” Frickin’ terminology.) —But thinking again of those panel-to-panel transitions, the six that McCloud pinned down in Understanding Comics, the trembling nascent structure of a grammar of comics: think of the distribution plots he did of frequency of types in manga, in comics, in bande dessinée. If they aren’t different languages, they are certainly different dialects.
And anyway, one can in polite company make all sorts of value judgments about languages. What a great language Japanese is for yelling at someone! How lovely dark and deep is Russian! —And don’t all critical disagreements boil down to “You just don’t understand! If only you could read what I read!”
I’m not sure that the question of whether or not comics is a “language” is a terribly useful one as it entails issues of “mere” semantics. Just what do you mean by “language”? It is said, for example, that computer languages lack semantics; hence they cannot have meaning; hence they are not languages (by John’s notion that language involves meaning). So we grant that computer languages are odd sorts of languages, they’re not “natural.” It is natural languages that have meaning. Is the bee dance a language? Well . . . and so on. Not a useful discussion.
Clearly comics involve conventions that one must learn and the conventions do vary among traditions. Still, some things seem more transparent than others. The different modes of panel transition that McCloud so elegantly laid out, for example, seem pretty transparent to me. I didn’t really notice that manga did that differently until I read McCloud, “aha! he’s right.” But other aspects of manga were more opaque. Some pages and spreads don’t seem to have any obvious reading order, especially when panel boundaries are missing. What about those speech and thought balloons that aren’t linked to anyone in particular? And what about those simplified characters and those conventions for indicating emotion?
One does have to invest some effort in getting comfortable with these conventions in order for manga to really “work.” It’s not as arduous as learning to read Japanese, and perhaps not even as arduous as getting comfortable with the talas and ragas underlying South Indian classical music (and that don’t mean anything). But it takes a bit of time and effort.
I really don’t know why Wolk is indifferent to manga. Maybe he put in the time and effort and has mastered the conventions and still the stories don’t grab him. That’s one thing. And maybe he took a run on it and it wasn’t happening and so gave up before he became comfortable. No big deal, there’s lots of comics in the world, more than any one person can master.
"I really don’t know why Wolk is indifferent to manga.”
I myself am relatively indifferent to it. Which is sort of funny, because I live in a country in which, if I go into a comics store, the manga section is way bigger than the American comics section. In part it’s a matter of being so deeply appreciative of one tradition and having a sense that, if I dove into another ocean entirely I’d have to read a lot before I was similarly appreciative and just not having taken the opportunity yet. Here again we are on the line between knowing facts and knowing a language It’s also due to comics being such a nostalgia thing, in part, and having had a manga-free childhood. (Hell, I never really even got into Speed Racer as a kid.)
As to the ‘is it a language?’ question, I agree that the question is unclear as it stands but I don’t think it is therefore uselessly terminological. We are trying to think about the thing not just twiddle with the word ‘language’, I should hope.
Adam, you are right that the one sort of follows from the other. Facts about what cultural attitudes and representational conventions are just a subset of facts about the world, after all. The major, three-fold axis of distinction is:
1) the semantic sense of ‘mean’ - where there is a semi or completely arbitrary connection between signifier and signifeds (or pick your own words for this relation, not that I’m a Saussurean or anything).
2) Versus what Grice calls ‘natural meaning’. Clouds mean rain. This is the mean of implication. One panel contains a punch. The next shows someone on the ground. The punch must have knocked him to the ground. You solve this little puzzle largely by thinking about the world, not by processing any semantic code.
3) The sense of (personal) significance. Tintin means a lot to me because I’ve been reading those comics since I was a child.
In comics there is a lot of 2 & 3 and relatively little 1. So I think there is a danger that 2 & 3 will be erroneously shoehorned into 1.
"Facts about what cultural attitudes and representational conventions are just a subset of facts ... “
Subtract the ‘what’ so the sentence turns out grammatical.
Right, John. We don’t want to twiddle with the word “language.” The comics medium has things going on that, no matter how familiar they may be, become deeply strange once you start to think about how they work. In the case of manga, some of the difference likely has to do with Japanese culture and so is in your category of natural meaning.
If I might switch to anime, for a moment (because I’ve spent more time with it than with manga), I’ve developed this sense that some anime seems more Japanese than others. (You should probably read “more Japanese” to mean “more unlike what I grew up with.") Miyazaki’s films, for example, are very approachable. There’s all that mythological stuff in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, for example, but missing the specificity of the reference and allusion doesn’t get in the way of following the story.
Then you have something like Azumanga Daioh (which also exists in manga form). It follows five Japanese girls through high school and consists of 5-minute vignettes that are gathered into half-hour episodes for DVD distribution. There’s no plot, just scenes. Some vignettes have a casual surreal quality that’s hard to describe and seems strange in the context of episodes that are mostly realistic (in a highly stylized fashion). And then there’s the lit teacher who seems to be a pedophile, but he never harms anyone (just pants and leers) and who is treated as just some odd adult.
Stylistically, you’ve got the standard contrast between “full” characters and “reduced” emotionally intense version. And you’ve got shots where the whole scene changes to suit a character’s mood of the moment. You know perfectly well that the world is not suddenly turning black with squiggly lines, that that’s just a reflection of mood, but . . . Just how do you know that? There’s nothing there to tell you what’s happening.
And so on. The whole thing is utterly charming and wonderful. But very different from classic Disney or Warner Brothers, and very different from Hanna Barbara, and so forth.
There’s a guy at Michigan, Richard Nisbett, who’s done some interesting work on cognitive differences between East Asians and Westerners. I’ve not really dug into any of it, but it seems relevant here. You can find some of his pubs here:
Bill--I hope you don’t mind my popping my head in to say it’s not exactly that I’m indifferent to manga, it’s that I haven’t read enough of it to be able to have more than the most half-baked ideas about it. I may someday; I’m picking at bits and pieces here and there. But it still seems like an intimidatingly huge field to me, and I don’t want to be the equivalent of somebody who tries to talk authoritatively about American comics having read, oh, “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Santoro’s “Storeyville,” four randomly selected issues of “Archie,” and nothing else.
I’m pretty sure that any four issues of “Archie” would tell you what you need to know. Let’s face it. Riverdale is Everytown and, as Harold Bloom explains, there are only Three Great Stories in western literature: 1) Jughead is hungry. 2) Archie has a date with Betty and Veronica on the same night and Jughead has to drive him quickly from one to the other in his jalopy. 3) Principal Weatherby is upset.
Well, I’m certainly not an authority on manga and never will be, it’s a vast territory indeed. I have published an analysis of an early Tezuka manga (Metropolis, but I don’t attempt to generalize from that. That’s my prefered style, intense analysis of individual texts. It doesn’t allow you to make broad generalizations, but some things only become visible through such analysis.