Seeking to disprove stereotypes that comics are merely simplistic or juvenile entertainment for the uncultured; to enlighten the open-minded and encourage the broadening of one's horizons; to examine comics as a text; to deepen appreciation for comics, comic books, and graphic novels as a formidable form of art in all cultures.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What is a Graphic Novel?

While a comic book is pretty easy to define based on what we've already discussed ("comics in magazine format," perhaps), the term "graphic novel" is thrown around quite a bit, and I feel it behooves us to clarify what exactly that means.

A graphic novel generally has more to it than a comic book. For one thing, graphic novels have self-contained stories (beginning, middle, end) whereas a regular comic book usually has a story that's spread over several issues. Some argue that graphic novels generally deal with more mature themes and have a higher quality of art in the pages, though this is certainly debatable. Graphic novels may also be collections of several comic books into one volume.

Excellent examples of graphic novels include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Art Spiegelman's Maus, which reflects on the author's family involvement in the Holocaust, with the characters symbolically portrayed as animals.
  • Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, a collection of a "what if"-type miniseries by DC Comics, where the tale of a future Superman battling the misled ideals of a new generation of metahumans serves as a catalyst for themes of politics, responsibility, humility, empathy, and more -- on really deep levels. Ross's artwork is amazing in this book -- photorealistic paintings that create a very down-to-earth setting for the messages to thrive in.
  • JLA: Earth 2 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, like Maus, is not a collection of comic books, but reads and feels more like a straightforward, prestige-format comic book tale than Kingdom Come might. It reintroduces the concept of a multidimensional universe to the DC Comics heroes by pitting the Justice League up against their evil counterparts from another Earth.
It's difficult to give an outright definition on the graphic novel, because the term itself is subjective and not accepted by all comics professionals. Many feel that graphic novels should simply be called "comic books," because essentially they are just comic books in a longer format, and who's to say that a comic book series can't deal with themes that may go over the head of young children?

Alan Moore, creator of the highly-acclaimed comic maxiseries The Watchmen (which is frequently referred to as a graphic novel in its collected format), had the following to say in reference to the surge of the term's usage in the '80s:
The problem is that "graphic novel" just came to mean "expensive comic book" and so what you'd get is people like DC Comics or Marvel comics - because "graphic novels" were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it "The She-Hulk Graphic Novel," you know? (full interview here)
Those who aren't avid comic book readers may have found yourself being snootily corrected by a comic fan when you accused him of reading a "comic book" when he was, in fact, reading a "graphic novel." In these cases I would counsel you to brush it off and feel justified in your feeling that the guy needs to learn to relax. Given that the term is often used for marketing purposes, isn't officially recognized by all professionals as legit, and has a pretty vague definition, there's no reason to force everyone to upgrade their vocabulary just yet.

I think the comic fan who goes out of his way to correct others in such a way is getting defensive in order to justify to himself that he's not reading kiddie cartoons, that what he's looking at is geared towards a higher age group, and therefore he has a life. While this is certainly less effective in changing the world's views of comics, what does it say about me, the guy who decided to devote an entire blog to justifying his love of the medium? Oh, dear...

To wrap this up, the purpose of this post is to simply establish an understanding in the reader of what others mean when distinguishing between the two phrases, and to understand that there certainly ARE comics out there that read like novels and have varying degrees of depth, with artwork that stands out as masterpieces.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What are Comics?

Now that we've better established what art is or should be, the next logical step is to define what is meant when referring to "comics" on this blog. I find the following sufficient for our needs:
Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader.
-Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
The book from which this definition was taken does a pretty thorough job of dissecting this sentence to clearly explain what is meant. I highly recommend picking up this book, because McCloud makes some interesting arguments that inspire a lot of the thought process in this blog.

McCloud's definition is actually pretty broad. In fact, in this interview he explains that one could even create a comic by organizing a series of subjects in stained glass. I like that this is broad, however, because I think it forces us to look at how comics are so similar to other media we may be readier to accept as an art form.

For example, "The Voyage of Life" series of paintings by Thomas Cole are beautiful individual works, but are very much incomplete without being viewed together, in a deliberate sequential order. Some of you may be thinking, "Wait, 'Voyage of Life' is NOT comics," but I beg you to break down the images into essentially what they are, and you will see that they actually have quite a bit in common with their descendants, the brightly-colored, commercialized magazines/funny papers.

From the National Gallery of Art:
Cole's renowned four-part series traces the journey of an archetypal hero along the "River of Life." Confidently assuming control of his destiny and oblivious to the dangers that await him, the voyager boldly strives to reach an aerial castle, emblematic of the daydreams of "Youth" and its aspirations for glory and fame. As the traveler approaches his goal, the ever-more-turbulent stream deviates from its course and relentlessly carries him toward the next picture in the series, where nature's fury, evil demons, and self-doubt will threaten his very existence. Only prayer, Cole suggests, can save the voyager from a dark and tragic fate.
Juxtaposition of the four images, in sequence, yields several interpretations, including Christian themes of sin and redemption, but also allusions to the birth and development of America and warnings of impending tragedy brought about by the notions of Manifest Destiny.

The idea of sequential images for the purpose of juxtaposition and extraction of meaning/emotion is common in other media as well, showing us that the structure of comics is replicated in other forms.

The Kuleshov Effect is a montage theory of film editing, developed in 1918 by Lev Kuleshov. The idea is that content of images is less important (as far as conveyance of meaning goes) than the order in which they are edited and juxtaposed. This was first experimented with an audience viewing a series of four shots: a man's face, a bowl of soup, a girl, and a lady in a coffin. Though each shot remained the same throughout the film's duration, the audience walked away raving about the man's acting ability, sensing different emotions in his face depending on what the preceding/following shots were (with the soup, hunger; with the coffin, mourning; etc.)!

(a short recreation of the Kuleshov effect)

So, believe it or not, you and I are subject to this psychological theory every time we sit down to watch the most recent summer blockbuster. As an editor myself, I can atest to the power of manipulating the order of images to express a specific idea or emotion. Comics follow similar principles.

Notice, then, that some things we may consider to be "comics" do NOT fit McCloud's definition. For example, "The Family Circus" is only a single panel and, though certainly it holds an important relationship to standard comics, it fits better with the description of "cartoon." My brother Jared would argue that even a single panel may contain sequenced images -- such as when Billy runs around the neighborhood, leaving a dotted line for us to follow -- and I will concede this point, but for the most part this principle isn't followed in true single-panel illustrations.

Also note that a comic doesn't necessarily require text in order to be a comic. There are plenty of textless comics that evoke meaning. (Sidenote: I'll be returning to "The Family Circus" in the future as a good example of juxtaposition of text and image and what it is capable of.)

In sum: When looking at what comics are, we see that the structure they follow really isn't
all that different from what we appreciate in other media.The ideas behind comics were even used in the Renaissance! You better believe that there will be future posts of case studies between art of different cultures/time periods and contemporary comics.

Isn't it interesting to think that the following is rooted in such works as those of Matthias Grünewald?

*Calvin and Hobbes is copyrighted by Bill Watterson. Family Circus is copyrighted by Bil Keane. Used without permission.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What is Art?

I suppose this is the underlying question or theme of this entire blog, in a sense, for in order for one to recognize comics as a form of art, it must fit the criteria that each one of us has individually created in order to be considered so. Therefore, my goal as a writer should be, first, to help the reader define what qualifies as art for him or herself and, second, to help the reader see that comics can and should fit within the bounds the reader has decided.

The discussion on what exactly art is has been done a thousand times before by many people much smarter and more experienced than yours truly. Tens of volumes of books could be written on the matter, and this post could go endlessly trying to cover all the differing arguments and points of view, but it all boils down to one fact: art is subjective. It's going to be different for each one of us, and that's okay!

My brother Scott, for example, feels that one tenet of visual art is its ability to mimic reality. To him, abstract art, such as the painting "Guardians of the Secret" by Jackson Pollack (to the right) is of much less artistic quality than, say, "The Prayer at Valley Forge" by Arnold Friberg. His argument is that anyone could take a bucket of paint and dribble random specks of paint across a canvas, but time and practice are the qualifiers for one to be able to recreate a photo-realistic scene of George Washington and a horse in the middle of the woods. In this case, the definition of art does not take into account the emotional setting the artist finds himself in while creating, nor does it consider the countless hours spent in perfecting a method (Pollack worked very hard to lose control of his brush and achieve randomness in where the paint fell on the canvas, eventually sinking into depression when he began seeing form taking place accidentally).

Different movements of art have given us a myriad of forms and applications of media in all areas, and while I certainly am a bigger fan of some movements over others, I am hesitant to dismiss something I don't find visually appealing or immediately recognizable without understanding the context it was created in. But to Scott, this isn't as important -- and while I feel he should be a little more open-minded (hence the purpose of this blog), I can't outright say he's incorrect -- because his personality obviously requires something different for certain themes to be communicable. Scott is a student of Information Systems and is more likely to practically analyze how things work than stare at a painting for more than sixty seconds trying to interpret what the artist is doing by directing his eyes a certain way or balancing tones the way he does, but to me this means that the art he DOES choose to examine is going to be looked at entirely differently from a way I might see it.
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.
-Leo Tolstoy, "What is Art?" (1896)
This quote from Tolstoy give us his definition (he qualifies it over the length of an entire essay), but I feel it is a bit too narrow, as I explain further below. I really like this quote, however, because he lists several different media in which art can take form, and it provides a very good lead-in for my personal definition of what art is. Have you ever heard a well-written speech and considered it to be a work of art? Or have you ever been enthralled by a friend's description of their weekend and wished you could be as eloquent as they were? I love that Tolstoy cites "forms expressed in words" as an artistic medium, because I, too, feel very much that simple, verbal communication is a form of art, but it's much less likely to be recognized than, say, an all-out oratorio or a play.

I find art is found in most everything, and often think of art as any form of creation that can communicate something about our inner selves, whether as individuals or a commune, and that ultimately points to God. I think a circuit board says a lot about the electrical engineer who designed it and can teach valuable lessons on order and power; a car, as a whole, illustrates the beauty and complexity of cooperation and eternal truths that work together seamlessly, and tells us about contemporary society and our values (for example, what do you think the proliferation of hybrid engines tells one about the population's environmental views?); nature is, of course, God's creation and teaches us MOUNDS of lessons on who He is and our relationship with Him. Note that a qualifier for art, in my mind, is that it ultimately must drive us to be better people. Pornography is the ferocious enemy of art -- and by "pornography" I mean not only the common definition (lewd images of nudity and sex designed for cheap titillation), but also the larger meaning, which includes anything that would distort one's perception of reality and is designed to convey banal selfishness. For example, the "Twilight" book series are somewhat emotionally pornographic to me because they cater to the feelings of sexual frustration that young women feel and provide unrealistic expectations of how healthy, romantic relationships work.

For the purpose of this blog, then, I would argue that a viable definition of art is the use of any medium to effectively communicate an idea or emotion to the reader/interpreter of the text. The better an image, idea, or emotion is able to be understood and internalized by the reader (the ideal being that the reader understands exactly what the creator was conveying in its creation and is thus able to decide what to do with said conveyance), the more artistic it is. While pure entertainment is very much a form of art under this definition, true art is that which seeks to do MORE than simply entertain -- it generates thought, necessitates interaction (whether consciously or not), and, over time, develops one's very being.

Comics can very much be art in this sense. Be patient with me as we tackle a few more definitions and preliminary topics before diving into the meat of the blog's content.

What is your definition of art? What has helped shape your definition?

Monday, May 12, 2008

An Introduction

I am a college grad with a degree in film. I lead a socially healthy life, I exercise, I enjoy art in many forms (music, literature, painting, sculpture, etc.), I'm a religious man, I regularly go on dates, I enjoy the outdoors, playing ultimate frisbee, cooking, singing, and traveling. And there's so much more!

In short: I'm a pretty normal dude. And I happen to enjoy comics.

I've never been the kind who spends $300 a month at the local comic shop -- at most I've spent one-twentieth of that on a regular basis. In fact, over the last eight years my readership in mainstream comics has significantly declined, mostly due to a disappointment in writing -- but NOT due to "growing up" or a lack of respect for the medium. I have never stopped enjoying well-made films with superhero subjects, and I've started reading webcomics more and more.

Over this past weekend I decided to visit my local comics shop, one I've never been to since recently relocating. My interest in familiarizing myself with the Marvel franchise prodded me to ask the cashier for suggestions on titles I should read to gain a greater appreciation. He excitedly got to work, and I soon found myself with a large stack of material in my arms. $80 later I was on my way to re-immersing myself in an aspect of my life that had gone mostly ignored for several years, and though I haven't finished getting through that stack at the time of this writing, I must admit that it's been refreshing.

But in returning to a part of my past, I began to think of how my peers would relate to my rediscovery of this hobby. Unlike many comic fans out there, I don't normally associate with other people who regularly read comics. My brother often borrows my new purchases once I've finished my perusings, but otherwise my friends and family, with the exception of general pop-culture knowledge of major comic book themes, are not a part of that world. I get along great with all of these people -- I've never felt like I needed or even wanted my kin to be comic fanatics.

I once had a girlfriend who told me, after being together for a few months, "If I had known you liked comic books before you'd asked me out, I never would have dated you." This statement is essentially the major issue I want to combat. There seems to be this popular notion, at least in American culture, that comics are "just for kids," "silly," or that anyone who reads them needs to "grow up" and "get a life." This, to me, is baffling. For a community who has strived to overcome prejudice and bias, we sure do a great job of making poor, negative assumptions about others based on topics we really aren't all that familiar with. My ex-girlfriend loved me for who I was, but admitted that she never would have let herself get to that point if she'd known that I liked comics -- and I think that too many people let themselves lump someone into the stereotype of "that guy who never grew up and lives in his parents' basement" without really getting to know them OR the comic form and what it is capable of.

(On a sidenote, I think a lot of the stereotypical, snooty comic nerds are born as a defensive reaction to this mindset of the general public. In an attempt to prove that there is substance in their hobby, they constantly regurgitate the mass amounts of information they've consumed in reading comics, and are quick to correct others when they mistake a minor detail of, say, a character's origin. In so doing, however, they only further alienate themselves, thus creating a vicious cycle of misunderstanding between the comic and non-comic enthusiasts.)

Thus the idea for this blog arose. Lest you think that this is purely a snooty comic enthusiast's knee-jerk reaction to hurt feelings produced by the disapproving words of his friends, let me also add that I also just ENJOY finding the deeper meanings in comics and reading them as a text, seeing what makes them work and how their unique structure affects our methods of interpreting and having a cathartic experience. I strengthened this skill as a film major and am now turning it to another medium.

Finally, let me add that I in no way consider myself an expert in interpreting and understanding ANY medium. Therefore this is a journey for me as much as it may be for the reader. This blog is in its skeletal stages -- I hope to flesh out the sidebars and posts with pertinent information as I continue exploring and sharing what I find.

Let me show you why comics and comics readers alike should be given a little more credit.