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.

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.

1 comment:

Cabeza said...

I would like to further argue the case of single-panel "cartoons" fitting under the definition of comics. I have two points of argument, both of them drawing on Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

First Whether or not there are visible panels preceding and following a single-cell cartoon, it is still surrounded by "gutters." McCloud's work identifies the gutters between panels as the spaces where action happens in our minds. The comics artist uses the material he places in the cells to shape what the reader's mind sees happening in the gutters. I argue that even in a single-cell cartoon, multi-cell action is often communicated (though not always) because of the actions that the reader's mind will necessarily place in the gutters. Take, for example, this classic Far Side. Action must have come before the left-hand gutter--someone outside the Samurai bar tied that chicken to the balloon and sent it through the door. The unknown balloon-tier had a motive, perhaps snickered or hung her head grimly as she sent the chicken in. And Larson's whole point in drawing this was to allow the reader to create the action that will follow in the right-hand gutter. We are left to imagine a dozen different scenarios, all of them filled with action. It may not be sequential art, but it certainly communicates action, and implies sequential images.

Second Further on in Understanding Comics, McCloud draws a single, elongated cell showing a family gathered in a living room. Multiple people across the cell are talking, some of them responding to something that someone to the left has said. McCloud uses this example to demonstrate that a comic panel is different from a photograph because it is not confined to one isolated moment in time; the comic panel shows multiple moments in time, even if only by showing two speech bubbles, or by showing a swooshing motion indicating movement. Even a single speech bubble with multiple words indicates ongoing action. Again, this may not apply to all single-cell cartoons, but I think it applies broadly enough to allow the Far Side, Family Circus, Rubes, The Argyle Sweater, and other similarly framed cartoons to fall under the definition of "comics."