From the author interview in FLOOD!, 3rd edition. Interview by Chris Lanier, originally published in The Comics Journal.
The main interest for me of the comic strip is the infinite possible links between text and image : a system of representation continually confronting , in a kind of alchemy, text and picture. [...] I try to find new reading perspectives. I dismantle a given material to make something else of it.
By EC Segar. Via Ben Towle
[The] unconventional aspects are deliberate pointers to a hidden poetic structure, accessible only to the initiate. This deep structure is a system of interrelated parts conveying a unity of meaning. Although the links uniting these parts exist on the visual level, they are predominantly a function of subtextual narratives and symbols operating below the surface and realized in the educated viewer’s mind. The iconographer relies on the viewer’s silent co-participation in his creative process to uncover a mystery beyond words.
I had you convinced for a second that this was about some experimental comics, didn’t I? This is actually from the abstract for a study of a 500 years old, Russian icon depicting the biblical “last judgment”.
Let this be a lesson that a) I interpret everything as pertaining to comics, and b) everything pertains to comics.
A few days ago, esteemed cartoonist Rod McKie wrote a very flattering blog post about my 2006 graphic novel, Sortmund. He seemed to like the art a lot, but what makes the review more interesting to me is, he got the story perfectly right. That may sound like I’m dissing Rod’s literacy, but quite the contrary—you see, the book was only ever published in Danish, a language he does not speak or read.
I find that incredibly fascinating; that a book, which I have always thought of as rather dialogue-driven, narrates so well visually, too. Mind you, I’m not blowing my.own horn here, a lot of water has run under the bridge since I finished Sortmund, and I’ll be the first to point out its flaws.
Once again, it’s mostly to Rod’s credit that he got it. What follows is a rambling meditation on the comics form, which fell out of my head after reading his post:
You often hear the question from non-comics readers, “How do you read these things?” People don’t know if they’re supposed to read text or image first, where I suppose we trained readers take both in at a glance. So yes, Rod is not just a reader, he’s a professional drawer; he knows the language of comics, as his review also shows.
But everybody can read comics, it’s just a matter of the visual grammar used in the individual work that might pose an obstacle. There are different kinds of visual shorthand that make sense to readers accustomed to the genre, form, or even culture in which the comic is created—but may be incomprehensible to beginning comics readers.
Take the banner image at the top of this site, which is my own joke on those clouds of dust that follow people running in gag cartoons and strips (only in my drawing, the cartoon-me isn’t moving, so oh man, I just ruined the joke). It may originate in animated cartoons from the ’40s, where Tom & Jerry, et al would leave a cloud behind when they broke into a sprint.
Or, remember when DragonBall appeared in the West? Didn’t take anybody long to figure out what those instant nosebleeds meant, but I’m sure we all had a short, head-scratching moment before the shoe dropped. That. That’s how untrained readers feel about comics all the time.
Provided of course they only pick up manga, or superhero comics. Those things are like being thrown into Advanced Mechanics class when you just want to learn to drive a car. No, everybody can read comics, across language barriers. It’s mostly the idiomatic trappings that cut off new readers, or the required trivial knowledge of, say, Wolverine’s past as a mercenary in WWII. That was all the cape-bashing for this post, I promise.
Everybody can read comics, and most of us do on a daily basis. If not daily strips in the newspaper, then instructional infographics. They help us not going into the wrong toilet, finding the emergency exit, or using chopsticks in Asian restaurants, etc. Of course, polemics aside, what we think of as comics tend to be a tad more narrative, or even expressive, than the assembly of a Billy bookcase.
Instead of just using framing for clarity and focus, cartoonists use it in a narrative manner, to convey setting, ambience, mood, tension, or release. The same goes for layouts, pacing to time the page turn; light, shadow, colours. Those are the elements of grammar used by the comics creator.
And intuitively so—making comics, we play on the heartstrings of the reader no less than the Don Drapers of the world, or any other propagandist. The most important part of that is not letting them feel it when we play them. Or making them like it (and by “them” I mean “you,” but ignore that for now).
Even when you learn to recognise the techniques and slights of hand, a story well told suspends that cold rationality, because it is more interesting than the mechanisms that switch the backdrops and make the puppets move.
At their finest, comics are not the even balance of text and image that some people would claim; they are visual narratives, using text only for emphasis, or for elaboration. For those things that absolutely must, or cannot, be told, not shown. Most of the time, however, the words just fly out of the characters’ mouths in abundance, like the celebratory pomp of an Olympic opening ceremony (that was a pun on “balloons”. You’re welcome).
Circling back on our starting point: Aside from the fact that Rod works with visual storytelling for a living, I think the language “barrier” became a reason in itself for him to read the images more intently. I’ve had some great experiences personally, trying to wrench meaning from foreign-language comics. You become more inquisitive as a reader when you approach the work as a puzzle to be solved.
Rod speculates briefly on how his comics horizon might have expanded if he were not an English reader, or if he had learnt more languages and been able to read more works untranslated to his native tongue. I’m in the same situation by proxy, so to speak, teaching myself only english so I could read the US comics I was mostly interested in, in my pre-teens.
I’m not sure anymore if we should regret it so much. We share another language.
[I]n order to exist the series must:
1 – Have an hero. The hero (be it Tintin or Corto Maltese or John Difool) is not a fully developed character, it’s more of a void designed to be filled by the reader with positive things.
2 – A cast of stereotyped characters: the faithful reader knows that this one does this, that one does that. The reader who likes mainstream stuff usually doesn’t want to be surprised (Obelix *always* says that he wants to drink the magic potion; Captain Haddock *always* wants to drink scotch; etc…).
3- A set of stereotyped situations. The plot obeys to a few fixed rules. In adventure comics the thing goes more or less like this: the bad guys attack, the bad guys defeat the good guys, the good guys make a come back and win. The End. In comical comics the hero (or antihero) always commits the same errors, etc…
4 – Adventure follows adventure and the hero and his friends never age. It’s as if nothing happened from story to story (the few exceptions to this rule are far from being perfect).
5 – Psychological depth, what’s that?!
The graphic novel is a strategy to fight the blunt commercialism of the series, it’s the anti-series. Calling a collection of children’s stories (about superheroes, for instance) a “graphic novel” is a co-optation by the sharks, smelling fresh money.
From a blog post by comics critic Domingos Isabelinho.
A conversation I had with Eric Orchard on Twitter last week, on the subject of digital publishing. Eric just self-published his direct-to-tablet comic Marrowbones which, incidentally, is a very fine all-ages book (or precisely not a book?)
And it kind of petered out from there. Eric went on to write an almost shocking blog post about his rookie experience with digital self-publishing. “Shocking” in the ease with which he got the technical side sorted out, making one wonder how long there will still be a mass market for dead-tree books…
Language is the oldest technology humankind has – and visual language, the ability to distill human experience and emotion and make a representation of it, one of the oldest human impulses (the cave paintings in Luscaux are testament to that). It’s a kind of alchemy perhaps, something that helps us reimagine our environment and design the world we make for ourselves. It’s the place in our minds where we translate what we see and experience, where we invent new vistas, new ways of seeing.
[A]s [Gertrude] Stein relates in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, there was another visual influence on which Picasso fed voraciously when she first knew him in Paris in 1906, when he was pushing towards the most revolutionary artistic discovery since the Renaissance: a comic strip called The Katzenjammer Kids.
As Alice tells it, she and Stein were worried about Picasso and Fernande, his partner in these years, because they had broken up. So they went to see Picasso and Stein gave him a gift: a package of newspapers. “He opened them up, they were the Sunday supplement of American papers, they were the Katzenyammer [sic] kids. Oh oui, Oh oui, he said, his face full of satisfaction, merci thanks Gertrude, and we left.”
Next they went to see Fernande, who asked if Stein had any American comics left. But Picasso had got the lot of the Katzenjammer kids. “That is a brutality that I will never forgive him,” said Fernande.
From The Guardian’s preview of the 2002 Tate Modern Matisse Picasso exhibit.
And that just lends even more credence to the quote attributed to Picasso himself:
If there is one thing I regret in life, it is never having made comics.
(Which, after all, he did, so no regrets, Pablo!)
A few years ago, I realised that the traditional ways the comics medium is used to express ideas wasn’t working for me. Once this happened, I started thinking about how comics might better express what I want to say. I started thinking about what the medium is and its building blocks. Since then I have been continually pulling comics apart and trying to figure it out. I like to think about comics in new ways.