With comics having reached a hitherto unseen level of respectability, that’s the cue for the comics literati to go back to the begining and argue about how the whole thing works…or doesn’t.
In a simultaneously rambling and incisive interview, Tom Spurgeon asks Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth about all the matters of the day—publishing deals, young cartoonists and their expectations and storytelling ability, Spain Rodriguez. It’s full of pull quotes, but I’ll pull this one on the nature of comics:
SPURGEON: You always struck me as a guy that maybe didn’t have a special connection to comics as comics.
GROTH: That’s not true. I do love the form. I love the drawing. One thing I would love to do — one thing I love about comics is the line. It’s so important. I could see analyzing nothing but the line. You could blow up 30 cartoonists — Segar, Jaime, Crane — just blow up their line. I think that’s so big of a component for the expressive nature of comics. I think everyone acknowledges this, perhaps subliminally. But probably not as much as they ought to. Not as much as they do content. But in a way, it is content.
And that brings me back around to something I’ve been avoiding talking about, all the various responses to Eddie Campbell’s essay The Literaries, which I tackled a bit here but then the argument went round the bend and in only a few paragraphs, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (the movie) and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” had both been declared substandard and I threw up my hands, grabbed my glove, and went home.
While my back was turned, Robert Stanley Martin—who is known for his strong message board postings—came back to put down the “let comics be comics” crew::
That’s right, folks. If you’re reading a comic for the overarching story, and judge it by how effectively it tells that story, or even to what extent that story is worth telling at all, then in the view of Eddie Campbell (and Dan Nadel and Kim Thompson and Jeet Heer and Tom Spurgeon and Heidi MacDonald and numerous others), you’re reading and judging it wrong.
Part of me just wants to point to Eddie’s article and its reception among the comics-cultist crowd as Exhibit A as to why none of these people should be taken the least bit seriously as critics ever again. They’re of course entitled to their enjoyments, but they are so preoccupied with their abstruse little fixations that they seem completely divorced from the impulse that guides people to becoming audiences for cartoonists and other storytellers in the first place. The reason I can’t entirely dismiss the essay is because I’ve seen similar arguments in a field outside of comics, where they’ve been around for six decades and don’t appear to be going away. They can be found in film criticism, where they are a key part of the auteur theory.
For the record, if I enter a room and Robert Stanley Martin is standing on the right side, and Eddie Campbell, Dan Nadel, Kim Thompson, Jeet Heer, and Tom Spurgeon are standing on the left behind a wall of crocodiles, I will drag myself on bloody stumps, if need be, to get to the left side of the room.
The whole discussion led to a roundtable of such grave import that it caused Noah Berlatsky to quote both a Russian poet and Steven Grant, and Jones, one of the Jones Boys, to wonder whether Borat was funnier than Aristophanes.
I don’t normally give much time to the Hooded Utilitarian drumming circle, but the fundamental question—are comics to be judged only on narrative or on a mix of narrative and art or on some other quality?—is a bit silly, but definitely something to examine just in case there’s a test.
Campbell put it all on the line again with a subsequent post entitled Campbell’s Rules of Comprehension in which he analyzed a random comics page from near a hand —in this case from Bryan Talbot’s GRANDVILLE, and noted how it stacked up against his own storytelling rules for civilian comprehension:
Occasionally I see a well-regarded comic wander across the view of a regular person. It happened on my travels recently when I was a houseguest of a friend, a 70-year-old lady who makes her living as an artist. While I was there she was working on some etchings to go into a limited edition anthology of poetry on the subject of war. I mention this simply to show that this person understands pictures. The mail arrived and among it there was a volume of Bryan Talbot’s Grandville, which her husband had bought. She opened it and checked it, in order to let him know by phone that it had arrived. While idly looking at the pages she confessed to me, after putting down the phone, that she didn’t know how to read these graphic novel things. I took a quick look and said, “My first thought is that I can completely understand what you’re saying, because I can see that the author in this case has broken at least three of the basic rules of comprehension.”
Campbell’s rules were given an interesting reading by Neil Cohn, who has been gathering studies on how we read comics from behavioral and neurological viewpoints. NOW we’re getting somewhere.
Overall, I found that American comics used far more panels showing multiple interacting characters than Japanese manga, which used overwhelmingly more panels of single characters or close ups. This would support that American books use more sequences following “Rule #1” [All the information necessary to understand the drama of a sequence must be contained in every panel of the sequence.] than Japanese books. This difference has an impact on comprehension. Being provided with only parts of a scene (single characters) forces you to infer the larger scene. This requires more machinery in the narrative grammar (what I call “Environmental-Conjunction”), i.e., the rules in people’s heads that allows them to comprehend sequential images. Yet, this does not necessarily lead to poor comprehension. Rather, it simply reflects a different grammar along with the need for a different type of fluency. Neither is better or worse. Just different.
If you haven’t thrown down your pencil in despair by now, Cohn’s post actually has a lot of interesting info on studies that show how people read comics, absorb information and so on. If you’re ready for grad school on all this, a fellow named Brian Kane sent me a link to his dissertation on comics, with this chapter in particular: Reading Sequential Art as a Higher-Order Problem Solving Skill, Part 2: Context. This is a daunting text that goes on for many, many long paragraphs along with all kinds of arcane diagrams such as the above.
As someone whose comics making career rarely got beyond checking to make sure that Huey’s shirt or cap was colored red, and not green or blue, I did not find this to have very practical applications.**
So who to give the final word to? Why Colleen Doran of course!
Art may be easy, but stop lying to people Gurus of Art Twee. GOOD ART IS RARE AND IT IS HARD.
** How did I know this? Because of the beautifully elegant pictograph that an editor named Bob Foster had over his desk that read
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.