Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bad Timing

There will be a brief hiatus on this blog while I finish my Master's degree.  Expect regular posts to return by August at the latest.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Indie Review Day: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese is an Eisner Award winner for a reason.  It is funny, engaging, and surprising.  The story consists of three seemingly unconnected stories in three different narrative styles, that end by connected unexpectedly.

The first story is a retelling of the folk tale of the Monkey King.  While Yang adapts some details for the most part the Monkey King story is a faithful retelling of a Chinese folk tale.

The second story is a realist story Jin Wang, a contemporary first generation Chinese-American boy, struggling to fit in in his junior high school.

The third story is about "Chin-Kee" a personification of a number of extreme negative Asian stereotypes.  Chin-Kee visits his (apparently white) cousin Danny, and continually embarrasses him.  The Chin-Kee sections are played as a parody of the "fish out of water" sitcom, complete with laugh-track.

The three stories are connected by themes of identity.  Each in their own way, The Monkey King, Jin Wang, and Danny wrestle to find the balance between a limiting essentialism and a rootless self-invention.  The Monkey King, after being denied entry into a dinner party in heaven: "You may be a king -- you may even be a deity -- but you are still a monkey." (15) dedicates himself to the study of kung-fu, including the discipline of "shape-shift", and renames himself "The Great Sage: Equal of Heaven".    He is confronted by "Tze-Yo-Tzuh" (he who is) a figure invented by Yang who is an analogue of both the Buddha and of the Christian God.  Tze-Yo-Tzuh tells the Monkey King "I created you.  I say that you are a monkey.  Therefore, you are a monkey" (69).  The implied moral, "be yourself", is complicated by the realist section of Jin Wang, who struggles with bullies and ignorant teachers, but especially with being true to himself when he doesn't really know who the real him is.

Humour and pathos combine here to make a really good book.  My only caveat is that I was left a little unsatisfied by the open ending, which -- after the mythological elements of the earlier book -- seemed a little anti-climactic to me, but the subtlety was definitely deliberate, and my dissatisfaction is purely a matter of personal taste.

On the whole, I highly recommend this book for anyone from about Jr. High up.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Understanding McCloud: Defining The Medium of Comics

Because comics as a medium remains somewhat undefined, and because -- in the English speaking world especially -- comics scholarship is still in its infancy, theoretical approaches to comics analysis in practice usually adopt techniques from other disciplines and other media.  One of the distinguishing -- though by no means a necessary or defining -- features of comics is the presence of both image and text.  As a result, comics are often approached as a field from one of three perspectives: comics as literature, comics as art, and comics as a medium of its own.

A great starting point for comics theory is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. McCloud makes a few theoretical assumptions and assertions that we don't necessarily need to agree with, but with which we should be familiar.

McCloud's theoretical agenda is to establish and analyse comics as a medium.  He is deeply invested in establishing comics as a medium in the popular understanding, and in separating the medium of comics from the content.  The medium has been slighted, says McCloud, because of its association in many people's minds with superhero stories for kids. For McCloud, disconnecting the content from the form is a crucial first step.  In McCloud's words: "I realized that comic books were usually crude, poorly drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable, kiddie fare ... but ... they don't have to be." (McCloud 3) In Understanding Comics McCloud attempts to give a coherent account of the medium, often separating it from much of the actual history of comics as they have been published.

For the moment we'll earmark the question of what constitutes a medium (and the related issues regarding differences between an artistic medium and a language, an artistic form, a genre within a medium) and just accept McCloud's assertion that "comics" is in fact a distinct medium.  Accepting that assertion, however, does not mean that we need to accept McCloud's definition of or assumptions about the medium.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  We'll return to some problems with McCloud's conception of the medium once we've actually addressed what that conception is.

McCloud begins Understanding Comics by calling for a definition of comics--a definition that is broadenough to encompass the ""huge and varied" (4) types within the "world of comics", but not "so broad as to include anything which is clearly not comics." (4)  The definition that McCloud settles on, derived from Will Eisner's definition of comics as "sequential art", is "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence" (9).  This definition has its virtues, and it allows McCloud to consider Egyptian painting "comics", and also to imagine the future of comics very differently from the present.  McCloud elaborates his ideas on the future of comics in his follow up to Understanding Comics, the less successful Reinventing Comics.

From McCloud's perspective his formalist definition of the medium of comics is valuable because "no generes are listed in our definition, no types of subject matter, no styles of prose or poetry.  Nothing is said about paper and ink.  No printing process is mentioned ... no materials are ruled out ... no tools are prohibited ... no schools of art are banished by our definition, no philosophies, no movements, no ways of seeing are out of bounds" (22).

In addition to an attempted formal definition, McCloud also provides a pragmatic definition of comics through the rest of the book.  His choice of what to focus on suggests what comics in practice are--at least to McCloud.  The chapters of Understanding Comics are "The Vocabulary of Comics", which is largely about cartoons, "Blood in the Gutter", which introduces McCloud's concept of closure, "Time Frames", in which he posits that in comics time=space, "Living in Line", which is largely about the emotive potential of artistic style, "Show and Tell", about the relationship between words and pictures, "The Six Steps", which is an examination of the art in general and "A Word About Color", which is about colour.  There is also an introductory and a concluding chapter.

As we can see from his choice of chapters--especially the section on colour--McCloud recognizes that comics as a medium is a socio-cultural artifact, not only a theoretical formal construction.  Though he wants to distinguish the medium from its historical incarnation, largely because of what he perceives as stigma attached to that history, he can't really do that.  The section on the cartoon, the section on colour, even the emphasis McCloud places on the gutter, all highlight that what McCloud is really talking about for most of Understanding Comics is not a theoretical formal medium but a socio-cultural artifact.

And that brings me to one of the major problems of McCloud's definition.  A medium is simply not a straightforwardly understood concept.  McCloud argues that "at one time or another virtually all the great media have received critical examination in and of themselves" (6) and he lists examples: "written word, music, video, theatre, visual art, film" (6).  Yet in what way are film and video separate media?  And doesn't the medium of film often include music?  And isn't it created in the first place as written word?  And if I bring a camcorder to a play and tape it, is what I have in the end theater or film?

McCloud defines comics as a medium, but are printed comics part of the medium of print?  If comics are displayed on a tv screen do they become the medium of film?  If a comic is framed and put in an art gallery does it become the medium of visual art?

The point of all these rhetorical questions is to stress that "medium" is far from a clearcut concept.  Neil Cohn wants to separate what he calls "visual language" from the socio-cultural construct of comics, while McCloud does not.  In a future post we will look some more at a few of McCloud's central ideas, including his concept of "closure", but for now, what do you think about attempts to define comics?  Do you agree with McCloud's definition?  What are some of its strengths?  What are its weaknesses?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Are Comics Literature?

My own academic background is in literature, and my particular interest in comics is in comics as literature.  Though comics distinguish themselves from literary forms by the necessary inclusion of images, advocates of comics as literature make two main, complementary, points.  Firstly, much of what we take to be literary analysis or literary theory or literary criticism is in fact narrative analysis or theory or criticism.  This is already evident in that literature scholars often study drama, and sometimes study film.  Secondly, the study of comics as literature emphasizes the position that education in literature is more about teaching skills than about teaching a body of knowledge.  Literature students should develop the skills to read anything well, not only develop familiarity with works that have historically been considered great.

That last statement may invoke an objection from some readers.  Who says that comics are not great?  Who says that comics aren't worth reading for their own sake, to be absorbed into the canon?  After all, there are certainly comics that have had a profound impact on culture  There are two responses to this objection.  The first and simplest is that this is a case when the difference of medium becomes relevant.  There are great comics, but even the greatest comics are not great novels.  Just as there are canonical and great films, but the great films do not necessarily belong in the canon of literature, so perhaps the great comics do not belong in the canon of literature, but rather in the canon of comics.  The second reason is that comics have not existed for long enough to objectively establish any specific comic within the canon of literature.  The only criteria by which a work can be objectively placed within the canon is historical.  Though the "great" works of literature are worth studying, worth reading, on their own terms, so are minor works not considered great within the standard canon of literature.  The placement of works within a canon serves two purposes; the first is to highlight influential or often alluded-to works so that other, later works can be better understood -- so for example Tennyson's Idylls of the King are made richer through familiarity with Malory's Le Morte Darthur --and the second is to recommend works that a consensus of readers historically have considered to be excellent.  If I don't appreciate a canonically great book it is likely that I am missing something in it.  That does not mean, however, that books that are not canonically "great" are not worth reading, or that they are not worthy of being recognized as great.  But we can only recognize new books as great -- if that is our goal -- by reading books not already so considered.  In short, there is no need to (falsely) insist that Alan Moore's Watchmen is the equivalent of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  It isn't, but it doesn't need to be.

This isn't intended to undermine the status of comics as literature.  On the contrary, it is intended to argue that even comics that aren't the canonically great works of the medium are still worthy of being read and studied as literature, and that studying comics as literature helps hone the analytical skills of literature scholars, and helps expand our collective understanding of comic narratives and of narrative in general.  The third purpose of somehow legitimizing comic studies is either impossible or redundant, depending on the sympathies of the audience, and is ultimately unnecessary anyway.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Ten Comics for People who don't like Comics

There are a lot of lists of the best comics ever out there.  This isn't one of those, although many of the comics included here are among the best comics ever, at least for what they are trying to do.

This is a list of comics for people who don't like comics.  It might be considered as an introduction--books to recommend to your friends to convince them to read comics--or as a few possible starting points for people who want to read comics but don't know where to start.  But I'm hoping that there's something here for people who actually dislike comics--depending on what it is they dislike.

10. Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes:
The Indispensable Calvin And HobbesFor a complete comic novice, who has somehow avoided reading any comics at all, I think a comic strip is a good place to start.  It's a simple and easy way to familiarize yourself with some of the conventions of the medium, and to get used to how comics look and feel, in bite-sized pieces.  And among comic strips, Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes is hard to beat.  It's intelligent and thoughtful but still accessible and funny, it's very sharply written, the art is among the best comic strips have to offer, and in the collections he always includes a multi-page story or two that reads more like a comic book than like a conventional strip.  Waterson also likes to play with the medium, but does so in ways that will not alienate a complete newcomer to comics.  Any of the books or collections is highly recommended.

9.  Jeff Smith's Bone:
Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume (Vol 1)If what you don't like about comics is the violence, or the sexuality, then Jeff Smith's Bone is the perfect thing.  This is a comic that Fredric Wertham could not have objected to, yet at the same time it is creative, funny, and smart enough to make anyone happy.  It's all-ages appropriate without being juvenile, and silly without being dumb.  I would recommend Bone with equal enthusiasm to a 10 year old or to a 40 year old.  It is, however, very much a comic book fantasy epic, clearly influenced by Mickey Mouse, which is why it's so far down on this list.  It's a great comic book, but people who hate comics might hate this just as much.

8.   Brian K. Vaughn's Y the Last Man
Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: UnmannedIf what you don't like about comics is the superheroes, Y the Last Man is a great choice.  A ten volume self-contained story, it takes some commitment, but no preparation.  You can pick up the first volume having never read a comic book before, and be perfectly informed.  The story is a dystopian fable about a world in which all male mammals are suddenly killed by a mysterious virus--all except the story's protagonist and his pet monkey.  The book ranges from social critique and satire to magical realism, and it's a nice read, at turns thought-provoking and simply entertaining.  Like Bone, it might be slightly less appealing to people who dislike comics, and especially people who have trouble with the mix of sci-fi and fantasy that is so common in comic books.

7. Neil Gaiman's Dream Hunters
The Dream Hunters (Sandman, Book 11)If what you don't like about comics is all those pesky word-balloons, Neil Gaiman's Dream Hunters is a fantastic choice.  Neil Gaiman is one of the big names of comics, and his epic Sandman is, with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen, one of the comics credited with revolutionizing the comics industry in the 1980s.  Dream Hunters features the protagonist of Sandman, but is a self-contained story that requires no previous knowledge of Gaiman or his work.  It is beautifully illustrated, with a single image each page, fully separated from the text, which means that it is not a comic according to everyone's definition.  If it had no other virtues to recommend it--and it does--that alone would be enough to earn it a place on this list.

6.  Mo Willems's You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons
You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day Mo Willems' You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons is another book that might not fit everyone's definition of a comic.  The book consists of 365 individual cartoons, one-per-page, chronicling Willems' year long trip around the world.  Full of humour, wit, and pathos, it's simply a great non-fiction travel narrative that also happens to be a comic.  After writing this book,Willems went on to be a writer for Sesame Street, and is now a successful and popular children's book writer.  You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons showcases the humour that would later serve Willems in good stead, but is a great read for grown-ups.

5.  Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Life in the Big City
Life in the Big City (Astro City, Vol. 1) I debated including this book on this list.  Astro City is in its way such a loving tribute to superhero comics that I worried it might not be a good choice in this context.  But although the "tribute" dimension makes Astro City a great recommendation for people who love comics already, it is also a great introduction to superheroes for people who've never seen what all the fuss is about.  Astro City is a self-contained "universe", which means that no prior knowledge of superheroes is required to make sense of the plots.  The book I'm particularly recommending, Life in the Big City contains some foreshadowing, that doesn't get resolved within the book itself, but you never feel like you're not in the in crowd.  Astro City is about why superhero comics are good, and it manages to be iconic and heroic and emotionally resonant even without all the history of Superman or Batman to back that up.  If Astro City doesn't turn you on to superheroes, I doubt anything will.

4. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics
Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtScott McCloud's Understanding Comics is, among other things, an exercise in comics evangelism.  A theoretical examination of the medium of comics, produced in the form it advocates, Understanding Comics brought comics theory to the mainstream in a whole new way.  If what you don't like about comics is that you feel that fiction is not intellectually rigourous enough, Understanding Comics is a great choice, both for its argument about what comics can be, and as an example of that.

3. Craig Thompson's Blankets
Blankets A beautifully drawn, intricately plotted story of coming of age and of lost love, Craig Thompson's Blankets is simply a great graphic novel.  Though Thompson classifies it as a "novel", it has the feel of a thematically tight and imaginatively rich  memoir.  It has nothing to do with superheroes or fantasy or science fiction, and is one of the best examples of indivisibility words and art I know of--by which I mean that the words would not be comprehensible without the pictures, and the pictures would not be comprehensible without the words.  As such, it showcases the medium of comics wonderfully.

2. Will Eisner's Contract with God
The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue (A Contract With God, A Life Force, Dropsie Avenue) Will Eisner's Contract with God is the book the popularized the term "graphic novel".  The book is a collection of four short stories, connected by theme and by the fact that they are all set in the same New York tenements.  Sometimes flippant, sometimes grotesque, A Contract with God is a work worth reading by anyone's standards.

1. Art Spiegelman's Maus
Maus 1 and 2 - (2 Volume Box Set)In his Pulitzer Prize winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale Art Spiegelman retells his father's experience as a holocaust survivor.  Maus is deceptively simple in its illustration--Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as cats, and Americans are dogs--it is both mythically resonant and deeply personal, both specific and generalizable.  Maus is one of the great works of holocaust narrative, and a masterful comic book.

Do you object to things on this list?  Do you think I've made an unforgivable omission?  I haven't included anything by Alan Moore, who is regarded by many as the world's foremost comics creator.  If you think I should have, or if you have other works you'd add or take away, please say so in the comments.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Comics as Art: Style and Palaeography

Neil Cohn's theory of visual linguistics suggests that the images of comics constitute a language, with its own grammar and conventions.  If we accept this theory, then the artist's style in a comic is like handwriting more than it is like the style of a single, unique, discreet work of art.  This is especially true within a particular genre of comic - just as paleographical comparisons are more easily made within a single language. We can think of the difference in style and in convention between a mainstream American superhero comic and an independent comic is like the difference between Latin script and Greek.  The comparison is possible to make, and someone familiar with both Roman letters and Greek can identify the difference immediately, but the two use different alphabets, and expertise in one does not necessarily imply expertise in the other.  Like all analogies, this way of thinking about mainstream and independent comics is imperfect, but it may be helpful as a starting point.

If the difference between mainstream and independent comics is tantamount to a difference of alphabet, then differences of convention within what we call "mainstream" are still substantial.  Superhero comic books, newspaper comic strips, self-contained graphic novels, each approach the medium differently, with different linguistic and paleographical conventions.

Though individual artists have distinct and often recognizable styles, comic books also have style conventions based on when and where they were made.  Unlike scripts, through which it is easier to date than to locate a manuscript, conventions of place are easier to determine than are conventions of time, but it is often possible to use the evidence to deduce the date as well as the location of a comic's production.

More than as a method of dating the work -- which in comics is largely unnecessary, since unlike manuscripts the date and location of a comic is rarely in serious question -- thinking of comic style in palaeographic terms allows us three advantages.  Firstly, it emphasizes and explains the collaborative, community-based nature of style in comic books.  Though usually, even within mainstream comics, an artist's individual style is something to be celebrated, thinking in palaeographical terms allows us to also celebrate, and more significantly to intelligently theorize the common stylistic elements within a given context.  Secondly, a palaeographical perspective on comic book style encourages us to approach comic books as a historical continuity.  So changes in the way Superman is drawn reflect not only changes of continuity - of the ongoing plot, such as it is - they also reflect changes in the script in which comics are written.  Tracking those changes helps us to understand the development of the "language" of comics, as well as to locate any given comic within a continuous but fluid tradition.

As paleographers focus primarily on letter-forms, so a description of comic book style can focus on any of a number of elements.  The underlying question is "what is the basic unit of a comic book?  In the same way that we may imagine the basic unit of a manuscript to be the quire, or the folio, or the page, or the paragraph, or the line, or the word, or the letter, based on our focus and our purpose, so the basic unit of a comic book may be the story or the page or the panel or the active entity or line based on our particular focus.  For the purpose of this page we will suggest two different ways of thinking about a comic book palaographically - firstly with the cell or panel as the basic unit, and secondly with what Neil Cohn refers to as the "active entity".

If we take the panel as the basic unit of a comic, then we can apply any number of descriptive techniques to characterize style.  Some are very helpful for dating and locating a comic, even if it is a comic that is previously unknown, and some are helpful mostly to describe and classify comics whose origin is already known.

Ken Parille identifies six elements with which to describe the style of a comic: line, texture, panel density, gestures of face and body, body proportions, and density of character detail. We may wish to add to this list a seventh element which Parille probably overlooks because it seems to him too obvious to be worth mentioning: colour, and an eighth: backgrounds.

Parille's context is informal and pedegogical - he is not writing a formal analysis of comic style, he is writing a blog post about teaching comic style.  Still, his distinctions are very helpful, especially as a starting point.

So we may note that, for example, Herge's Tintin, Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix', and Morris's Lucky Luke, all Franco-Belgian comics but with different artists, each exhibit a smooth, tight, thin line, little texture, relatively sparse panel density, unrealistic face and body gestures, unrealistic body proportions, relative sparsity of character detail, extensive and subtle use of colour, and detailed or realistic backgrounds.

Compare this with a page from the first appearance of Superman, where the style features smooth, tight, thick line, texture in the form of hatching for shading, comparatively dense panel density, realistic body gestures, realistic body proportions, relative sparsity of character detail the use of a simple four-colour system, and unrealistic or highly stylized backgrounds.

We should perhaps digress for a moment to note also that all of these observations are matters of judgement.  It is up for debate whether Superman has realistic body proportions--there's a good case to be made that usually he doesn't.  But while the degree of success is a matter for debate, it seems to me that in contrast to Asterix, Shuster's Superman here is aiming at an idealized realism that Asterix simply isn't.

This approach to describing comic book style is especially helpful in dealing with the wider range of global comics, both mainstream and independent.  The weaknesses of this approach are firstly that it is highly subjective, and secondly that the number of relevant criteria are very debatable.  So someone may consider Siegel and Shuster's Superman to be realistic in its body proportions, and may consider that to be the most important distinction between Superman and Asterix in terms of style, but another critic may consider Superman to be unrealistic in body proportions, but find the realism of body proportion to be irrelevant.  Our imaginary second critic may think that the placement and shape of word-balloons, which I haven't addressed at all, is the crucial element for describing, categorizing and identifying comics.

Focus on the active entity as a basic unit is a less versatile approach, but may be more fruitful within its limits.  This approach requires prior familiarity with the active entity, and so it is most useful with mainstream comics.  By "active entity", we mean the person, animal or thing within a panel that performs the action.  So there are four active entities of the cover of Action Comics 1: Superman, and the three men who are afraid of him.

As paleography places more interpretive weight on certain letters than on others so in a palaeography of comics we can place more interpretive weight on some active entities than on others, and the interpretive weight is directly proportional to the number of appearances of that character.  We can place much more interpretive weight on the details of Superman's representation in a given appearance than we can put on one of the unnamed extras who never appears again.

There are, within mainstream superhero comics, any number of heroes whose design has changed dramatically, but when those changes take place within the narrative, and are perceptible by other characters within the fictional context, we will consider that to be a separate phenomenon to the kind of palaeographic style changes that are of interest for the purpose of this argument.

The top image on the left, taken from a 1959 Superman comic, is notable as a product of its period for the large stylized pentagon "s" shield (compared with the "S" of the 1938 Superman, as seen above), Superman's shorter cape, the less defined musculature, and the lack of detail in the face.  It is recognizable as a bulk reprint because it is in black and white.  The second image on the left, from 1971, features a much more (indeed, overly) muscled Superman, though it is still an attempt at realism rather than an overt stylization or caricature.  The flatness of the colour provides evidence that it was made before the 1990s.  The top image on the right is a 2010 reprint of a 1979 cover.  The increased realism, especially the inclusion of a real-world character, suggests that this comic is from near the early 80s, but the colour, especially the blue of Superman's costume, is includes more subtle shading than was typical of comics prior to the 2000s.  Compare with the original.The second image on the right is from a 2005 comic, and is notable for the increasingly nuanced but unrealistic shading and colour provided by digitized colouring process and less exaggerated musculature of Superman. Individual artists do have their own styles, of course, but the general tendency of how a publisher depicts its characters, especially its most iconic and recognizable characters, provides a wealth of material for identifying, catagorizing, dating and locating comics.

The image below to the left is from the 1990s, but is an example of a character design change that constitutes a narrative point rather than a shift in style.  Note, however, the change in style of Superman's "s" shield, which corresponded also to a change in the design of the title of the comic.