Comics have less prestige than writing, film, or the fine arts; even the word ‘art’ conjoined to ‘comics’ is often perceived as misnomer. Whereas animation and illustration are prestigious, because they offer familiar job titles, and graphic artist because it invokes a dedication to visual beauty, the comic artist is condescended. This is due to a semantic prejudice: ‘comic(s)’ brings to mind frivolous humour, immaturity, and the periodical release of inexhaustibly newsy – rather than enduring, memorable or emotional – reads. It is those prejudices that make graphic novels a selective category in bookstores, much like literary fiction is ordinarily shelved separately from fiction in general (less so, in France or Japan). Comics and graphic novel of course overlap – they are in comic form, but a ‘graphic novel’ is marketed as more substantial, just as literary fiction is quietly marketed as more substantial. None of the marketing terms though, are a good representation of comics art defined as Graphical Art in Narrative Sequence.
The earliest pictorial art
Rather than a new invention Graphical Art in Narrative Sequence has been around far longer than words, for 20,000 years even–from the hunting depictions in the Caves of Lascaux. The innate desire to express in pictures is there, as is the self-sufficiency of a narrative without words; as proven by paintings, triptychs, silent film, most especially in engravings like that of WIlliam Hogarth–where iconography of religious symbols, the inference of events from painting to painting, body language, and causation is inferred from clues whether emotion, colouration, facial expression, the effect of certain lines or framing. Comics can be wordless: wordless inference has a pleasure all its own, being confused can make for a better, more novel, game. But as with people watching for fun, eavesdropping can be even better (what else is it but illusory eavesdropping?). The inscriptive insight into minds with words and images was separately invented by Shang Dynasty China and Ancient Egypt with their logoograms and hieroglyphs.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan Manuscripts and the origins of Chinese and Japanese characters combined the pictorial with the verbal. The scenes engraved by Ancient Egyptians, in current Walbiri Aboriginal sand drawings and The Bayeux Tapestry, shows the enduring reciprocity of words and images. However, comic strips came about surprisingly late: in comical drawings by Swiss artist Rudolphe Töpffer in 1827, who underestimated the value of his comics despite high praise from genius polymath Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (of Faustian bargain, optics and government fame)
The earliest comic-strips
The obvious merit of comics is in animated film today, and the natural progress of children acquiring language by scribbling and writing. Rather than be in competition with each others mediums (though they are in competition for attention), or a childhood ‘phase’, written stories and images go together exceedingly well: studies of children in Japan suggest manga readers are better able to read in general, other cognitive studies demonstrate that we tend to remember and understand pictures better, hence their use for instructions. The script and strip format is exactly how the most prestigious medium – film – works, and how most comics work; the Star Wars screenplays combined with artwork are essentially comics.
The magic of language – how we make marks from letters into sounds, sounds into concepts is especially obvious in comics, when you stop to think about it. Synecdoche of the white house standing for America or metonym of the white house standing for the President’s administration can be conveyed in pictures as much as words. The synecdoche of idioms like ‘helping hand’ occur in an upturned hand drawn on page. Symbols can convey a lot through a little like squiggled lines convey stench, jagged lines frustration, or Batman by the Bat symbol, Superman by his weird S. The reader creates the work: a threatening look in first panel and a scream in the second allows a reader to fill in gaps and conclude by intuition, a murder, say, with no showing or even confirmatory telling at all!
Because memory, as with any language, allows reading. Spatial metaphors can reclaim their realness ‘the core of the matter’ presented at center of page, form be a jug brimming with content, 4 lines human-centrically become a face, evoke clarity by clear-cut, frustration through crowded rendering, a summer haze in overlapping watercolour; visual and verbal language is diverse, fascinating, and suited to our brains. Comics and graphic novels are archaeological: they are specimen of their times, and shifted standards: cold war Captain America, machismo Superman, bourgeois Batman, androgynous characters, queer love and perfect for learning other languages.
Written books, comics books, screen-play and artwork, script and camera, play and stage, are the artistic ways we fill in our experience of the world and give it meaning, inscribing language, visual and verbal, on the raw material of the world
The most immediate art of the visual and auditory, film, is celebrated; written books that can describe the abstract efficently and adaptably are rousing memory; plays that immerse in a collective experience are; and comics that splice word and image into parts ought to be as well. Comics are pleasurable and their form is a most intriguing field of research for how linguistics works; how we piece together the messy world, and how words and images interlate; can affect thoughts, and even whole cultures. The strengths of different genealogies are fascinating: the tendency in the United States to motion oriented panels, the polite romance of Japanese art in wistful stares and static world-building; characters in Europe are often cartoon among a naturalistic environment–these are trends that globalisation are changing, but are therefore even more intriguing. Is that action trend part of U.S. restless work ethic shown in art, that overpage world-building trend part of the Japanese Zen respect for transience, that cartoon character among a mimetic scene anl reaction to the overserious art precedent in Europe? The answer is perhaps, the symbolic telepathy of artist and writer is a wholly different way of thinking together, in an underestimated medium.
If someone challenges why you bother with comics link them this. If you are interested in the theory of comics I recommend Understanding Comics, and Making Comics by comics artist Scott McCloud. And if you’re feeling academic, The Visual Language of Comics by cognitive scientist and comics artist, Neil Cohn.
Descender is my current read, a generic story with incredible art. For manga Deathnote and for European comics Blacksad, are good beginnings. But a comic book universe is our there.