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Readings, and Related Inspirations


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Active Looking

For the final project for my Computers and Writing course at GSU, I have attempted to coin a new term in the field and explain it using this interactive blog:

http://activelooking.wordpress.com/

I hope you enjoy the experience, and I welcome any feedback you may wish to provide.

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Moving On From Comics 101

Comics aren’t new. They’ve been around for more than 150 years. Yet for some reason, scholars have neglected them as a topic worth studying. I guess I can understand why. Comics are for kids, right? When you go to read the paper and your 7 year old nephew is sitting at the table with you, asking if he can try your coffee, what do you do? You hand him the funnies, right?

We all grew up with Garfield, or we should have, if we didn’t. Garfield’s funny.

But the truth of the matter is that comics are not just for children. In fact, most comics are not for children at all. Not at all.

Many comics are serious story-telling that work well in the same medium that the above cartoon uses.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the television show The Walking Dead on AMC. Maybe zombies aren’t your thing and you don’t watch it, but hopefully you’ve heard of it. You may or may not know that it’s based on a popular comic put out by image Comics of the same name. The Walking Dead has been coming out in comic form, single issues first, then graphic novels, then huge bound volumes that are some kind of collector’s thing that I don’t really understand, since 2003. It has an author, just like a regular book, Robert Kirkman, and an artist, as one might imagine, named Tony Moore.

And it is gory, gritty, adult reading.

Here’s something that many people may not know about comics, and that wasn’t mentioned in any of our readings:

Comics have separate authors that get recognized as legitimate writers in the genre, just like all-text literary authors are. If you like the work Kirkman does on The Walking Dead, you might also like what he does on Marvel Zombies or a non-zombie comic called Invincible.

Further than that, the artists that work on comics are as well known, if not arguably more so, for their interpretation of the author’s work in image form. For example, the artist on the comic 30 Days of Night is called Ben Templesmith. There was a movie put out based on this comic released in 2007. Warren Ellis, an incredibly well-known comics author, started a pet project called Fell in 2005, a dark Noir tale, and sought out Templesmith to do the art. And it was a really nice project.

Fell with Warren Ellis

30 Days of Night - Templesmith

It is hopefully obvious, even at first glance, that Templesmith drew both of these pages, Fell on the left, 30 Days on the right(below). Unfortunately, there was a page more similar in color where the art style was much more similar, but for some reason, wordpress didn’t want to upload the other page.

Looking at these pages, we can see that comics are not, decidedly, ‘just for kids’. We begin with a note containing an overt reference to suicide at the top of the left hand page. In the first three panels of the comic on the right, we see a vampire rip a guy open. Comics are for kids, you’ve heard? If I ever have children, they can have Garfield, but sticky hands off my first edition Fell trades until they’re at least 16.

And this brings me back to my original argument: “Yet for some reason, scholars have neglected [comics] as a topic worth studying.”

McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is an excellent place to start if you are not already immersed in the world of comics. And even if you are, it has some really excellent language to attach to concepts that would make any seasoned comics reader nod, and say, “yeah…. that is how it works, isn’t it?” For example, Scott McCloud, in Chapter 2, introduces us to some really important theoretical concepts like the icon. He leads us through all the types for, and uses of, icons, and the various levels of abstraction. In later chapters, McCloud will introduce us to concepts that had no name attached to them, such as the concept of closure: “closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality”(67). Here, McCloud is putting terms to basic reading skills needed to produce meaning in comics. We all do it as we read, but pre-1993, there was no set term for this kind of production.

The keyword here is ‘basic’. Before McCloud’s book was published in 1993 though, there weren’t texts that talked about comics in this way. McCloud’s text is seminal in two ways: in its depth about the nature of comics, and in the medium in which is is written to convey these concepts. McCloud is successful in illustrating his point through the use of the comics medium. The problem is that we are 20 years into McCloud’s 1993 future, and we don’t have much theoretical work on comics to stack on top of Understanding Comics. 

The Eisner reading doesn’t take any strides past McCloud. In fact, it’s much more basic than McCloud, and an appropriate reading level for children. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just really basic.

Hatfield, on the other hand, does make some new arguments, and some important claims. Like any scholar talking about a rather ‘new’ topic, Hatfield is concerned with where comics fits, disciplinarialy. As well he should be. No one has ‘claimed’ comics, as it were. And more importantly, no one knows how to classify comics!

One of the major arguments Hatfield poses is in trying to establish the importance of comics as a medium: “asserting that comics can be literature is, in part, a way of asserting that they are artistically serious and important” (9). Amidst the discussion about where comics fit in the disciplines, Hatfield is trying to give comics agency in the literary world. Are they literature? Are they literary? Are they something else? I plan on discussing this issue in some depth in my final paper, so I am not going to go into it here, but the distinction is an important one, for sure.

The other issue Hatfield brings up is the fact that we’re still presenting comics, “as if the field were almost brand-new” (5), as though people need to understand how to move their eyes from panel to panel before we can really dig deeper into theoretical or narrative contexts. We’re so busy talking about whether or not comics are literature, that we don’t really talk about any particular comic. But a problem I have with this discussion, besides the fact that it is hopelessly behind where I personally think we need to be in the field of comics, is that the argument appears to be an all-or-nothing brew-ha-ha for comics as literature. Except not all text-only books are considered literature, so why would be attempt to distinguish all of comics as ‘literature’ or not? A story like Fell is so much more interesting, well written and serious than a comic like 30 Days of Night. It would be like literarily comparing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Rice’s Interview With a Vampire. Why would you even try to do that?

By now, I’ve gone well over our allotted 500-1000 words, and I apologize, but I have a lot to say about comics. I think Hatfield has a really strong argument here, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. We need to figure out how to talk about comics more cohesively. We need to agree on terms, on citation, and we need to reign in that identity issue comics is suffering from so this study can gain some notoriety. Comics aren’t going anywhere, and they’re getting really good.

Let me know if you want to look into being a comics reader. I know some really good titles to recommend.


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Initial Term Paper Exploration

The following is a bunch of thoughts for where I think I want my final paper to go for this course. I would appreciate any feedback you all may have, positive or negative. I would also appreciate essays/books you think I may need to read, or other comics you think I should maybe check out (unless it’s Jimmy Corrigan. I’m not going to touch that one).

Topic:

I will be looking at the structure of the comic novel and how it functions in relation to a particular narrative. The specific structural entity I will be focusing on is what is called the gutter – the space between comic panels which requires the reader/viewer to create meaning in order to continue the continuity of the narration from panel to panel. The gutter is unique to the comic medium and requires more audience production than any other medium.

Parts of the paper:

1. Definition of terms necessary for reading about comics

2. Literary Review – much of the literature concerning comics is repetitive. A lot of people are saying the same thing over and over in different ways, using different examples to illustrate the same points.

  • I will be adding to the debate by taking this repetition to the next level. According to Charles Hatfield’s 2010 article “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comic Studies,” the author complains that we are still presenting comics “as if the field were almost brand-new” (5), even though comics have been a part of mainstream entertainment for over 80 years (Superman debuted in 1938).
  • Instead of repeating what everyone else has said, I plan to continue the argument in a new way, which I will illustrate below

3. The Literature Debate – Much of the conversation I mentioned above is about whether or not comics should, or will ever be considered ‘literature’. I will argue that comics are not, and should not, be considered literature based on claims made by other scholars. I plan to propose that comics get their own unique space in textual discourse, and that comics scholars leave the debate over literature to text-only novels.

4. Major Argument/How My Paper will be Different:

  • Instead of illustrating how panels, frames, gutters, etc work in comics as a genre, I will argue that different narratives can, and do, direct the way in which gutters can be utilized. I will argue that particular narratives can construct meanings from gutters that cannot be understood without also understanding the narrative where they are applied.
  • I will focus on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and how it can illustrate more ways for gutters to create meaning (using semiotic terms for clarity), than what Scott McCloud introduces in his 1994 book, Understanding Comics. Simultaneously, I will argue that, while comics should not be lumped in with literature, they can absolutely be considered ‘literary’, though we should use discretion when applying this term, as the entire medium is not worthy of this merit.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the comics medium, let me include a few pages here to illustrate what I will be showing in the paper.

Out of Preludes and Noctures - Issue Title: 24 Hours

This particular page is from the first volume of Sandman, and takes place in a diner: an everyday establishment that exists on this plane, in this reality. The characters are unaware that something supernatural is about to take place in this very diner. They are unaware of their placement in the narrative so far. Thus, the artists, Mike Dringenburg and Sam Keith, have decided to create this page as any traditional comic would be set up. The panels are rather standard size, square, and the gutters are white and empty.

Also from Preludes & Nocturnes

The page below, another page out of Volume One, is a completely different set-up. The panels are not standardly square, and the gutters, while literally there, are red. In the narrative, the main character, the Sandman, is remembering a moment that happens earlier in the narrative, but from his point of view (the narrative perspective shifts often in this book). There are several important techniques in play here: The panels are curved to mimic the fact that the Sandman is trapped in a convex dome in the basement of a Nazi cult building. The red is arguably mirroring the inner part of the eye, doubly a mirror for the shape of his prison and the shape of the eye. The fact that the speech bubble is black is also important to the character in that whenever the Sandman speaks, his speech bubble is formatted this way. While the speech bubbles are not necessarily important to my argument, the space the Sandman occupies while narrating this memory sequence is important to the presentation of the page. It is both signifying the importance of space, time, and story arch in the narrative, and is allowing the reader to create meaning about the character of the Sandman and his importance within the larger narrative.

This last one is another of many ways in which the gutter is manipulated.

From Preludes & NocturesHere the narrative is not as important as in the others, though this is not always the case for this type of page layout. It is the case here because this is the first page in an issue and so just providing set-up. On the page, we see the outside of an asylum. This facade doubles as a full-page illustration and a backdrop for the other four panels. Here we can see the outside of the asylum and the inside, from various angles. In this way, the reader is given the setting, and the setting is not removed as the temporal shift in narration occurs. This is unique to comics, though not as widely used in more traditional comics. Because of the nature of the medium, comics are able to present more than one space at a time to the reader, and the reader can view more than one time at a time. As the eye moves from the top panel to the bottom panel, it creates continuity in the story, but is constantly reminded that the outside of the asylum remains unchanged as time moves on inside. Manipulating the page this way, the created mood is arguably creepier, and the asylum setting remains still and dark in all of the places except where the action in the panels takes place.

The above three pages are here for illustrative purposes so you can see what I’m working toward. I plan to use Barthes to incorporate semiotic terminology in order to clarify the ideas as much as possible to as broad an audience as possible. I will also rely on an article by Jason Dittmer from 2010 called “Comic Book Visualities: A Methodical Manifesto on Geography Montage and Narration” because he talks quite a lot about how the page works to probe “both sense of place and role of place in defining literary characters” (223). I also plan on reading Theirry Groensteen’s book, which I have, but haven’t dug into yet. He also discusses gutters in some depth.

I would appreciate any feedback, particularly on clarity of presentation here.