The world, still deceived with ornament

As a child, I was always a reluctant, although regular, consumer of comic books – but their hold on me was tenuous at best, I hasten to add. It was guilt as much as anything, I suppose -especially where they conflicted with the more staid and stodgy purveyors of wisdom. At the time I was growing up, comics were almost universally regarded as vacuous escapes from the rigours of homework, and troubling portents of a vocabulary-impoverished life. You had to hide comic books under the bed in the morning before breakfast. It was no use trying to pretend they were in any way educational.

And for those of us who dared to push literary boundaries to their ragged edges and use comic books as reliable, albeit unfootnotable resources, the penalties of inadvertent discovery were -well, in my case at least- an angry, escorted trip to the principal’s office and a totally unwarranted phone call to my mother.

I mean, okay, I submitted a book report on Dumas’ The Three Musketeers drawn from my perusal of a Classic Comic Book on the subject, but I thought I covered the plot pretty thoroughly and with a lot more detail that the other kids in the class totally missed. And besides, I’d already presented a similarly-derived précis of the Synoptic Gospels for a Sunday School project. I got most of that material from one of the more obscure Classic publications I’d found -uhmm, taken– from under the pew of a rival church during a prayer when we were invited for an Ecumenical visit -I think it was a membership drive, or something.

But, anyway, I always thought the idea of education was to understand the stuff you were assigned -not necessarily read it, or whatever: substance, not source. I still get a frisson of guilt whenever I think of those faraway days though, and the time I saved by reading the bathroom version of whatever was assigned. It was the visuals that attracted me more than the condensed stories, however -picturing something helps with assimilation, don’t you think?

So, I felt a degree of validation when I happened upon an article in Aeon by Trevor R. Getz, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, entitled Comics offer radical opportunity to blend scholarship and art:

As he put it, ‘Comics can make great history books. They can convey the meaning of the past to the present as effectively as a good textbook or the most detailed monograph. Of course, compared with textbooks, graphic histories will always be a more democratic and multiform genre.’

Being a historian, he was searching for ‘a way to produce and publish a democratic work that would reach an audience beyond the few academics who would read a peer-reviewed journal article.’ As he tells it, ‘I settled on a graphic history because I believed that the art-and-text combination of the comic medium could draw out readers’ empathy, force them to participate in the story, and convey lessons and meanings that are difficult to express in text alone. Like documentaries, or monuments, or museum didactics, graphic histories represent an interpretation of the past for the public… Comics [..] work best with character-driven narratives that engage the empathy of the reader. Humans recognise and relate to faces more viscerally and easily than to names on a page. Bringing art and words together produces unique opportunities to render a milieu for readers. It opens objects, places and people to investigation.’

One of the problems, though, is merging the message with the pictures in an engaging  and believable way -making the visual representation appropriate to the history. The art has to meld with the story being told. When they succeed, though, ‘graphic histories can become excellent vehicles for specific kinds of stories of the past. They are particularly useful for accounts that focus on individual stories that exemplify wider social issues. They are also especially suited to histories that deal with trauma or transformation, which can be represented graphically. Finally, they are excellent vehicles for histories that raise tough questions of interpretation, especially when the art and text are juxtaposed in ways that highlight contrasting theories or understandings of the past.’ In other words, ‘Comics also ask readers to work. Their negative space – the gutters between panels – require that readers make connections to understand the broader story. This attribute builds reader-engagement, but also reduces authorial control over the reader’s interpretation.’

But, isn’t that how we all participate in reality? We all bring our pasts into every experience -a hundred people walking over a single bridge is really a hundred people walking over a hundred bridges, isn’t it? Perhaps this is what saves us from being trapped in monochromacy -monotonous uniformity. Perhaps the reason art is so appealing is that it forces us to look at something the way another sees it. And that colours the story, and alters the message being conveyed sufficiently to make it stand out from the background -makes it more easily remembered than any words describing it.

I’m not sure how much of what I remember of those stories from the faraway days of my youth was derived from those Classic Comic books hidden under my bed, though. What they did was make me want more: more stories, more descriptions of worlds I’d never even imagined existed. And, at least in those days, there were not enough comic book versions of the intriguing stories I had heard about from my teachers -stories I just had to explore!

So, what the comics did was pull me into the realm of words -written words- to find out more detail than the drawings could ever describe. I discovered that my own imagination coloured the words and invested them with more attributes than the graphic portrayals would ever reveal. And instead of being fixed for all time in static pictures, the characters -even the plots-  were in constant flux, depending on my mood. Depending on the words…

I think Getz makes a compelling case for the transmission of historically difficult subjects pictorially, and yet for all their appeal, as I age I find myself less and less convinced of their ability to instill nuance in the reader. I think pictures still present a static, authorial view of whatever is being depicted but without the ability of descriptive words to illuminate the other possible interpretations. Words, and the imagination they engender, have the ability to circumambulate a topic, and give the reader a chance to view it from different perspectives.

I’m not suggesting there is no place for graphic storytelling -the more ways there are of describing the world, the richer it is. But, even though a picture may be worth a thousand words, I don’t think it would sell for more than that…


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