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Let comics be comics.

To repeat: don’t think, but look!

Ludwig Wittgenstein

My contribution to the Valve’s book event on Reading Comics! —I guess I had to wait until everybody else went to San Diego and Douglas won the Eisner before I could get it finished.

Much as any good fencer has studied his Agrippa, Douglas Wolk has read his Delany. —“My reply,” he says to his straw man,

is that I’m not going to define “comics” here, because if you have picked up this book and have not been spending the last century trapped inside a magic lantern, you already pretty much know what they are, and “pretty much” is good enough. That word I mentioned above that Samuel Delany coined, “paraliterary,” is part of a terrific essay called “The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism” that’s effectively scared me off trying to come up with a definition. If you try to draw a boundary that includes everything that counts as comics and excludes everything that doesn’t, two things happen: first, the medium always wriggles across that boundary, and second, whatever politics are implicit in the definition always boomerang on the definer.

That passage is from Chapter 1 of Reading Comics—a chapter titled, “What Comics Are And What They Aren’t.” —Now, this chapter no more attempts to delineate precisely what it is that comics is and isn’t than the book itself ends up plodding along the path implied by its subtitle: How Graphic Novels Work And What They Mean. But nonetheless and in spite of the wisdom of Delany, and the judicious scare he plants in the breasts of critics who study him, Wolk spends the first third of his book—a third that nearly everyone agrees is the weaker portion of the book, that is not so sharp or effective or enjoyable (though it is sharp enough, it effects, there is joy) as the rest, the two thirds in which he pulls this comic and that from the shelf and sits with you, reading them, see here, and now this, the very model of the modern descriptive critic—but the first third is spent laying out boundaries that if not the medium then at least that portion he’s setting aside to study in more detail yet manages to wriggle across; as he does so, he’s apologetically describing some of the boomerangs he’ll have to duck in the next paragraph. He knows the price he’ll pay for coming this close to defining comics, he’s told the straw man exactly what will happen, but nonetheless he does come just that close.


Come upstairs with me a minute.

We’re sitting on the couch, the Spouse and I. Dinner’s done; something is usually on the TV; past couple of days it’s been episodes of Burn Notice, which is cute; a Magnum, PI for the Buffy generation, and nobody told me how MacGyver it was, but we aren’t paying that much attention to it; we’re working. —Or at least she is. Her tray table’s cleared of dishes and leftovers, or maybe she’s hauled out the lapdesk; she’s spread out grimy sheets of 8½ x 11 recycled multi-use paper (30% Post-Consumer!), she’s got her pencils, and the kneaded eraser that Thurber likes to chew on, she’s got her ruler, and as for me? Well, my laptop’s in here, on the tray table in front of me, this essay begun in a Tex-Edit window, Camino up behind it with a dozen tabs open to this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this, I’ve got Delany and the McCloud trilogy and Wolk on the brass coffee table, and while she’s erasing ghostly figures and re-scoring panel borders and deftly tilting a head a bit more here, adjusting the angle of a hand (a gestural scribble, a soft grey curl with lines you can just make out are fingers) there, I’m—what?

Well, I’m not writing. —To write, I need to focus on the words words words, and I can’t when there’s words words words coming off the screen, getting all tangled up with the ones I want to put down. (Sometimes I can, but then I can’t tell you whether that was the one about the brother’s friend who’s tangled up with the Isræli arms-dealers or the one about the brother’s friend’s father whose daughter’s tangled up with the model scouts who ship white slaves to Dubaīy. —So why’s the TV on at all?) I end up sitting here distracted, feeling more than vaguely guilty since I’d promised the dam’ thing to John by the beginning of the week that’s almost already done, but something’s not clicking and I’m helplessly watching and listening, tangled up in words not my own, while she’s finished laying out this page and is on to the next, half an ear on the dialogue; half an eye turned up now and then for this scene or that.

All because I’m (ostensibly) writing, and she’s—well, she’s—

Dang it, what the heck is she doing?

Making comics, yes, but. She isn’t drawing. The drawing comes later, at the drafting table, on Bristol board and after, on the computer, in Photoshop. She isn’t writing. The writing came before, in bed, bits stuck in Google docs from time to time so I can look it over and say this ought to be hyphenated, that joke was pretty funny, and are you carrying this bit in the art? Because I have no idea what just happened. —She’s making comics, and what I want you to understand is that we do not have a word for what she’s doing.

We do not have a word for what she is.

Oh, for bits and pieces of it, sure. The writing. The drawing. You get into the world of industrial comics and you’ve got all sorts of words for all sorts of steps in the process: the writer, the penciller, the inker, the colorist, the letterer, the editor; heck, even with the “pencilling” you’ve sometimes got somebody who does the breakdowns or the layouts and somebody else who does the finishes, and somehow, somewhere in there, between the keyboard and the pencil and the ink, the comic gets made.

(It’s as if I could speak of the researching, the note-taking, the outlining, the typing or the handwriting, the editing and spell-checking, the typesetting, but not, you know, the thing I’m doing to make the essay. The writing. —Okay, maybe not so much with the editing.)

She doesn’t have a word for what she’s doing. —There is, I suppose, a word for what she is; a lot of people use it. Wolk uses it, himself, when he starts talking about the auteur theory, and what he terms “art” comics, which are so rarely the fruit of collaborations between this person who does the words, and that person who does the pictures, but are far more likely to be the work of one person who does the thing that’s both, and neither: a cartoonist. But this is a deeply flawed word, coming as it does from cartoon. “A drawing on stout paper made as a design for a painting of the same size to be executed in fresco or oil, or for a work in tapestry, mosaic, stained glass, or the like” is how it started, and to this day it carries an air of the preliminary, the unfinished, the ephemeral along with its more modern connotations of humor and exaggeration and caricature, its strong whiffs of the New Yorker and Saturday mornings. —One might note with delight the happy convergence with manga, the drawings made in spite of oneself, and to be sure Frank Miller’s characters are cartoons, yes—but is what he’s doing really cartooning? Is Eric Shanower really a cartoonist? How about Barry Windsor-Smith? Phœbe Glockner? Michael Wm. Kaluta? (Yes. We call them that. But.)

—Don’t think I’m some mad Quixote or Canute, about to unveil an ugly, awkward neologism. We go to criticize with the words we’ve got, and comics is itself as a medium hampered by its very name, comics: are they funny? What? —Our history is littered with the discarded banners of attempts to overturn the tyranny of that name for something else: sequential art, drawn books, comix, graphic novels—

Well. I might get to that one in a bit. —You go to criticize with the words you’ve got, so we’ll call her a cartoonist (a web cartoonist, to be more precise), for all that what she’s doing isn’t so much cartooning, and the end result isn’t cartoons, but comics. Just be aware that the words we’ve got for what’s going on are few, and deeply flawed, borrowed from other contexts and freighted with unwanted, unrealized connotations; that one of the most common terms for the people who do the thing we’re talking about trips us up with an unremarked elision of two of the more prominent ways one can divide those people into this group, or that: those who work in a deceptively simple style that communicates through exaggeration and even caricature—quite close to what we might all call without complaint “cartoons”—and those who work in a much more detailed, illustrative style, which might be termed deceptively mimetic—

Not to make too much of it. It’s the standard warning that ought to be engraved over every critical enterprise: “The map is not the thing mapped.” But in this case the map is even sketchier and more distortive than usual.

Another example:

Last year at San Diego, Douglas led a panel with a deliberately provocative title, “Comics Are Not Literature.” The following exchange ensued:

Dan Nadel
See, I don’t think of comics as reading.
Paul Tobin
You don’t think of comics as reading?
Sara Ryan
Ooh! Discuss!
What’s the big deal? Why is that a big deal? Comics is about looking and reading. It’s not just reading. It’s a sort of dual process that you undertake. It’s a totally different process than reading a novel, and it’s different than watching a movie, so I guess I think of comics as a separate activity than reading.
Cecil Castellucci
It rests right next to the same place as reading.
It’s a couple of doors down.
It’s definitely a kissing cousin of reading.
To me that’s like saying that when I’m listening to you or Cecil talk, that I’m not listening the way I’m listening when I’m listening to music. You’re still listening, you’re still using the same—
I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess I think of comics—it’s something else, it’s a different kind of process. I certainly don’t read Dan Clowes in the way I read, you know, Updike, or something. So it’s a different thing. You have to decode the picture—
I don’t read Cecil Castellucci the same way I read Hemingway, either.
Thank God.
I guess the reason I think it’s strange to talk about reading comics, or just to “read” art, or how the story makes you feel, is that to me it’s sort of, the most interesting comics—and you talk about this a little bit in your book—let’s take Gary Panter’s work, or Crumb’s work, or Herriman, or McKay, or Boody Rogers, or Fletcher Hanks, or, y’know, on and on and on and on and on. Cartoonists for whom the word and the picture are actually inseparable, you can’t take them apart—and also, create entire worlds on a page that you actually have to enter into, in the same way de Kooning creates a world on the canvas you have to enter into and explore in an entirely non-literary or reading-based way. It’s experiential. A different kind of thing entirely. I guess that’s why I think it’s funny just to talk about story all the time, because comics is so much more than story.
I would argue that the combination of words and pictures in comics creates a narrative, and what I do with a narrative is I read it.
See, I think of it as like you live in it, more than reading it, because I think like the marks on the page accumulate to so much more than reading. You have to decode.
I know what you’re saying, that they make up something more, and that’s you reading it. That’s you perceiving and reading.
I think it’s more just perceiving.
Do you read a movie?
…No. But I think you just threw that out. I think that’s completely unfair. I mean, I don’t read a baseball, either.

No, but you’d read a baseball game. Much the same way you’d read a movie, actually. —You do read movies, and you do read comics, but the point I want to make here is not that I disagree with the estimable Dan Nadel, or that I agree with Paul Tobin; nor do I want to start a humorous slapfest with our host John Holbo on whether comics are, y’know, a language or not. (They are. But.) —The point I want to make is that here we are at the beginning of the true golden age of comics, when one is no longer obliged to remind the mundanes that they aren’t just for kids anymore, when your average area man or woman has no difficulty embracing the concept that comics can be art just like writing or movies or music, here we are at the Summer Sundance, the Cannes for Fans, at a panel organized by the author of a volume of comics criticism entitled Reading Comics, here we are and yet people of good will who have studied this thing we call comics, who have lived with it to one degree or another in their personal and professional lives, these people (however provocatively) cannot agree on what to call the thing we do when we take in this thing we call comics.

Perhaps Nadel’s distaste for “reading” is as silly as mine for “cartoonist,” or all of ours historically for “comics.” Maybe. —But “reading” is an even more heavily freighted word, with so much hidden beneath the waterline that does immense amounts of work that you can’t see. Even if you’re used to using “read” as a semantic screwdriver, until you can read a movie or a baseball game (or even a baseball), still: it privileges the ordering and assembly of the various discrete bits into a (one hesitates to say “narrative” because oh my) whole; the act of looking, of perceiving, of appreciating those bits each on their own is left in the wake of a word like “reading.” —Listen a moment to Chris Ware’s complaint:

This is just an incredibly inefficient way to tell a story. It involved maybe 8 to 10 seconds of actual narrative time, but it took me three days to do it, of 12 hours a day. And I’m thinking any writer would go through this passage in eight minutes of work. And I think: Why am I doing this? Is the payoff to have the illusion of something actually happening before your eyes really worth it? I find it’s a constant struggle and a source of great pain for me, especially the last day when I’m inking the strip. I think, Why, why am I doing this? Whole years go by now that I can barely account for. I’m not even being facetious.

To read the comic is to see the illusion of something actually happening before your eyes; to go back and appreciate the fruit of three twelve-hour days is to—what? Look? Perceive? Read differently? —Whatever it is, it’s definitely a key component of comics, a thing we can do there and take advantage of nowhere else. “The most obvious sense,” says Wolk,

in which Watchmen is tethered to comics is the fact that it’s specifically about comics’ form and content and readers’ preconceptions of what happens in a comic book story. Beneath that surface, though, it relies on being a comic book for its crucial sense of time and chronology. The amount of time the reader has to spend working through the story isn’t the same as the amount of time the events in the story encompass—it’s longer—and the direction in which the reader experiences the story isn’t linear but keeps skipping backwards to revisit the past, as the narrative does.
Perhaps somebody at some point has read Watchmen straight through, but one of the joys of reading it is flipping back to see how images and scenes have been set up.

(Which aside from anything else it might have to say about reading and comics rather neatly encapsulates why I wasn’t looking forward to the movie even before I saw the ghastly preview.)

But: comics is hardly the only medium larded with semiotic landmines. Think of the dreadfully inappropriate name for the preëminent literary product of our times, the “novel”—which new thing has now been around for so terribly long that folks are worried it’s about to die of old age. —Quick! Define the novel in thirty-three words or less. (My own favorite attempt is Randall Jarrell’s: “A novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it.” And look! Comics are thus redeemed—they are graphic novels after all!) (But I get ahead of myself.) —Now: define poetry. (They do try.)

To turn to Delany, and the scare he plants in the breasts of the critics who’ve studied him, on the folly of definition:

Well, there is a certain order of objects—ones that the late sociologist Lucien Goldmann (in his brief book, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Johnathan Cape, 1969) called “social objects”—that resist formal definition, i.e., we cannot locate the necessary and sufficient conditions that can describe them with any definitional rigor. Social objects are those that, instead of existing as a relatively limited number of material objects, exist rather as an unspecified number of recognition codes (functional descriptions, if you will) shared by an unlimited population, in which new and different examples are regularly produced. Genres, discourses, and genre collections are all social objects. And when a discourse (or genre collection, such as art) encourages, values, and privileges originality, creativity, variation, and change in its new examples, it should be self-evident why “definition” is an impossible task (since the object itself if it is healthy, is constantly developing and changing), even for someone who finds it difficult to follow the fine points.

And so we will never have a definition of comics, despite that opening salvo from Scott McCloud (“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence,” he says, and someone with a point says, “Well, what about the Far Side? Is that only a comic when it’s got multiple panels, and otherwise it’s something different than itself?” and someone without a point says, “What about my shoes? Are my shoes comics?” and we all roll our eyes)—in no small part because of the innovation inspired and encouraged by, among (many) others, Scott McCloud.

Damon Knight, speaking of the media-spanning genre of “science fiction,” which has had its own obsession with definition, rather famously said, “It will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like The Saturday Evening Post, it means what we point to when we say it.” —Of course, he said this in the context of a series of book review columns about science fiction; aimed at fellow science fiction enthusiasts whose knuckles may already have been bloodied in definitional battles over the term; when his editorial “we” points to something, it does so with an authority granted by people who already know who he is and what he does, who recognize his finger and the very fact that he is pointing, who are among the unlimited population that shares some of the necessary recognition codes; the men don’t know, but the little girls understand. —We do not define a novel before talking about the novel because we all know what a novel is; we can just point to it, even though we’d all disagree over the particulars. We can point to poetry and music and dance and architecture, ditto. And that “tiny geeky subculture” of a media-spanning genre has since the days of Damon Knight eaten the planet, indeed; we most of us have our zombie contingency plans in place; we can see the moving finger when it points.

But, with something like comics—

—and maybe you think you know what comics are, and what it looks like when Douglas Wolk points to it, but keep in mind the map is nearly blank; remember that we don’t have words for some the basic things we do when we make and read and re-read comics, and even if you think it doesn’t so much matter because you share the recognition codes, remember that there’s a hell of a lot of other people now suddenly interested in comics, or worried that maybe they have to pretend to like graphic novels, too; and remember that the superheroes are over here and the manga kids are over there and the indie all-stars are in that corner and God only knows where the webcomics end up, and even though there’s cross-pollination, still: you whoever you are do not share all the recognition codes; not even close—

—so Wolk spends the first third of his book (remember the Why? This was all an answer to that Why) sketching a history of the Yankee iteration of the medium that others will nitpick, and loops boundaries around “art” comics here and “mainstream” comics there that slip no matter how loosely they’re laid; he argues with a snarky Straw Man and lays out why he hates “his” culture (the culture of the comics fan, and not the music fan) and why he loves “his” culture, including his deliriously inclusive response to the hundred-things meme; he’s establishing not just his street cred with those of us who’ve maybe been around the block but don’t so much know this Wolk fellow, but also the street itself, for the day-trippers who might could be convinced to hang around for a while with the proper incentive. —Wolk does what he can to sweep clear some bit of common ground before kicking off into the other two-thirds of the book, which is neither a “best of” nor a “suggested reading” list, and certainly isn’t a canon, but does what Delany (and any of us, really) asks of contemporary criticism: brings “vision, history, belief, and the operationalism of the sciences” to bear on saying something about comics with “enthusiasm, grace, and insight.”

(This intractable uncertainty—this fundamental inability to properly name the thing we’re talking about, to even be sure, say, whether what we’re doing to that thing is “reading” or not—this is why I can’t help but sneer at unfortunate jokes like this:

Imposter, reprinted under the auspices of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

(Hard sciences? Don’t make me laugh. Working with objectively measurable quanta is easy.)

But what is the thing Wolk’s saying about comics?

Last year at San Diego, Douglas led a panel with a deliberately provocative title, “Comics Are Not Literature,” in which he said the following:

There’s this really easy conflation to make, because both comics and books are printed on paper and they’re bound and they have spines, and they’re in book form, and they’re sold in the same places, and they’re in libraries, but there’s a real distinction between them, and I’ve seen things—there are projects now, where there are companies that are soliciting scripts for graphic novels from established prose writers, and they will have no idea who’s going to draw them, oh, doesn’t matter, somebody can just make the pictures. They’re all going to suck, people! They’re all going to suck!

(This year, he gave a talk entitled “Against a Canon of Comics.” Anybody got a transcript?) —To so completely identify comics and prose because of some similar underlying techniques and some accidents of technology and marketing is to risk overwhelming your nascent understanding of what comics is and can do with everything you already know about what prose is and can do; to erect a canon with such overwhelmed understanding is to elevate those comics closest to your idea of what makes prose good, and risk leaving out those comics that are closer to anyone’s idea of what makes comics good. (And, of course, the reverse: to so completely identify comics and film or fine arts etc.) —Scott McCloud tells a little parable about it, in Understanding Comics. The two halves of his dialectic are Artie, the artist, and Rita, the writer, and they’re determined to come together to make the best comics ever—

“...ready to join hands once more...”
“...and create a comics masterpiece.”

To privilege the writing by focusing one’s expectations on that which makes good prose, to privilege art by focusing on that which makes good imagery, is to risk tearing comics away from whatever it is that makes good comics—the thing that happens in the gutter, as it were. (Of course, McCloud’s parable in turn privileges his ideas regarding the power and immediacy of cartooning over illustrative, mimetic work, which, well, I mean, um.)

—It’s simple enough, but astonishingly easy to forget, lose sight of, fail to keep in mind: we must let comics be comics. Simple enough, but because our ways of making and reading and doing and letting comics be are all so tied up in other things, other media, other habits, because we must beg and borrow and steal the freighted words we need to talk about the things that are so clearly there, on the paper, it’s harder than it seems.

For years, comics were junk, were trash, were just for the kids they couldn’t help but corrupt; they were paraliterary—of “those written genres traditionally excluded by the limited, value-bound meaning of ‘literature’ and ‘literary’,” to quote Delany. —“Maus is not a comic book,” as that infamous early review is said to have asserted, but as another contemporary review had said, Spiegelman used “all the quack-quack wacko comic strip conventions with the thoroughness and enthusiasm of a connoisseur.” And won a Pulitzer! There must be something there. —And so, slowly, as more and more critics and newspaper book reviewers turned to writing about comics, the following headline over the next twenty years ossified into something beyond cliché (say it with me, now): “Bang! Zowie! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!”

Twenty years it took to sink in.

And now it’s not that the tyranny of literature and the paraliterary has been overturned; that will always be with us. And it’s not that comics have as a whole been redeemed to the limited, value-bound meaning of “literature” and “literary.” It’s that comics—no longer just for kids—is now at last provisionally among that set of media which might have this or that of its works judged as “literature” or, of course, “art.” But those works—those graphic novels and fine art pieces—are being judged on hopelessly muddled merits. Reading Comics is sold as a “canon-smashing book” not because there is a canon of comics to smash, but because any canons that might be made for comics now would be wrong, would be broken, would lean too much this way toward the prose or that toward the art or back and back with the backlash against elitism and snobbery—and canons are harder to change even than the habits of headline writers. Instead, let comics be comics for a while, and let us read them and look at them and write about them, describing them wherever and however we find them. Let comics be comics, whatever that might end up being.

That we will never know enough to make a proper canon is, of course, the point. —All we can ever do is point to the thing we’re talking about. There’s only so much common ground you can expect.

  1. Lisa Spangenberg    Jul 30, 04:43 PM    #

    There is a word for what she’s doing, and there used to be a trade guild, too.

    She’s illuminating; she is an illuminator. In the good old days, she not only did the illustrations, she did all the non-body text for the ms. Later, when production was streamlined for easier mass production of books of hours and the like, the illuminator’s position was divided so that there were illuminator’s and letters. But that was all new fangled and modern.

  2. Kip Manley    Jul 31, 07:01 AM    #

    I don’t know that “illuminator” gets at the thing you do when you make comics. (Shænon Garrity’s point, for instance, that before now[ish], “there were no books on drawing comics besides Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling—all other books claiming to be on the subject were about drawing pinup art for the artistically disinclined.” Not about drawing comics, but about drawing.)

    Also, the (as ever, damn them!) connotations: illuminators, lovely work though they did, and work also in the “juxtaposed sequence” or “temporal map” that starts to get at the thing you do when you make comics, at the end of the day essentially illustrate the text, and, as Steve Lieber puts it (quoted by Sara in that “Comics Are Not Literature” panel), “in comics, pictures are the text.”

    —Which is not a definition! It’s a functional description. So there.

    I guess—charming though it is—the idea of “illumination” doesn’t for me get at the sort of thing that leads to Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story. But perhaps I have not read enough mss.

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