Not Necessarily Deep Thoughts


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I. Did Jean-Luc Godard ever consider becoming a novelist?

Yes, of course. But I wrote, “The weather is nice. The train enters the station,” and I sat there for hours wondering why I couldn’t have just as well written the opposite: “The train enters the station. The weather is nice” or “it is raining.” In the cinema, it’s simpler. At the same time, the weather is nice and the train enters the station. There is something ineluctable about it. You have to go along with it.

—Godard, from a 1959 interview in L’Express, included in Richard Brody‘s entertaining, controversial biography of the filmmaker, Everything is Cinema.

Brody goes on to call this concept central to Godard’s art, and “the basis for a grand theory”:

[Godard's] idea is to define montage as the simultaneous recording of disparate elements in a single image, the simultaneity in one image of two things that would happen sequentially on a page—the train entering the station, the rain falling. In his view, the cinema does automatically what literature wants to do and cannot: it connects two ideas in one time.

II. Is this “montage” really a failure of literature, prose’s unachievable ambition?

How … does the work of reading a narrative differ from watching a film? In a film the illusion of reality comes from a series of pictures each slightly different. The difference represents a fixed chronological relation which the eye and the mind together render as motion.

Words in a narrative generate tones of voice, syntactic expectations, memories of other words, and pictures. But rather than a fixed chronological relation, they sit in numerous inter- and overweaving relations. The process as we move our eyes from word to word is corrective and revisionary rather than progressive. Each new word revises the complex picture we had a moment before.

Samuel R. Delany, from his 1968 article, “About 5,750 Words”, included in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.

III. These quotes raise that age-old, brain-numbing question: Are comic books more like movies or more like literature? I’m not going to try to resolve the matter here. (Though really, of course, the answer is neither.)

With these particular quotes in mind, though, I recently started thinking about how exactly I experience reading comics. It differs depending on the comic, obviously, but I guess that my default way of reading the average, traditional comic is to first take a quick “skim” of the visual composition and art of the entire page (or two-page spread), then to proceed to a slightly longer glance at the art of the first panel. At that point, I usually read the narration and word balloons, and after that, I look more closely and patiently at the art. And then I go back and forth between the art and the words as often as is necessary to understand everything before moving on to the next panel. (And then sometimes I’ll have to go back to the first panel, sometimes I’ll skip ahead to look at the art for the last panel, etc. It wouldn’t be very entertaining to go on.)

Obviously, none of this is a conscious procedure, and I wouldn’t even swear that it’s perfectly accurate. And even if it is, it doesn’t follow that everyone else (or anyone else) reads comics the same way that I do. (Not to mention more complicated and/or idiosyncratically laid-out comics pages, like the endpapers in Ware‘s ACME 18 or nearly any page by Ron Regé, to pick just two of many possible examples.) But the main point is that, unlike cinema, and like other arts including literature, the process of “reading” comic books isn’t a simultaneous one. It’s not image and word at once, but one after the other after the other.

When people want to connect comic books to film (which used to be the main strategy comics fans employed to convince skeptical non-fans that comics were “art” before they switched to using literary fiction or poetry), Will Eisner is the name more likely to come up than any other. And there’s no question that he was obviously influenced by cinematic ideas of composition and lighting. But it just occurred to me that the one element of his work that is most consistently held up as “unique” to comics, the famous Spirit splash pages that incorporate the titles visually into the mise en scène (to steal some jargon), may in fact paradoxically be the most “cinematic” of all his effects. In a weird kind of way, they provide one of the only examples in comics that I can think of offhand that truly approaches Godard’s concept of montage, a simultaneous connection of two ideas that would normally be experienced sequentially—image and word—in a single instant.

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22 Responses to “Not Necessarily Deep Thoughts”
  1. Jason Overby says:

    Nice post! A very interesting question. This is my hastily though-out reply:

    What's different about film (in my opinion, OK?) is two-fold; 1) You can't apprehend the gestalt of a film sequence (unless you just think of the framing of photography itself as creating a gestalt) like you can a comics page ,which works both as an independent unit and contributes to the whole, and 2) unless we're talking fumetti, the images used in comics must be created tabula rasa – even if photo reference is used or drawing is rendered "realistically," decisions have to be made about how to depict the world. You're not capturing existing visual data like in film. Comics and writing are additive while photography and film are subtractive. And, though I think Eisner is super-filmic, the Spirit titles (while really dramatic) are about being graphic-y and are additive, for sure.

    I've been thinking a lot about how to make a linear reading of a strip difficult for the viewer while still having it retain "comics" properties. I've been into the idea of comics as information grids – Ware does this – holograms, where there are multiple ways to associate words and images, leitmotifs and such that allow for subtle connections of meaning while keeping an understandable flow. This is much easier in comics simply because you're able to look at the page in a glance. Film, by its nature, operates in time so different strategies for metaphorical lattices would have to be used…

  2. Jason Overby says:

    Sorry to ramble, but I should say that this holographic aspect of comics relates to montage, but it functions differently. Comics are always simultaneously linking words and images. The only movement within comics is conjured up by the reader, whereas in film (flicker effect, notwithstanding) it is unavoidable.

  3. Anonymous says:

    In a lot of ways you guys at Comics Comics are really dealing with a lot of the same things as Cahiers du Cinema critics were with film in the 60s — just in a really different social context. Not sure it matters, just sayin'.

  4. ULAND says:

    I can't even begin to approach this subject in a meaningful way, but a sort of connected thought passed through my head; Is it possible, in comics, to "bury" information, or include "hidden" information, in the same way as can be done in film?
    Is it possible to use comics in a way that does not employ literary tropes ( for the sake of argument, rely too heavily on text) to slowly reveal, starting from the nearly subliminal?
    I know I have a hard time with comics sometimes because it's usually all there, right there, on the surface.
    In this sense, I think Jasons' "framing the gestalt" could be viewed as more of a limitation than anything else. You don't really have a choice in the matter. It can only be more transparent, cause there is such a static surface to work with.
    With this in mind, I think ( right now, anyhow) that comics are much more like literature, or the written word, than film. Anything drawn cannot be described though, which is a huge limitation. It'd be redundant, and the image would overwhelm it anyhow.
    In purely formal terms, are comics really just left with the grid? Like Tim wrote, I don't think anybody really knows exactly how a comic is read- it's a matter of constantly bouncing back and forth. The cartoonist can certainly lead us through it in many different ways, but again, I think that sort of transparency can overwhelm to the point where it'd be difficult to create effects of similar power described by Delaney and Godard.

  5. Jason Overby says:

    Now that I think more about it, comics do have somewhat of a built-in temporal structure. Assuming the reader/viewer is looking at the strip in order, there are ways to secrete information so that linkages are developed over the course of pages – shapes rhyme with other shapes, words can have tonal or cultural associations that relate subtly or ironically to the pictures, drawings can be obscured so that they're only understood later in context, etc. Is that the kind of thing you're talking about Uland?

    Re New wave: Totally similar, on purpose maybe?

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    I think I remember Mazzucchelli talking about simultaneity (sp?). Like the page is taken in as a whole, the two page spread. It's not one image at a time. And it's not necessarily linear in so much that it's all absorbed at once and then accepted as "ordered".

  7. Mark P Hensel says:

    When I compose a comics page, I definitely think about it as something to be experienced all at once, like what Frank is quoting Mazzucchelli about. When I read it, I look at the whole page and then start with the first panel and then dutifully plod thru it, one panel at a time, words then pictures. Seeing the whole page at once seems like something that is not possible in any other medium, and sounds closer to Godard's concept of montage than anything that cinema can achieve, since it is truly limited to a linear progression of images.

  8. knut says:

    Ever since I read McCloud's description of aspect-to-aspect transitions (prevalent in manga) I've always been fascinated with this underused (by the west) technique. Here you have aspects of a larger scene/concept arranged in a narrative order, however not necessarily representing a progressive passage of time.

    Panel 1, panel 2 and panel 3 can all be happening at the same time however the artist presents each to you in an intuitive linear order.

    To go one further, lately I've been working on strips that present aspects in a non-intuitive non-linear order that allow the reader's eye to wander. Sort of a "build-your-own" montage approach. I think Ware does this in many of his strips as well, however in a more controlled and organized fashion.

    Point is, montage can be used to infer non-linear and abstract narratives which can be great for a little mind-bending. I think Dash Shaw did this to an extent with his drug sequences in "Bodyworld". The narrative goes all funky and haywire, but it works. He gets the message across to the reader in a way that a straightforward narrative sequence wouldn't do justice to.

  9. Frank Santoro says:


    Gary Panter was just talking about this. His new Jimbo stuff is all "aspect" simultaneity.

    And I also thought about Bodyworld when I read first read this post. It's a different kind of exchange. Almost like animation.

    Yet it makes me think the iPhone-i-fication of webcomics might turn some creators back to the single frame approach.
    But then that single frame could move. Be animated. Hmmmm.

    Bone looks pretty good on an iPhone.
    I'm just sayin'.

  10. DerikB says:

    I'm reading "Everything is Cinema" right now, and have that exact quote marked to post about when I finish the book.

  11. Benjamin Marra says:

    It's what makes comics an interesting form and experience. They take visual art (a non-time-based art form, meaning a picture doesn't have inherent time applied to it like a song does) and apply a human being's perception of time through sequencing images combined with words (the ultimate abstract image/symbol as McCloud argued). Unlike time-based art (like movies or music) the reader/viewer isn't forced to experience the art in a specific time frame when reading a comic.

  12. Jason Overby says:

    The aspect-to-aspect thing really does need to be used more. We can makes maps of ideas or situations that aren't necessarily about exploring a temporal or physical space. And I agree that Eisenstein's or Godard's or whomever's theories about simultaneity in montage relate to comics much better than to film…

  13. Julian says:

    I'm not sure I agree with Brody's distinction between the process of semantic aprehension in literature versus cinema. Certainly, the compression of multiple ideas into a single gestalt frame is an obvious difference between the two mediums. However, the theory of montage is, at its heart, about a rudimentary syntax: Frame A + Frame B gives rise to Idea C. In this light, viewing a film is very much a "corrective and revisionary" process.

    When it comes to the way we read comics, it's tough to rely too heavily on introspection. I only know of one eye tracking study that was done in Japan, but I haven't actually been able to get my hands on it yet. Here's the citation if anybody is so inclined.

    Nakazawa, J. (2002). Analysis of manga (comic) reading processes: Manga literacy andeye movement during Manga reading. Manga Studies, 5, 39-49.

  14. T. Hodler says:

    Whoa. Too many good comments to respond to in depth. Just to be clear, this post was meant to be more just thinking out loud than an attempt to assert anything definitively, but that probably goes without saying.

    A few more quick things for now:

    1. Godard/Brody's definition of montage quoted here is idiosyncratic to be sure, but I still think it's interesting/fruitful.

    2. The simultaneity on the comics page you all are talking about is different in kind from that found in film. (And different in kind as well from the Eisner example I maybe unwisely used, since that probably muddied the water a bit.) Maybe I'll do a followup post on that.

    3. I make no great claims about the accuracy of my description of the comics-reading process. It's swiss cheese at best. But I do still think it's true that in almost all cases, readers are not capable of "reading" the average full page or spread at once, except in the vaguest sense. There are still words and images that have to be absorbed one at a time in any case, though of course the order in which they're read can differ. Which doesn't mean there isn't "simultaneity" going on — it just means I need to think about it more before I can tell everyone what they need to believe from now on.

    Thanks for all the comments!

  15. T. Hodler says:

    Oh, and I think Julian's right when he says that film is a "corrective and revisionary process", and didn't intend to imply otherwise. It's a good point.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Don't really have time to drag up quotes buy Eisentstein pretty clearly states that montage is more a philosophy of meaning and dialectics than anything else — there can be just as much synthesis in one properly constructed image as between two different images. The later movies like Ivan the Terrible have much more of this than the cross-cutting of the earlier films, for example.In that way Godard's theories of montage are actually pretty orthodox, and more clearly applicable to a comics page.

  17. T. Hodler says:

    Okay. I studied Eisenstein so long ago that I have no right to say anything about him, and will defer to others' judgments. I still disagree that Godard's usage actually applies to comics, but my argument is too complicated (and maybe wrong) to say right now, at least not before I think about it more. Thanks for the correction!

  18. blaise says:

    "Comics and writing are additive while photography and film are subtractive." Yes!

    I think it might be helpful to relate peripheral vision to this discussion. When we see captions in foreign movies we see them as text in an image field. We can focus on the text and be aware of the image simulatneously. Looking isn't such a linear process, though there certainly is that linear aspect of it, which comics takes advantage of (and which has generated more discussion). The field aspect is more subtle and abstract, and comics can resist or go along with it, but it's brought up regardless of intent.

  19. T. Hodler says:

    You are right about peripheral vision, Blaise.

    By the way, I think I sound like I disagree with everyone much more than I actually do.

  20. knut says:

    This is why GOD gave us two eyes, so that we can read comics. You look at the words with your right eye and the pictures with your left eye, DUH!

    p.s. Don't try this at home.

  21. Kevin H says:

    "a quick "skim" of the visual composition and art of the entire page (or two-page spread), then to proceed to a slightly longer glance at the art of the first panel. At that point, I usually read the narration and word balloons, and after that, I look more closely and patiently at the art."

    You're doing it wrong. You're supposed to read panel to panel, and THEN step back and look at it.

  22. T. Hodler says:

    Ah geez—I never even thought of trying it that way! Back to the reading board, I guess.

    (Incidentally, if you read while lying on a board, it improves your concentration.)