Posts Tagged ‘Not Necessarily Deep Thoughts’

Comedy Minus Time


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Thursday, December 2, 2010


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“The overwhelming part about tragedy is the element of hopelessness, of inevitability.”

—J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms

In his 1987 essay “What’s so Funny about the Comics?” (reprinted in Comics as Culture), the scholar M. Thomas Inge defends the validity of the term “comics,” despite the fact that so many of the art form’s admirers express resentment for the pejorative connotations of that name, by basically claiming that the term is literally true, and implies very strongly that all comics are comedies.

He accomplishes this primarily by appealing to a fairly broad definition of comedy:

Not all things “comic” are necessarily funny or laughable. Comedy implies an attitude towards life, an attitude that trusts in man’s potential for redemption and salvation, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Since comic strips always conclude with resolutions in favor of morality and a trust in the larger scheme of truth and justice, they too affirm a comic view of the social and universal order. While Krazy Kat and Smokey Stover may appear absurd, they do not reflect on the world around them as being irrational or devoid of meaning, as in the drama of the absurd. Comic art is supportive, affirmative, and rejects notions of situational ethics or existential despair.

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The Auteur Theory in Comics: A Beyond Half-Assed Series of Ruminations


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Thursday, August 19, 2010


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First off, if you’re in Montreal, don’t forget your plans for tonight.

Second, intervening events have prevented me from being able to write the review of Alan Moore’s The Courtyard I promised would start up the CCCBC today. But I will get it up soon!

In the meantime, let me resurrect a post I almost wrote last February. (You have been spared about a dozen almost-posts this year alone.) I don’t remember what I had originally planned to say exactly (my surviving notes are sketchy), but mostly I just wanted to link to this really amazing, lengthy interview with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, which offers a stiff dose of Auteur-Theory polemics. (I’m not actually that big of a fan of Dobbs’s actual films—at least those that I have seen—but this is great stuff.) Eventually this will all work around to a discussion of comics, I swear.

Here’s a sample:

The Auteur Theory is clearly the most practical and, as you say, self-evident way of looking at or “reading” movies, and it’s mind-boggling after all these years to still have to listen to screenwriters rail against it without the least notion of what they’re talking about. It’s so funny/sad their undying belief that only an Ingmar Bergman can possibly be an auteur because he “writes and directs his own scripts.” “No one ever made a good movie from a bad script” is their other favorite cliché — now and forever blind to the power and the glory of Sam Fuller, Edgar Ulmer, Douglas Sirk, and countless sows’ ears made into silk purses by distinctive, individualistic directors, including many movies that have no script at all except — in Writers Guild parlance — “as represented on the screen.” (more…)

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Tossing Around the Old Medicine Ball


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Wednesday, July 8, 2009


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Surprisingly, I still haven’t figured out a grand unified theory of comics reading. (I do think that Eisner/montage bit at the end was kind of stupid in retrospect, though not regrettably so.)

However, after much research, I can finally report that Frank’s comment about David Mazzucchelli’s theory of comics simultaneity (“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.'”) is absolutely spot on. At least when you’re reading Mazzucchelli comics. It’s kind of amazing really. It works with everything from Batman to Asterios Polyp. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s true: entire spreads enter the reader’s brain instantaneously.

But the two-page-spread simultaneous reading thing doesn’t seem to work with a lot of other comics, at least not for me. And not just inferior comics, either; some of the best comics around don’t work that way. So more research is needed. I’ll be in my study.

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In the meantime, though, here’s a new stupid opinion: I like Philip Guston just fine, but I think it’s time that cartoonists started appreciating other painters now and again. (Always lead with a straw-man argument—that’s the blog way.)

Like, for instance, why aren’t cartoonists all over James Ensor? (If they are, and I’ve missed it, someone please correct me. (Actually, according to French Wikipedia, at least one European comic drew inspiration from him.))

Lauren dragged me to an exhibit of his drawings years ago, and I loved it, but I didn’t really get how great he was until I went to the retrospective that opened at MoMA last month.


For the most part, Ensor didn’t really attempt any of the sequential-art proto-comics often associated with people like Hogarth or Goya, and he had a tremendous range of tone, subject matter, and approach, but there’s no question that he often displayed the soul of a cartoonist.

For example, check out the famous self-portrait he painted in 1883, and revised five years later to add a hat and other evocative details.

Or for that matter, his later self-depiction, “My Portrait in 1960″:

(This one in particular doesn’t work in the same way without its title, which essentially functions as a caption.)

Most of the work included in the exhibit loses even more power than art always does when seen via the internet instead of in person, particularly the two enormous (and enormously complicated) drawings of Christ entering Jerusalem, and Christ revealing himself to the people. It’s impossible to tell when looking at them online, but they’re packed with incidental characters and background details that my comics-rotted brain can’t help but compare to chicken fat. He also often uses typography in a subtle, interesting ways.

Anyway, I could go through the exhibit pointing out drawing after painting after etching as possible kinda-sorta-like comics examples, but really I just wanted to use this as a setup to ask if anyone knows where Al Jaffee got the trademark fish bones so many of his characters disgorge whenever they vomit?

Because if you zoom in on “The Strike”, and move your attention to the figures leaning out of the windows to throw up on the right, I think we might have something like a 19th-century Belgian precedent!

IMPORTANT UPDATE!: I found out the answer to the fish-bones/vomit question from the man himself! Read it here.

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Not Necessarily Deep Thoughts


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Tuesday, June 16, 2009


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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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