Sunday, January 23, 2005

Comic Books: A Humble Explication

Comic Books: A Humble Explication

An Excersize in Displaced Myth

Does the above picture of Neil Gainman's 1602 look like pop-culture camp art to you? Those who discard comics as not "real" art or "real" litterature haven't read this gem of a graphic novel.

Recently I took it upon myself to teach the world about comic books, and more importantly the art of sequential story telling. Needless to say there is a lack of general knowledge on the subject, and even though Hollywood has taken upon itself to tap the limitless story possibilities that this relatively old, yet relatively unheard of art form posses, the fact is if you’re not an iconic character like Spider-man, Batman, or Superman, the rest of the world hasn’t heard of you. So for those who don’t think comic books, or their more modern incarnation of Graphic Novels (which are one-shot or collected stories bound in paper-back or hard cover editions amounting in a sum of pages equal to that of a novel), are anything less than literature -then I’m here to enlighten you all.

As my bulk research has been in studying the business models of Manga (Japanese for Comics) and the American comic book Market, I have lots to say in the design theory of why these so called “picture books” sell. Yet upon further study I started noticing that they only sold when there was an awareness of the medium, if not a specific character and or title. Something could also be said about the publication and distribution of comics past and present. A common misconception is that only nerds and the most extreme die-hard fans read comics. This notion is one founded by people who are insecure with the realization of their own innerchild. Another case study is that Disney Co., with its slew of kiddie films, changed forever what may be accepted as comic or otherwise animation. With this myth of “comics are for kids” being upheld by the Disney corporation in decades of strictly catering only to one such demographic, I believe as many of my colleagues do, that Disney slowed the realization of American comics. However, Disney is not solely at fault, because some will remember (the recently abondoned & forgotten) Governement imposed Comic Books Code which impeded any form of mature, adult, or erotic story telling in the medium itself. Comic books, again, were the only medium in restricted by Governmental laws well into the end of the 20th century. Today the comics industry is playing by a different game, and I’m here to share why I think comics are so important.

It starts with a simple sentence, Image as language and storytelling. Originally the full title, Image as language and storytelling in Japan: A brief history of why Manga is universally accepted within Japanese society is the title of the first chapter in my book about Manga (currently under preproduction) and derived partly from Neil Cohn's work and research focusing on the sequential relaying of information in comics as a visual form of communication and language which all humans can understand. Yet the main focus of my goal is not so estranged from my reasons for placing such importance on the medium of visual story telling and sequential art. Whereas with the Japanese Manga I intend to shed light on the rich history that image plays in Japanese culture, by not only discussing the origins of Kanji (Chinese character symbols) and how they apply to Japan's universal acceptance of image as both a language and a complex means of telling stories, but also by briefly touching on other historical movements of image. Image has been known to expand fart greater as a means of communication than oral or written forms historically, and so why not can it also be true for today's world? In Japan, I see the best example of a practice closer to the forms and purpose of image as a method of communication and conveying universally accepted ideas between people.

From Kanji to the Tobae scrolls of the 10th century Japan continuing on to wood etchings of the 17th century and following up with a short analysis on red books and paper theater, in my paper I discuss how all of these historical visages of image storytelling have led to the construct (design) of Manga, and why Manga is the ultimate form of Japan's rich cultural heritage of utilization and response to image. As I stated earlier my bulk of research has been specifically a look at why Manga is so strong in Japan today, rules to its success and also why the rest of the world is importing it by bulk even when their own variety of cultures, languages, customs, and unrelated histories may not be as well rooted in the utilization of image. My ultimate goal not only is a study of Manga but all comics. By showing that the induction of image and story telling -whether it be film, the funnies, comics, tapestries, or cave paintings are all traditional art forms, but specifically in the case of comics and graphic novels too. I wish to show that comics and sequential art is a means in which language and storytelling is best understood and accepted -world wide.

Sequential form

Women are heroes too! "Witchblade" is about a female N.Y.C. detective Sarah Pezzini, and the powerful resposibility she is endowed with upon garnering a magical gauntlet - the witchblade.

I am a strong proponent of visual story telling as a medium of language. I don't think we've digressed into a dumb state of Neanderthal wall drawing dupes as some philosophers support in their attacks against comics (or even cinema), but like such forms of communication and expression as seen in the cave paintings, tapestries, and hand signs, which are or have been all advanced forms of visual language. Comics too express a certain air of sophistication. Yet between the visual realism of today's special effects stuffed action films and those more traditional literary elitist snobs, comics -somewhere and somehow- get shuffled to the side and dismissed.

I think in this digital era of 3-D 'realism', the visual language has become as realistic as the worded language -in the sense that anything can be expressed in both realistic terms and in fantastical terms of the wildest imaginations. Words are just being replaced by a complex mathematical insurgence of polygons which form a digital picture. People are also seeing more cinema these days, video games are raging popular, and even though our spoken language fluctuates from poor to excellent depending upon the knowledge that individual has (or can retain) of the written word, otherwise termed as well read, the key point is the visual language has always been with us and is the first common language of man. Point and draw a stick figure in the dirt maybe grunt a bit, the fact remains that there was no language spoken or grammatically written before the power of the image. Perhaps we have gone in full circle, and people are getting dumber because they are watching too much television and aren't reading or studying their text books as well as traditionally exercised, but I believe that the visual language combined with the written is the most efficient, oldest, and most recently revitalized form of language in the world today. Also a reason for my own interest in Graphic novels and the comic book is the vast possibilities of combining the two, image and word, in the production and creation of stories.

For more interesting information on image as visual storytelling please visit the website of Neil Cohn. Neil Cohn is the leading theorist in visual language today. He focuses on comics and sequential imaging and how the brain recognizes symbols and processes patterns to form a visual memory that becomes our most common (and perhaps most advanced) form of communication, but don't take my word for it. Read about it.

On another note there are various texts which literary critics and critics in general, are specifically biased against. Another famous fallacy, much like “comics are only for kids” is the common misconception that there is only one genre, the Superhero. Whereas the superhero may be a product spawned in tangent with the American image and such ideologies behind it, we can not deny the rich history that American’s share with such iconic characters as Spiderman and Superman. What are the cultural ramifications of having thsese characters, and what effects do they have on our societies imagination and visa versa?

The argument I hear more often than not is that there is nothing else to read other than superhero fan fair, and although superheroes dominate the American sales market and are a marketable product, as can be seen with Tim Burtons original Batman film or even with the more recent success of the Spiderman and X-Men films which are a merchandising dream come true, a superhero genre isn’t dictated purely on the fact that it consist of heroes. However, like its predecessors in Greek Mythology, the contemporary superhero shares its inner-genre pliability which reflect the ideas and imagination of the people of their time. Within such a broad and encompassing cultural category, superhero stories can themselves range in genre, from humor to action to fantasy to horror to suspense to romance and drama, its all there. Yet with the dominance of the superhero comic book in America, many people don’t know of the rich underground of independent comics which exist. Comics which cator to those looking for something different. Independent comics sell anything someone could dream up, you just have to be patient and take your time hunting down the books in a world dominated by Superhero books.

Also, with the advent of Manga, the genre concept is blown wide open, not only in terms of cultural significance and understanding but also in sheer numbers of titles to choose from. Today’s comic book world offers everything from educational to historical to practical & social learning to cooking to politcal to sports to romance to fantasy to sexual erotica in comic book form. The phrase “It’s just for kids” is just a term deemed by the Trix Rabbit and those who don’t take the time to step back and see the bigger picture.

A Legend is Born

"Superman for All Seasons" contians intelligent narrative story telling & dialogue in the vein of William Faulkner, and the Norman Rockwell style of Tim Sale's art gives this book a strong feeling rooted in American nostalgia. It works great as a beginning source to people new to comics, and who are new to the Superman mythos. Highly recommended!

Speaking of people who don’t realize the bigger picture or greater depth that comic books have to offer, I constantly find myself defending the literary merit of such a medium as graphic novels and comics. Cases in point, both “Superman for All Seasons” by Tim Sale & Jeph Loeb and biographical “Maus” by Art Spiegleman are two graphic novels which HAVE THE GUSTO to contend on any canonical list of all time best works of literature. Because a book has 'pictures' doesn't necessarily mean it doesn’t have any literary value and isn't telling a better story than a book which may not harmoniously utilize image with words. I think not only are most peoples views of literature Eurocentric, but also pictorially defunct and out dated, especially where comics are concerned. Comics and graphic novels do utilize enough literature to change the world, at least enough to make the literary scholars stop and think. The fact that we consider William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf literary classics but do not recognize certain legendary comics such as "Superman" (nor the myriad of stories there within) as classic literature is, in my opinion, a biased which people have adhered to ever since Walt Disney brain-washed this nations ideologies of what is and is not acceptable to children, as well as adults.

The fact remains, Superman has been around as long as Faulkner and Woolf, and history has produced at times works that are on par with such mentioned authors (often within the exact same time period they themselves were creating their masterpieces; many artists were also honing Superman into the American/Worldwide Icon he is today). Superman has global appeal as well, as can be remembered in the example of 1995 when every major city on the planet ran a headline in their papers, "Superman Dies" after the death of Superman was published. A historical moment which the world took notice of, even if it was just about a fictional character. Superman continues to entertain and sell today, and new works are continually being created about the character. The similarities in how we express our national identity and how we dipict it in our popular & traditional art also applies to the imagination sparked by comics and what valuable information they contian about the society (civilization) which created it. This is just one of many examples which I may bring to point.

Why some scholarly elite are prejudice against "sequential story telling" is purely a form of naive snobbishness. Let us get beyond this visual handicap, and learn to embrace all forms of literature.

If you still don’t believe me, and contest to argue that comic books are not and do not contain any literary value, then I wish you to take your argument up with Professor Peter Sanderson of New York University. Mr. Sanderson is well known as Marvel Comics’ first archivist and the author of Marvel Universe (Harry N. Abrams), and reviews graphic novels for Publishers Weekly. Mr. Sanderson will also be teaching a new course at NYU entitled “Comics as Literature.” Classes begin as of the 2004 fall term, and you can find more about comics from Sanderson online at IGN FilmForce, where he writes a weekly column “Comics in Context.”

Yet our own notions and support of sequential art and comics are nowhere near the Japanese acceptance of the art form. Not only do most Japanese Universities offer courses on the 'cultural value' of comics, but they also offer full fledged degrees in becoming a comic artist and creator! One example is the "Manga & Anime Culture" available to Japanese students in the Department of Cultural Information of the College of Humanities at Tokyo Kasei-Gakuin University. Another universities includes Osaka University of Arts, in which real comics (Manga) creators are professors! Including Kazuo Koike, the famous creator of "Lone Wolf and Cub," will serve in the position of curriculum head, with manga artist Machiko Satonaka, known for "Aries No Otometqachi," and visuals producer Toshimichi Ohtsuki, who worked on "Neon Genesis Evangelion," to serve as lecturers ( Can we even compare to the Japanese in support of one of our finest art mediums? If not, then should we not be asking ourselves why don't we see any value in comics as art -both visual and written? Even though is has been around for nearly 85 years in the form we recognize it today! Why don't our Universities and schools teach us about all of the availble arforms? Why does this bias against comics continue to persist?

Even though my personal success has been limited in reaching, or rather teaching other's in the world about visual storytelling and the art form of comics, progress has been gained. As I hope to inform you about the merit and literary value of graphic novels and comics, I wish to continue my research in the forum of comics and Manga. I have been the driving force behind convincing a board of trustees at my own University to incorporate graphic novels into various course English and otherwise. The graphic novel successfully chosen was “Superman For All Seasons” by Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, and Bjarne Hansen (D.C. Comics, 1999). Just one small step in the awareness of such a rich art form.

If you wish to discuss comics more in depth with me, the hero archetype, mythological ties, cultural/historical ties or just comics in general please email me at

Any other questions and comments please feel free to share with me.

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