Understanding Comics

UnderstandingComics
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

A Book Review

by M. Murphy ©2014

To begin, this was an awesome read. This guidebook served as a wonderful reminder of the foundations behind my life as a working professional artist. I have been blessed with an ability of visualization that has enabled me to view life, so far, with as many eyes as there are souls; for retaining and strengthening intrinsic objectivity to learn by. But, in relating concepts discussed in the book to the world of media artwork around me by means of what my eyes see and my brain records will of course be subjective at best; I am a Media Artwork.

The book also reminded me of my purpose for, and connection with, cultural iconography and all its attachments to exist as second nature embedded in one’s ability to communicate. We are intrinsically linked to iconography and it seems as if our brain functions in part on this level; in shape, color, and sound vibration or frequency. Part of what McCloud may be attempting is to convey the absolute essential primordial drive of humans to achieve greater understanding and awareness. The simplicity of forms used as derivatives (part and parcel) to express language and words is especially intriguing to me as it always piques my instincts with regard to the keys to opening the centers of our brain that allow for more subtle forms of communication; mind to mind sensations and higher yet incomprehensible undiscovered/inactive forms of communication closing the gaps that obviously exist in the human being. This is the future I see as it relates to new media artworks. A current example of this relationship is all the icons for the mobile communication applications. Shape, color, and sound are the catalyst to which we invest, as of late, emotional attachment in the process of enhancing our productivity, or furthering a cause.

To relate this concept of iconography to a media artwork let us examine some aspects of two films; Forrest Gump and Castaway. Several times in Forrest Gump the audience is instantly transported through time and space in their mind; when Gump wipes his muddy face on a yellow tee shirt to reveal the iconic have a nice day happy face, the shit happens bumper sticker scene, and the letterhead logo from some “fruit” company (the Apple logo) Gump invested money in. Great story telling, superb acting, and identifiable imagery make for plausibility of the illusion. The fact that there is added deliberate closure narrated by Gump supports plausibility as it helps to fill in the blanks in our mind with believable outcomes. In the movie Castaway the character assumes the role of an iconoclast to some extent while eventually clinging to a new found iconic symbol (an artists’ logo inscribed on a fed-ex package) to renew and sustain his resolve to survive during his transformation.

Moving forward, one thing I found quite refreshing, useful, and hysterical was the creation and deployment of the various charts, graphs, and statistical comparisons throughout the book. I had never seen with my eyes quite a way of putting relating issues in perspective, like what comics do naturally. It is as if the degrees of separation are no longer a mystery or convoluted. McCloud draws factual historical associations to defining comics. He introduces a timeline on to illustrate how the Mexican Codex is essentially a comic. McCloud removes the “mystery” and breaks down what was seemingly elusive in to an easy to understand translation. He does this for the Bayeux Tapestry, Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the tomb of Menna the scribe, and infers the same by applying his description to 15,000 year old cave art. Just this concept alone is vital as it serves as a tool for teaching most anything. In fact, I’d say we’ve become quite accustomed to pictures, symbols, charts, graphs, timelines, scales, polls, and so on . . . analysis and presentation of data streams that convey some kind of message so one may learn a base of understanding, more so depending on significance or relevance of topic or issue. Transcribed communication is just stylized pictures that over time have become more abstract, adapted for specialization, and simplified for broad understanding (McCloud 10-15, 141).

Furthermore, there is something McCloud expresses that carries enormous weight and should not be overlooked, ever; “. . . cartooning isn’t just a way of drawing; it’s a way of seeing (McCloud 31).” The concept that imagery can impact our focus on an idea is one that leaves huge piles of evidence all over the front yard of human history, and unfortunately much of it stinks; glossed over by more sensational expressions that make us draw from greater emotional resources to process such stimulus, and it is addictive. Millions have perished needlessly over iconography and the ideology they support, just as many more millions have seemingly enriched their lives embracing those idioms.

This leads in to another concept discussed in the book; the concept of closure. As an artist much of my work revolves around this concept of closure. I like producing imagery that amounts to essentially nothing more than cropped views of some particular subject. It is up to the viewer to fill in the gaps, to complete the rest of the story; open borders are for exploration and discovery. There is always more than meets the eye. When we are invited to fill in the blanks it is an invitation to become the creator. What we do with that gift is another story.

This concept of closure couldn’t be more evident in today’s art media culture, certainly in broadcast media. Although I no longer subscribe to receiving broadcast television it remains unavoidable. One can only remove oneself so much from the onslaught of coercive, negative media execution of information. I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 society of the All Seeing Eye spitting out nonsensical gibberish of an authoritative regime. Today’s media outlets have made it their business to dish out only the tiniest of slivers of what one could equate to an infectious disease. The formula of pairing graphic imagery with sound-bites is at the heart of broadcast media; this is propaganda art at its most seamless. What’s more, this is going to be quite the marriage in the years ahead with advancing technologies and the ability to directly interface our senses with nano-digital platforms by means of bio-organic computer implants. One effect this process may have is the new and improved version of messiahs, belief systems, and a whole host of megalomaniacs existing with all others in a kind of freak show collective polarity. Being able to interface directly with bio-organic nano-technology means individuals will become even more iconographic; to what ends remains undefined. I am Jack’s festering media artwork.

In theory, I suppose most all things work. But societal/cultural structural theory is devoid of real practical testing and good intentions become lost; we learn as we go. Religion is a great example of this condition when theory is put in to action. Subsequently, there exist portrayals of media artwork today that demonize the many religions spawned from the Koran. Indeed, there are plenty of examples being exploited from suicide bombers who commit the ultimate radical expressions, to tribe after tribe of folks whose idioms are expressed through physical action, sometimes extremely violent physical action. Broadcast media has been complicit in the transformation of these ideologies in to iconography, certainly in the case of any interests not aligned with the status quo. One really good example of this transformation is the political hangnail; Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The image of a prisoner standing on a box draped in tarp with arms outstretched represents the fact that America will torture you, period. I am Jack’s horrible irony as a result of ill-deployed non-scientific methods.

Understanding Comics; this book was released in 1994 which makes it twenty years old, but far from obsolete. In fact, media artworks are becoming more immersed in to our lives, causing many to continually reexamine their existence, changing cultural boundaries redrawing the lines that unify and divide; we are Jack’s polarity collective, resistance is futile. Compared to any point in humanity’s timeline the only thing that has changed is the delivery system. Today’s delivery system is pretty much instantaneous, globally. McCloud talks about challenging the status quo a little bit here and there throughout the book, at least which is how I translate part of his work. Something he says really is quite profound:

[The dance of the visible and invisible is at the very heart of comics, through the power of closure! Creator and reader are partners in the invisible creating something out of nothing, time and time again (McCloud 205).]

My interpretation of this statement, at least today, represents a challenge to continue creating artworks that question and challenge the status quo. This statement is inspiration to create an intention surrounding and enveloping my thoughts as I go forward on my path. As an artist, one of my thoughts stems from an observation of the above quote. One can easily substitute the words government for comics, and, leaders and citizens for creator and reader, and from this new statement create a whole lot of something out of nothing which many artists indeed do. In all seriousness, the concept of “partners in the invisible creating something out of nothing” (McCloud 205) means a great deal when technology is quickly closing the gap between just having a dream while asleep in bed of flying faster than the speed of sound ten feet off the ground dressed all in black, and, actually creating an interactive hyper-real holographic digital environment just by thought projection and a bio-organic nano-tech platform interface app. The new app from Apple, the iSoul . . . I am Jack’s Matrix, there is no spoon, and this is not a pipe.

Resources

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994. Print.

Maus and Persepolis

mauspersepolis
Movie Screenshot from Persepolis – digitally manipulated by me

Concept Comparisons as they relate to Understanding Comics

by M. Murphy ©2014

I love graphic novels. They have always been a big part of my life from as early as I can remember; from simple comics produced by Marvel and DC, and EC comics. Underground comics like Zap Comix, created by geniuses Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Harvey Kurtzman, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, and S. Clay Wilson. Groundbreaking efforts from Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal with artists named Enki Bilal, Richard Corben, Jean Giraud aka Moebius, Liberatore’, and Milo Manara just to name a fraction. These are the examples of my art heroes, my art mentors, my guides in helping to understand different points of view not entertained or expanded upon by other media sources for whatever reasons regarding topics that profoundly impact society and individuals from all walks of life.

Two topics in particular that have had an enormous impact on humanity are eloquently conveyed in graphic novel form; The Jewish Holocaust as portrayed in Maus, by Art Spiegelman, and the Islamist Fundamentalist takeover of Iran as portrayed in Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. Ethnic cleansing is not an easy subject to stomach let alone teach without some trepidation. Most media sources gloss over much detail in exchange for visual/emotional sound bites, be they inert and innocuous, or shocking and incomprehensible; either way it seems agenda supersedes teachable moments. That said, the graphic novel, like Maus and Persepolis, seem to be a most excellent form of teaching and conveying information that otherwise might get lost in a world where 30 second sensationalism is pervasive and truth is an afterthought, and other forms of media miss the mark in involving people, and invoking change.

I write this without hesitation and with full confidence for many reasons. The first reason being that graphic novels offer something much more than just data; textbooks lack personality and often lose the interest of the reader. Moreover, graphic novels stand apart from television and other books in that they invite the reader to become a part of the story whereas television although closely related doesn’t quite invite deeper cognitive experiences the way a graphic novel does. The standard printed novel and book convey an abundance of detail when it comes to storytelling but are lacking when it comes to inviting the reader to implement closure as frequently or deep as the graphic novel. But this is not to say that novels don’t invite closure, rather I feel the cognitive connections are different. Another reason I think the graphic novel is a better method is due to the inclusion of highly personal artwork. Textbooks typically use generic illustrations, data charts, and sometimes photographs to support information. Rarely does a standard novel use any form of artwork other than the cover, but this aspect is extremely vital in that many people will choose a book based on that artwork; it helps to complete the sale in the mind for both author and reader.

Another thing about graphic novels is that they seem to be something like a living document; a record of creative expression and unique perspective. Actual documentaries like films, picture books, music, and visual art are quite different than the graphic novel but can be just as successful at dealing with complex issues, but the graphic novel seems best suited for this purpose. The impetus for this particular assertion originates from my experiences and desire to engage in higher learning techniques like transcendental meditation, visualization and affirmation, and learning as play, just to name a few. It is as if a graphic novel is being played in the mind; a transparency overlay embedded in the visual cortex, or something.

When comparing the graphic novels Maus and Persepolis as they relate to concepts found in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics one doesn’t have to look too far as both Maus and Persepolis convey all of the concepts covered by McCloud.

To begin, Maus and Persepolis follow the concept of six steps; idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface. In fact, both graphic novels start out with an integrated preface/intro by each author who states their idea/purpose quite plainly. In Maus, Spiegelman begins the book with a flashback to 1958 highlighting an incident of his childhood where he was the recipient of uncompassionate behavior (Spiegelman 5, 6). It becomes clear in the next few pages that the author wants to move forward with his book, and is urged by his Father and stepmother to complete his book (Spiegelman 11-13). In Persepolis, a young Marjane was motivated by her experiences and reveals her contemplations with God which seem to be the impetus behind her idea/purpose, helping her to understand what is happening to her country, the people, and the future of both; she wanted to be a Prophet, and in a way she is (Satrapi 3-9). Whether these authors know it or not the six steps add up to what amounts as a living document of truly significant historical events. I understand that each author may have intended something completely different and that their idea stage in no way relates to my point of view, but I feel that the beginning of each book, including Understanding Comics, clearly states an intent, or idea.

Moving forward, in terms of graphic style, line use, symbolism and use of iconography, archetypal utilization, closure, timing, and flow, both graphic novels utilize these concepts with plenty of differences but each work stands alone quite strongly, and, both works relate.

First, let’s look at graphic style. Maus is very masculine and rife with background details whereas Persepolis is more feminine and delicate with minimal background detail yet still conveys as much power and strength through the use of black. The graphic style of Maus is reminiscent of works by artist Robert Crumb and the underground comic art of the 1960’s; each drawing utilizes a type of hatching and shakiness adding life to each page. The graphic style of Persepolis has the boldness and smooth intimate delicacy of art nouveau yet is rendered completely in solid black and white, and like Maus, adds life to each page.

With graphic style comes the use of line. The use of line in Maus has great movement and energy, and, is very heavy handed for all characters and subject matter while background details are penned with a bit finer line and executed with consistency throughout the whole book. The use of line in Persepolis is consistent throughout but is flowing, smooth, and more refined, and, with lots of negative space used as white outlining when all solid black is being used. Each graphic novel uses line in a way that lends support to the intense subject matter and who it is written by and for. If the line use styles were switched I don’t know if the graphic novels would be as successful in being effective teaching tools.

Next comparison is the flow of the panels and how each story progresses. Both graphic novels follow a fairly conventional flow of panels for storytelling, and this is just fine. Each book could have easily integrated some really wild placement of panels because each story has such intensity but simplicity always trumps sensationalism. This simplistic convention really helps to move each story forward with ease as opposed to using other forms to emphasize climactic moments; this simple flow really showcases the merit and strength of each story.

The use of time is really wonderful in both graphic novels, and both utilize time quite differently. In Maus, time jumps back and forth as the story unfolds, it is seamless and expected because Maus is being narrated by the author’s father Vladek, in present day while taking us back in time so we may experience what he experienced. In Persepolis, time progresses naturally as Marjane grows from chapter to chapter. There are also flashback time jumps inserted to accommodate the stories of other characters, but Marjane narrates and tells her story much like Vladek; it is as if the story is taking place while we are reading it as opposed to a mere re-telling. This use of timeline really helps to connect emotions to the subject matter and provides even greater context for closure.

Regarding closure, both graphic novels utilize this concept quite effectively. We really don’t need to see violence and gore when we can imagine it beyond any comprehension. Using lots and lots of artwork specific to these graphic novels to show violence just wouldn’t work, but it does work in how it is minimally conveyed, and, when showing the aftermath of such events; our mind can easily fill in the blanks. Moreover, closure is attained not just between the frames but during the frames as well because of what is being said; we are invited to imagine everything as each story unfolds just through storytelling.

The final comparisons have to deal with symbolism, iconography, and archetypical utilization, and both graphic novels display many of these elements throughout each work respectively. Maus begins with its cover art, the perversion of an ancient iconic symbol that originally represented transcendence through the cycle of life in many cultures long before Hitler’s derangement and perversion in to a hated icon. The cover art of Persepolis harkens more archetypical imagery blended with symbolism indicative of Middle Eastern culture; the inclusion of a sad girl adorned in a veil conveys a new symbolism when paired with the stylized motifs. In fact, Persepolis conveys much more symbolism throughout compared to Maus. Moreover, Persepolis blends its symbolism together with archetypes to create new symbols, icons, and identifiers in juxtaposition to tradition. Furthermore, the use of repetition in Persepolis really enhances the underlying messages in this respect (Satrapi 5, 11, 18, 28, 40, 89, 95, and 103). Maus relies upon archetypical utilization by portraying Mice as Jews and Cats and Nazis. This convention makes the symbolism much stronger, especially when iconography is paired with imagery in some of the panels, particularly the chapter title pages (Spiegelman 9, 25, 41, 71, 95, and 129).

I have read Maus dozens of times since its first release in Raw Magazine but this is my first reading of Persepolis. Admittedly, I always passed it by for some reason or another when selecting graphic novels for purchase; I am thankful that I now have a copy to hand down to my son when he gets older. Both stories are living documents and deserve much more attention.

Resources

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994. Print.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.

The Journey Begins Now

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.

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“Valiant Effort” B&W photo 1998. Digital compositing 2011. M. Murphy

Welcome to my Blog: The Spiral Saint


It really doesn’t matter where you start, just as long as you begin.

I created this blog to present my writings about art, artists, and the critical analysis of human creative expression. Also, I created this blog to document my journey becoming a certified teacher in the state of Maryland, and beyond into the classroom.

Even more, I provided convenient links for you to explore my other art media; animations, paintings, and graphic arts, stained glass, and poetry.

So, just hang on and enjoy the ride. Peace to you.

Marty Murphy