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Comics Art

Paul Gravett

(Yale University Press; US: Feb 2014)

There is the kind of love that is ooey gooey, where desire causes lust to be mistaken for love, where obsession blinds reason, where lovers meet in clandestine locations to explore the emotional and physical aspects of their passions. Then there is love that uses passion to create a heightened sense of the world, a respect and appreciation for the blue sky, clouds and singing of birds. The kind of love captured by Dorothy Fields in “I’m in the Mood for love”.


Known as one of England’s foremost authorities on comics, Paul Gravett was in the mood for love when he wrote Comics Art, a book that demonstrates his deep passion for the world of panels, speech balloons, fine lines and grand colors, subtle shading and transformative images. In Gravett’s view, comics create heightened reality, a third-person perspective that passes life through a variety lenses to alter the ordinary so that we learn to appreciate simple moments with greater heart, and when necessary, to fear the dreadful and the dishonest more deeply than allowed by the overburdened filters of the human mind.


As much as Comics Art does indeed treat comics as art, it also provides glimpses into the well-known and less-known history, the history shaped by poverty, crafted by the disenfranchised, fueled by the politics of the time. It also shows the inventive ways to tell stories through still images, through lines or arranged in blocks, where characters speak in usually short, punctuated text scattered about in balloons that sprout from their mouths.


Gravett divides his book into eight chapters that range from covering silent comics, to exploring the power of the panel to commenting on style, to comics as autobiography. Throughout this wealth of analysis and observation, nary a superhero raises his or her incredible powers to overwhelm a page. The sumptuous illustrations represent comics well beyond the usual stomping grounds of Marvel and DC. Being nearly European, Gravett offers a much more worldly survey, covering comics from New Zealand and France, from the UK and Japan, from the Middle East to Native American influences.


The eight chapters in Comics Art do find their demarcations, their beginnings and endings, but the tone and the writing feels more like an extended essay than a book. It is the illustrations, however, that really make the book. I recommend paging through it. There’s no chronology, the art is there to illustrate the points in the text, but I found it more rewarding to be intrigued by the illustration and then find the point than the other way around. In the journey to find that reference, you find other intriguing tidbits along the way.


William Randolph Hearst, it is noted, so appreciated George Herriman’s Krazy Kat that he funded the comic for the entirety of Herriman’s lifetime, permitting him the privilege of exploring his fanciful Coconino County in ways other artists could not, and giving him the bandwidth, if you will, to contemplate the meaning of this work. Herriman is quoted as saying: ‘People don’t know what they want. And if they get an entirely new taste of something that’s good, they’ll want it until they find something better. But we’ve got to give them the initial taste before they start clamoring for more.’ Hearst not only supported his personal favorite, but also the entire industry through his King Feature’s that brought comics to papers throughout the Hearst networks purview.


Comics are art first, even if they begin with the story. It is the lines that form images, not the lines that form words, that first force the eye to seek, to look, and then to look again. In chapter 3, ‘More than Words Can Say: Silent Comics’ makes this point with elegance and breadth from comics constructed entirely of images. In this chapter in particular, the rough-sketches that presage the fully realized art help readers (or viewers) obtain a sense of process, unveiling to some degree, the order in which the artist realizes his or her vision.


The images in Chapter three range from simple lines, to traditional drawings, to expressionist rants, to bright poster-influenced images, to near impressionism and then full tilt surrealism. Comics, as Gravett illustrates, are not bounded by any convention, they are an integral part of the culture in which they originate, drawing influence from the past, cultivating it in modern soil and in some cases, speculating at what may retain value over future decades. Toward the end of the chapter, Garvett writes in contrast to the babble of illustrated speech balloons, that the constraint of silence in comics seems particularly effective in evoking dream-like states. The absence of all sound, the inability to hear or say anything, is puzzling.


But readers do eventually find their way among the dots and lines, the splotches and scribbles, to the words that may, in some cases, superfluously reinforce what the eye has already informed, though at other times, words unbridle transformations of their own, transfiguring the images in psychologically complex ways that remain in the mind even after the eyes lift from the page.


Gravett loves comics. He loves comics as a medium. Comics are not a genre, but a way of expressing ideas through the medium of panel and speech balloon. The art ranges from stick figures to folk art, from meticulously painted pages of abstraction, to fine portraits and spectacular cityscapes and bucolic landscapes. The point, after all, is that comics offer the storyteller, any storyteller, a canvas upon which to tell their tale, be it on a page, in a three-dimensional exhibit or on the digital screen of the latest tablet computer.


And so the last chapter leaves the reader contemplating the infinite canvas that technology empowers. Gravett writes that ‘The interactivity and multi-modality of digital comics have led to the notion of the reader not only having control of the reading experience of a comic, but also having a choice of more than one path to follow. Stories no longer have to be linear, with a single beginning, middle and end, but can divide and deviate with wildly differing trajectories and conclusions.’


No edges, non-linear narratives, a canvas where static images meet moving graphics, a canvas where dozens of other innovations transform the comics themselves into something incredibly different than illustrations bound by the hard lines of panels and the cut edges of the printed page. Comics unleashed in the digital realm have the potential to reach into every facet of media, from politics to music, from personal journals to very public crowd-sourced news reporting. The internet not only creates new distribution methods, but also asks artists and writers to adopt new tools that change the very creative process of comic making.


But in the end, Gravett points out that technology has also found itself accompanied by a movement toward the comic as a visceral, real, tangible article of culture that wants to be held and coveted, and yes, loved.


As Comic-Con International in San Diego approaches again this July, every fan seeking to connect to his or her deeper creative, appreciative, respectful inner geek needs read to Comic Art so they can but some perspective on the frenzy they are about to co-create.

Rating:

Daniel W. Rasmus is a writer, poet and strategist who lives outside of Seattle, WA.


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