Polymorphously Inclined: Comics as Influence, Comics Influenced

Recently, I’ve been taking note of how frequently comics is, or, “are”, if you’re talking about a specific book, framed by references to other media, and not just in the obvious cases of adaptation, whether from comics to film and television or vice versa, but as a way of understanding or relating to the medium or a particular title.

Film is a frequent frame of reference for comics. Comparisons to film and films are clearly seen by publishers as one way to draw reader interest. To illustrate, among the blurbs on the hardcover collection of Brian Wood’s and Ryan Kelly’s Local (Oni Press, 2008) is an excerpt from a Sequential Tart review that calls the book, “the coolest short film never shown on IFC or Sundance Channel”. More broadly, film and comics are often linked by virtue of both being used for a similar range of genre stories, especially action and action-adventure, horror, spy, science fiction, and fantasy. The intent here seems clear enough: by associating comics with movies, more people will be interested in reading a book.

At the same time, framing discussions of comics by reference to film is not limited to marketing. One reason why I used the blurb about Local to make my point above is that I am currently using the book in my introductory cultural geography course. When teaching formal analysis of comics I, like so many others, will easily and quickly slip into using the language of film to discuss comics. When talking about panels and pages, I will discuss angle and distance as if a panel had been ‘shot’ with a camera. I might talk about a page as being part of a “scene”, a concept that is twice borrowed, having originally descended from theater to film. (see also, “Why Is It Like That Here? Comics As a Medium for Exploring Our Varying Senses of Place”, PopMatters, 25 February 2013).

Such references can be problematic, unintentionally implying that comics is subordinate to film both historically and as a form of art, but they are also culturally convenient and the adaptation of terms from film analysis to comics can be an effective way for artists, critics, and readers to explain the meaning, significance, or effect of a particular book, page, or panel. As I already implied, this is how a critical and practical language for film was initially innovated: by borrowing, and bending, concepts related to other, more established and critically recognized, arts and forms of expression.

While seeing similarities between comics and film is driven by how both media are used for visual storytelling, such parallels may also account for another habit: relating comics to music.

Musical references in comics come in multiple forms. In some books, music is a central or supporting aspect of the narrative, Scott Pilgrim (Oni Press), Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics), while in others, musical taste defines characters, Little Depressed Boy (Image), Phonogram (image). In the aforementioned Local, Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly include track lists in their commentaries for each issue/chapter.Taking that idea even further, in the conclusion to the second volume of his and Gabriel Ba’s Casanova, writer Matt Fraction divides the issue into short chapters marked by song changes, essentially creating a soundtrack for the book.

Music can also be a way for critics to explain the effect of a particular work. In reviewing Bryan K. Vaughn’s and Fiona Staples’ Saga #10 (Image), for example, Michael D. Stewart uses Explosion in the Sky’s, “Your Hand in Mine”, to convey the narrative and emotional tones of the comic:

I’m reminded of the sonic instrumental invitations of post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, namely their 2003 track “Your Hand in Mine”. It’s a fitting song for much of Saga, the narrative qualities of each capitalizing on elaborate layers of emotions and listener/reader experiences with other genres. Melodies crash into climaxes. Climaxes showcase raw emotions that thrust us into worlds we had never previously considered. We find something of ourselves. In Saga, we find Izabel, the birth of a new fearsome creature and the possibly of a causality. In “Your Hand in Mine” we find that other hand, that connection to something beyond our singular body and the uncertainty of what’s to come. We are at the height of our senses and then nothing but a loss of sound, of a piece of ourselves. There is an intense yearning for optimism, yet the last part of each piece seemingly dashes those hopes.

The musical references here are used to explain both the emotional content of the characters and the rhythms of the narrative. Like Wood, Kelly, and Fraction, Stewart is setting a comic to music, which here serves both as a form of criticism and also as a way to enhance the reading of a title (see “Inviting us in: ‘Saga #10’“, PopMatters, 4 March 2013).

The impulse to listen to songs while reading or making comics may be conditioned by the use of music in film, but in much the same way that readers control more of the reading experience with comics than viewers control the viewing experience at the movies, musical connections to comics are always open-ended. Creators can suggest, and readers can experiment, but music to accompany comics will never be overdetermined by a formally authored soundtrack or score.

That comics is more than a proto-cinematic form is also evident in the way certain books inspire more novel references than those commonly appropriated from film and movies.

For example, in another piece on PopMatters, Michael Stewart draws connections between the literary strategies and aspirations of the Beats and those employed by the authors of comics like Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats (AdHouse), Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve stories, and the previously referenced Lil’ Depressed Boy by S. Steven Struble and Sina Grace (see, “The Beats, The Lil’ Depressed Boy and Populist Literature“, 7 February 2013).

Also recently in PopMatters, shathley Q uses a lengthy lead-in on the cultural construction and selling of Robert Johnson and the New Journalism to raise questions about pop culture, commercialism, authenticity, and idealism to frame consideration of writer Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers (Marvel) (see, “Greater Than, or Equal To: “New Avengers” vs. New Journalism“, 22 February 2013).

One could see this searching around for references to other media and forms of authorship as a capitulation to the popular marginalization of comics, a medium forever seen as falling short of being ‘itself’. Or one could acknowledge not only that ‘poaching’ and ”copying goes on in the making, reading, and interpreting of all forms of art and expression, but also that the manner in which comics seem to invite connections to other media is what makes them vital artifacts of pop culture.

In offering advice to critics, one of the habits that writer-artist Dylan Meconis (Bite Me!, Family Man) cautions against is approaching comics as if they were made from the residue of more ‘respectable’ forms of art:

Cartoonists are, in general, not very prejudiced when it comes to their influences. Most of my peers are voracious readers, watchers, lookers, listeners, and players, mostly unconcerned with labels of “high” or “low” so long as the stuff on the menu is good. We don’t collectively put much stock in work that preens over its own elite inaccessibility (having too often been the victims of snobbery in academic settings), but nobody is going to be shunned for liking something and making use of it in their own work. You will quite possibly see the influence of Star Wars and the influence of Ezra Pound sharing a table at your local convention (see, “How not to Write Comics Criticism“, dylanmeconis.com, 18 September 2012).

In my interview with him for my documentary on comics creators in Portland, Oregon, artist Steve Lieber (Whiteout, Oni Press, Alabaster: Wolves, Dark Horse), takes a similar view of the variety and range of influences in comics art. (See below.) While describing himself as a “dilettante”, his point is that doing comics art requires elements of skills employed in other fields, such as acting, set design, and costuming. So, film again, and also theater, but the insight here is that whereas in film and theater, these are tasks that are most often fulfilled by different individuals, in comics, these elements are “filtered” through the artist. Even where one works in collaboration with a writer or other artists, drawing effectively in comics still requires knowing something about a variety of otherwise distinct arts and crafts.

Both Meconis’ missive to critics and Lieber’s discussion of his art underline that comics is always already a hybrid form: words and images, parts and sum, art and literature. It should be no wonder, then, that comics prompts reference to other media or inspires makers, readers, and critics to not only read more comics but also watch a film, seek out a song, or reach for prose. Let a thousand flowers bloom.