Capturing the Abstract in the Concrete

My relationship with comics is likely similar to that of many Americans now in their 30s. Comic books were an integral part of my childhood, first as something that other people bought for me, and then as something I bought for myself. They were part of weekly trips to the local convenience or grocery store and special trips to actual comic book shops. While some kept the faith, and continued to read comics through high school and college, others, like myself, drifted away from the medium, relegating it to memory and nostalgia.

Years later, as the millennium turned, comics began to reenter my everyday consciousness. I started to notice that some movies being adapted from comics were based not on iconic superhero titles like Superman and Batman, but on non-superhero books like Daniel Clowes’ Ghostworld and Max Allen Collins’ Road to Perdition. Around the same time, comics in long form began to show up in more of the bookstores I frequented.

I probably spent a good year scanning the shelves and thumbing through books at both local and chain stores before I began buying and seriously reading comics again. The three most important writer-artists I picked up were Andi Watson (Breakfast After Noon, Dumped), Brian Wood (Channel Zero, The Couriers), and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Embroideries).

These authors have drawn me back into comics largely because their books explicitly address subjects that activate not only my escapist imagination, but also my academic curiosity. Here are writers and artists who use comics to deal with subjects like class, race, politics, and the consequences of war in very direct and immediate way, far beyond simple metaphors like using Superman or Spider-Man as allegories for kids and adolescents discovering their own “powers”.

Furthermore, some of Watson’s books in particular opened my eyes to the possibilities of comics as a medium for dealing with more prosaic themes, notably the difficulties of managing adult relationships and responsibilities. Ultimately it was Wood’s Demo and Love Fights, two spins on the superhero conventions that dominated my youth, that helped pull me back into that genre. None of what I came to know through Satrapi, Wood, and Watson would have surprised anyone who kept reading comics through the late ’80s and into the ’90s, but they were revelations for me.

Today, as an academic whose teaching and scholarship largely focuses on topics in popular culture, I’m always thinking about the meanings and implications of what I watch and read or how I might use a particular text or film or TV show in a class or essay. I have the good fortune of being in a field, geography, which is uniquely positioned at the intersections between the natural and social sciences and the humanities. It did not take too long for me to begin incorporating comics into my classes.

In one sense, my reasons for using comics in my courses are the same as my reasons for using any popular media: they are forms of expression that help to ground discussion of abstract concepts and ideas into concrete circumstances and experiences, while maintaining layers and complexity. For example, because it tells a story involving real, albeit fictional, people, a film like John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) does more to persuasively convey the porous nature of the US-Mexico border and the implications of that porousness than any number of academic articles about the same subject could on their own.

To take an example from comics, consider the following image from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

The cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words often holds true when it comes to complex ideas. The panel above literalizes the idea of a “national body” or “body politic”. In representing the nation as a male figure being fed by the blood of soldiers, “martyrs”, this image, especially when considered in the context of Satrapi’s larger narrative of the war with Iraq and Iranian government propaganda, opens up a discussion of how national identities are created and maintained in a way that assertions in academic prose cannot, particularly for non-academics (and for those who are academics, or inclined towards thinking like an academic, the image is still effective as a means of thinking about this process in a real and vivid way).

While obvious, what should also be noted about this image is that it is drawn, not filmed or recorded. Douglas Wolk in Reading Comics (Da Capo Press, 2007) argues that the fact that comics are, literally, drawn from the mind of the artist is what distinguishes the medium from other visual narrative forms like film and television. Viewers may intellectually understand that what they see in film and on TV are constructed images, but for many a filmed or taped image immediately conjures up the thing itself, say, a horse, rather than “picture of a horse”. The necessarily distorted, simplified, and symbolic nature of a drawing of a horse calls attention to cartoon image as having been deliberately made by someone.

Wolk’s argument here is complicated, and it’s probably helpful to think of these kinds of distinctions between media and forms of art in terms of degrees and emphasis rather than absolutes, but for my purposes here it is useful to underscore what he notes as the primary significance of comic drawing or cartooning: that it is an art form that foregrounds the subjectivity of the artist. According to Wolk, readers know that they are seeing a particular vision of the world when they read a comic, and they know it in a way that they don’t when they see a film or watch television (or look at photographs) where the apparent realism of the images tend to push the “artist’s hand” to the background. The personal, or at least particular, nature of comics art invites conversation and dialogue, particularly about how the world is represented or reimagined by the artist.

In addition to being a visual form, comics are also a narrative form. Panels, the rectangular borders that typically frame text and image in a comic, are the device that comics writers and artists use to arrange their pictures into stories. Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics, Making Comics) has made the point that what isn’t shown in a panel is as important as what is when it comes to reading comics. Movement, for example, must be inferred, but the finite nature of any series of static images suggests that artists and writers also make a wider set of choices about what to include within a panel and what to leave to the minds and imaginations of others. This selectivity is another means by which comics announce their subjectivity, opening a dialogue with the reader.

What do the worlds contained within comics, within and between panels, tell us about the worlds in which we live out our lives? What kinds of conversations do comics invite their readers to have? As Wolk puts it, comics suggest that “there is another world, which is this world”. This column, “Worlds in Panels”, explores the relationship between the outside world, and the world of comics, which is simultaneously like and unlike the world outside. In carrying out that exploration, I hope to open eyes and minds to both the creative possibilities of comics and those of the larger worlds in which they are drawn, written, and read.