Sunday, November 18, 2007

By definition

One of the trickier intellectual challenges surrounding the study of comics is coming up with a definition of what "comics" is. On the one hand, creating a definition may be an empty enterprise; it could be said that poetry and prose get their share of analysis without anyone needing to pin down a universally accepted definition of either. On the other hand, as more scholarly study of comics is conducted and colleges and universities have to decide which programs will focus on the research and offer the classes and degree programs &c., a definition - particularly one that addresses the literary/artistic divide - might be useful.

Several candidates vie for our attention, Scott McCloud's "sequential art" proposition (after Eisner) and Robert Harvey's "juncture of word and image" articulation among the foremost. An argument is leveled against the first as being too broad (is the Bayeaux Tapestry really comics?) and the second as being too narrow (is there really no such thing as a wordless comic?). In the blogosphere, Eddie Campell has jumped in, and Patrick Lewandowski, each offering definitions that
to my mind are less rigorous and useful than idiosyncratic and interesting.

On the academic front, Greg Hayman and Henry John Pratt offered a comprehensive definition
("x is a comic iff x is a sequence of discrete, juxtaposed pictures that comprise a narrative, either in their own right or when combined with text") in their article "What Are Comics?" (which I haven't read); this definition was deconstructed by Aaron Meskin in his forthcoming article "Defining Comics?", in which he decides that the effort of definition is not worth the trouble.

And of course, there's Neil Cohn's Visual Language Theory, which, since it rises from a psycholinguistic frame rather than an aesthetic, will need a great deal more clinical research to establish its usefulness.

There are others I am not naming; my intent is not a full inventory but just a sketch of the terrain. I also offer no Unified Field Theory of my own; I confess that I am here to muddy the waters further. My impetus comes from perhaps an unusual source: children's literature.

I am not going to revisit the problematic "are children's picture books comics?" question; my question is, I think, deeper and applicable to more creators and creations in the comics world. The question has its origin in a mention to me last Friday by one of our campus librarians of this new acquisition:

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press: 2007

The librarian knows my interest in comics, and thought that I would be intrigued by the book. It tells the story of a resourceful orphan boy, living in a Paris train station, who gets involved in a series of adventures while he reconstructs a clockwork man that is somehow related to the pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies. She told me that the story was part prose, part illustration, and that the illustrations actually advance the story and are essential, not extra, to the overall narrative. She mentioned a dilemma inside Library-land: that everyone loves the book, but no one is sure whether it should be nominated for a Newberry Medal (for literature for children) or for a Caldecott Medal (for picture books). Of course, I was intrigued, checked the book out, and read it this weekend.

First of all, it's a great book; the story is compelling and real and the characters are engaging and complex, no matter how old you are.

It's also a hefty book: over 500 pages. I think it's aimed at the same crowd that reads about that Potter fellow.

But here's the rub: about 300 of those 500 pages are (imho) comics. There are no panels or word balloons in sight; these are wordless comics, to be sure, and each two-page spread is one image. There is, however, the definite control of the narrative through sequenced images, and the actualization of McCloud's "choices" - of moment, frame, and image - is very much in evidence.

The other pages? Straight prose.

How do these work together? Let me illustrate by example:

Page 205 ends this way:

Hugo stopped short and stared at her.
"I don't know anything about you," she said. "You know where I live, you know about my parents. If we're going to be friends, then I think I should know about you. Why won't you tell me?"

Suddenly, Hugo started to run.

"Hugo!" she yelled. "Stop! Wait for me!"

The next text appears on page 222, and begins:

Hugo helped Isabelle to her feet, but he couldn't stop staring at the key. Isabelle noticed and tucked it back in her dress.

Doesn't make much sense. does it? It does if you insert these panels in between:

1: Train station lobby, full of people; Hugo is to the left of the panel, running away from Isabelle, who is right center.
2: Closer image of Isabelle crashing into a hatted man; they both lose their balance.
3. Isabelle, looking scared, falls backwards; a small key on a chain around her neck swings out.

4. A close-up of Hugo's face, looking toward the right, shocked.

5. Near repeat of panel 1; this time, Hugo is running toward Isabelle, who is on the floor.

6. Close-up of Hugo's hand as he offers it to Isabelle.
7. Isabelle reaching up to take Hugo's hand; the key hangs around her neck.

8. Close-up of the key on its chain; it has a distinctive heart shape, and a clever reader may have seen the keyhole already!

Wow! What do we do with this? The whole book is like this: some sequences are presented as wordless comics and some as straight prose. If you just took the text bits, you would have an incoherent story; if you just took the illustrations, the result would be the same. It's not a comic book; it's a book-comic! I have to wonder why Selznick took this path, and what his creative processes were like: how did he choose which instances to illustrate and which to write?

The author is not much help in figuring out the work. On the official website, he says that the book is "
not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things." Maybe it really is a new, hybrid form, but the illustrated sections are definitely comics in even a narrow sense of the term, employing the techniques that we commonly associate with the form.

So, the question: do we shelve it in the literature section or the art section or the graphic book section? Or does it matter?

Non-web resources:

McCloud, Scott.
Making Comics (Harper Collins: 2006)
McCloud, Scott.
Understanding Comics (Harper Collins: 1993)
Varnum, Robert and Christina T. Gibbons, eds.
The Language of Comics (University Press of Mississippi: 2001)

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