Guilty Pleasures

I was up way too late last night reading an outstanding comic book series that I just found a few days ago. In fact, tired as I am, I'd be reading it now online if the site weren't having trouble loading. It's probably crowded with hits from everybody else on lunch breaks, hooked, like me, on what happens next. Oh, how I wish I could put into words the experience of being drawn into a story that is presented in both pictures and words! Scott McCloud has tried, of course, but it's interesting how even he is not able to say what it is that is actually so captivating about this particular mode of art despite the great service he has done in articulating its formal properties and how they work. Perhaps other critics have, but unless they have done it in comic form, like McCloud, I doubt it. Isn't it strange how art works?

Aha, you will say, but art historians talk about this sort of thing all the time. Actually, they don't really, at least not in my field. To be sure, they try. Just think of all those illuminated manuscripts; they're some of the most important sources we have for what medieval readers got up to. And yet, again, I have yet to read anything that gets at the heart of the experience better than McCloud. It's something about the way in which we associate the words with the images, something about the way in which both seem more alive than either on its own. I am never gripped in quite this way by either novels or movies, even the ones that it is impossible to put down or stop watching (think Harry Potter or B*G). Which is strange, because comic books seem so much sparer than either: fewer words than novels, fewer (not to mention more static) images than movies.

And then there's the guilt: I can feel swept up in a novel, sometimes even a little embarrassed at being so absorbed (think mysteries here), but never to the degree that I do when reading a comic. And I can come home from a movie and spend days thinking about the actors and story, but somehow it still remains something external and ordinary--or, if not ordinary, at least not entirely geeky. Comic books seem doomed to be geeky, even when they're not about superheroes (which, of course, most still are). Why is this? Most people would say it's the stigma attached to them since the mid-twentieth century (or thereabouts): lots of adolescent guys pretending to be the saviors of the world (sort of). But I'm really not sure about that. Sure, there's a social stigma against comics--"not serious literature," "adolescent"--strangely, since so many of our most recent blockbuster movies are in essence stories taken from comics. And yet, movies are mainstream and comics, well, comics most definitely aren't.*

McCloud has a lot to say about how the simplified style of most comic strip art helps us identify more with the characters and about the cognitive leaps that the serial images require us to make in filling in the action, and I am sure he is onto something there. Reading a comic book is a complex cognitive as well as aesthetic exercise, requiring us to imagine sound and movement while at the same time giving us ideas and images on which to dwell. It is visual, like a movie, but unlike a movie, one can linger over particular images or move really fast. And it is verbal, like a novel, but at the same time able to show facial expressions and settings much more vividly than words can ever achieve. But why should such a demanding and yet, clearly, rewarding experience leave us feeling a little furtive, embarrassed to admit that that's where our imagination has been?

I wonder, sometimes, if medieval monks and nuns ever felt this way. Their books--at least the ones that the art historians like to write about--were beautifully illustrated, often with quite complicated images that now take specialists dozens or even hundreds of pages to explain. Such books were luxuries as well as works of great devotion and skill; the last thing anybody at the time would have said (although subsequent scholars have sometimes suggested as much, ironically, given the present audience for comic books) was that they were unsophisticated or only for children or (the usual nineteenth-century claim) for women. Clearly, the monastic artists knew that something complicated happens spiritually as well as intellectually as we look at images associated with words. Images show us things words can only point to; words explain things that images cannot even express. Either alone can be amazingly powerful, but together--together we approach something akin to God.

Why did I just write that? I know that it's true. There's a reason prayer cards come with images, that books of Hours have all those marginal monkeys, that even the most beautiful painting is somehow more meaningful when its image includes inscriptions. Take a photograph, any photograph, and add a speech balloon. What has changed? The universe speaks, animals have interior lives, we can see into the thoughts and motivations of those around us. The world becomes animate (i.e. soul-filled) in a way that it was not before. Write a sentence. Now find some way to illustrate it or, better, put it with an image, any image. Again, something has changed more profound than just being able to see what previously one had held only in one's mind's eye.

Yes, it takes a great deal of imagination to form images in our minds as we read, but adding a picture does not--contrary to the arguments (or assumptions) that we seem prone to make about pictures in novels--make it thereby "easier" or "less challenging" to read. Rather, the picture adds a whole other layer of interpretative challenge, forcing (or inviting) us to think about what, exactly, it is illustrating. Are pictures worth 1000 words? No; they aren't worth any words at all. A picture is worth a picture, just as a word is worth a word. No picture can be fully described in even 10,000 words, although rightly placed a few words may help us pay attention to the picture in new ways. And no number of pictures by themselves can do the work of words, otherwise tour guides would not be able to tell the many stories that they do guiding us round the treasures of the painted and sculpted world and yet still leave us feeling like we have not really seen the images.

But this still does not explain why reading comics has quite the absorbing effect that it does, more so (I would argue) than most any other medium. At this point, my inclination is to start looking for bibliography and scholarly analyses on the way comics work, but I'm not sure that that is really the appropriate response. I need to think about this question more. Meanwhile, I have some more comics to read....**

*And if you don't believe me, just ask yourself when was the last time you went into a specialty comics store without bringing a teen-age guy along for support. Right. Okay.
**Finder still wasn't loading, so I went to the book store anyway and found this: David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), which seems to be the thing I was looking for.***
***First profound insight (with which I credit myself, above): "The speech balloon is a great philosophical discovery, a method of representing thought and words.... The speech balloon defines comics as neither a purely verbal nor a strictly visual art form, but as something radically new" (p. 4). Although why Carrier insists that speech balloons were "almost unknown before being exploited by comics artists," I have no idea, except that he must not have spent much time studying manuscripts in which speech regularly appears in the form of banderoles held by the figures in the images.****
****The banderoles are the things that look like white snakes. Interestingly, in the second example, London, British Library, Royal 1 D. X, the scribe responsible for the lettering seems not to have done his job. Most of the banderoles are still blank.

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