Incarnation of the Word

It seems obvious in retrospect, although at the time it seemed an odd thing to say. Of course the conjunction of image and text in that puzzling art form we call "comics" is somehow akin to God; that's the whole point! Okay, maybe not consciously for most comic artists and perhaps for even fewer readers, but from a Christian perspective, what could be more true? "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). It was staring me right in the face: comics are so powerful because they realize as can no other art form this theological truth: the Word became visible, something--or someone--whom we could see, even with our bodily eyes, that he might live among us and save us from our sins.

Not convinced? Think about what it is that makes comics distinctive. Comics are pictures with text, but not just with titles or labels. Rather, in comics (and here I am drawing on David Carrier as well as Scott McCloud), the text typically appears in the form of speech or thought, visually placed within the picture and contained in balloons. As Carrier argues, these balloons are at once part of the image and very much not: "Balloon words are neither in nor outside the picture; like thoughts, sometimes said to be located 'inside your head,' they have no position in space" (pp. 29-30). Further, while we, the viewer, can see the balloons, the characters depicted in the pictures do not; rather, they "hear" or "think" them. Again, Carrier: "Comics translate sound and thought into images.... Speech or thought is thus translated into visible language" (p. 36). The text becomes image, the Word becomes flesh. In comics we can see what otherwise only God sees: other people's interior selves.

Think, moreover, about what makes comics so disturbing to those who would prefer text and image to remain distinct, not intermingled in this hybrid way. Comics, or so their mid-twentieth century critics like Fredric Wertham would have it, "handicap" readers in vocabulary building "because in comics all the emphasis is on the visual image and not on the proper word." Moreover, "those with good reading ability....are seduced by comic books into 'picture reading'" (Seduction of the Innocent [1954], cited by Carrier, p. 69). Arguably even worse, even many "half literate or illiterate can read the comics because they are combined with images. This combination is apparently much easier than either only images or only texts" (Ernst Gombrich in conversation with Carrier, p. 69).*

Comics, or so most twentieth-century art and literary theorists would have it, are properly neither images nor texts, neither fine art nor literature, but somehow failed attempts at both, while looking at comics is neither "proper" reading nor genuine viewing. Children who look at comics, it is often said, will neither learn to read "real" books nor develop a proper appreciation of visual art. But why should this synthesis of word and image seem so threatening? To be sure, the content of many comic books might give even the most generous critic (myself included) pause; it is, after all, surely no accident that we talk about "graphic" violence. But not all comics are violent, even if most seem of necessity to focus on heroes. What if the heroes were not Superman and Batman but, say, St. Peter and St. Paul? Or, even better, the Virgin Mary and Christ? Would we still have the problems that we do with seeing comics as somehow not quite healthy or only for children?

Interestingly, Carrier would suggest that we would: "We expect the world to fit our preconceived stable categories, and so what falls in between is easily felt, depending upon our temperament and politics [and religion--FB], to be either exciting or menacing. Hence the fascination with, and fear of, cross-dressing, androgyny, people of 'mixed-race,'"--and comics (pp. 70-71). It is, arguably, this very hybridity of comics that makes them at once so absorbing and (as I observed yesterday) shame-inducing. Somehow, at some level, we know (why?) that text is text and image is image and never the twain should meet, at least in art. Words are for expressing that which lies within us, the content of our souls; images can show only bodies. Comics--like icons--challenge this dualism or, perhaps more accurately, expose it: we can see the characters bodily, even naked, but we can also see their speech and thoughts.

Using one sense (sight) we have access to the whole of their selves, including not only their bodies and minds, but also--by way of comics' other main characteristics, narrative sequence and book-size scale--their experience of time. As Carrier puts it: "Comics, with their balloons, represent that relation of inner states and outward bodily expression which characterizes persons. Comics mimic in their narrative sequences that process which, if classical philosophy of mind is correct, characterizes perception.... In externalizing this awareness, displaying the antecedents and consequences of one moment, comic-strip narratives thus show what it is to be a person," (p. 73) body and soul, living in time. Not bad for a popular art form! And yet, it remains difficult for most to see comics as anything other than a vehicle for stories of superheroes and violence.

But then, again, maybe they're right: even McCloud has had difficulty imagining other genres that comic strip art might embrace. The question is whether this is, in itself, a bad thing. Carrier comes close to saying as much, without actually exploring the implications, when recalling the "tedium of endless, never-to-be-resolved stories of absolute good struggling with evil in its many guises" of the comics that he read when he was a child (p. 87). Good vs. evil, eh? It seems that I've heard that story somewhere before. Carrier argues that comics are a "post-historical" art form because "they abolish the distance between subject and object" (p. 121) and thus collapse the need for art to "progress." Comics, by his definition, came into being in the early twentieth century not as a failure of the development of art in the tradition of European painting from Giotto through the Impressionists, but rather as its natural resolution: "making outwardly visible the inner feelings of depicted figures, unambiguously presenting the development of action" (p. 115). But this, of course, is to ignore much of the European--more particularly Christian--art that came before.

Word and image, picture and text: medieval scribes and illuminators were more than conscious of the difficulty of showing the interior feelings of their depicted figures, likewise of depicting action. That, after all, is what makes some manuscript illuminations so difficult for us to read: why, exactly, does the same figure keep appearing over and over again? Sequential art. And what are those little scrolls that the figures are holding, even as they look at each other and not at the text? Speech banderoles. And why? Comics embody the great mystery of faith: God's taking flesh and entering time, as every medieval illuminator knew all too well. It's curious--is it not?--that we are now convinced that such art is somehow dangerous if not properly contained.

This needs thinking about some more.

*Although hardly true: try reading a comic in a language that you do not know. I predict that the story will not make much sense. I know; I've tried.


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