Magic in the gutter. A few words on comics and sequential art.

Until very recently, I had been making a conscious effort to separate writing, one of my favourite and most natural ways of expressions, from other areas of my artistic practice. I somehow felt that it was interfering with visual art, my official career path, and that it didn’t have a place in it, besides the “hobby” drawer.

But I have always been writing. When I was about 11 years old, I wrote poems and songs. Not long after that, I started keeping my journal (which I still do) and writing “novels”. I would spend summer afternoons with an old typewriter (alas, a 60s beige one, not the gorgeous black Continental machine) and type away, drinking coffee with a drop of sherry nicked from my parent’s cabinet, which I thought was terribly decadent. A few years later, when I was in high school, I wrote plays, monodramas, and adaptations of works by ancient Roman poets like Lucretius, Virgil and Ovid (mostly to avoid taking grammar exams in ancient Latin.) I wrote for a small cabaret I formed, and “on commission” for school events accompanying national holidays. I did some writing during my academic degrees. I adapted Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye into a script, and wrote BA and MA thesis. But even then I was very much discouraged from writing, not because of its quality (my pieces were usually chosen as exemplary ones) but because it was apparently distracting me from focusing on creating physical narratives.

It took a long time to find a place where my writing and drawing could not merely coexist but work together. It was only when I started exploring the territory of comics and graphic novels, I realised that this is an art form that could help me re-embrace my abandoned passion.

Obviously, it’s not that I only discovered comics at the age of 28. I knew they existed when I was a child, but my parents adopted the attitude which Scott McCloud is arguing against on 215 pages of his masterpiece, Understanding Comics. Apart from a couple of issues of Alf, which was based on an animated sitcom, and Tytus, Romek i A’Tomek by Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski a.k.a. Papcio Chmiel, I didn’t read any comics because my parents thought that they were aimed at lazy children who couldn’t be bothered to read. I associated the term with cheaply printed images in saturated colours of superheroes making hideous sound effects in speech balloons. Scott McCloud’s experience was similar: “Comics were those bright colourful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights.” I learned to look down on that.

It was the discovery of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in my mid-twenties which made me realise that comic art can be beautiful, and now, having read both McCloud’s book as well as 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden, I fell in love with the genre.

99 Ways to Tell a Story is a fascinating insight into the creative mind of a storyteller – the same “template” comic, as Madden calls it, is retold in many different forms and styles. Some are very humorous, some are quite abstract, and many are references to other artists (such as Duane Michals or Kenneth Koch), or genres (such as manga, anthropomorphic comics, or ligne claire.) One of my favourites is a duo Happy Couple and Unhappy Couple where Madden managed to completely change the tone and punch line of the comic with a few subtle lines on characters’ faces. Below is the “template” (on the left) and Things are queer (after Dunae Michals) (on the right.) The book astounds with the number of ways of, excuse the cliché, thinking (and inking) outside the box, and I will surely be coming back to it for inspiration.

Understanding Comics is visually and intellectually captivating analysis of the phenomenon of comics, and their unquestionable historic roots. The first chapter begins with what its title suggests, “setting the record straight.” One of the pre-millennium examples of comic art, which McCloud defines (with great difficulty, for definitions can be limiting) as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate consequence,” are the Egyptian hieroglyphics. A scene from 32 centuries ago, painted for the tomb of Menna, an Ancient Egyptian tribe, is nothing but a comic read zig-zag, starting at the bottom left. (Image borrowed from A History of Graphic Design blog.)

There are many more. The 230-foot long Bayeux Tapestry, detailing the Norman conquest of England in 1066 (below; more images here); The Tortures of Saint Erasmus from 1460 (“Popular tastes haven’t changed much in five centuries,” as McCloud quite rightly points out); or a pre-Columbian 36-foot long picture manuscript discovered by Cortés around 1519, which depicts the great military and political hero 8-deer “Tiger’s-Claw”. An example of a sophisticated picture story are the works of William Hogarth: Harlot’s Progress and Rake’s Progress from 1731.Both his paintings and engravings were designed to be viewed side-by-side, i.e. in sequence. “Hogarth’s works (…) proved so popular that new copyright laws were created this new form,” says McCloud.

The father of modern comics was a Swiss cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) who incorporated panel borders into his work, making the words and pictures interdependent for the first time in the 19th century Europe. A very interesting artist was Lynd Ward, American wood engraver and illustrator (1905-85), and author of six lengthy woodcut novels with one image per right-hand page. These dark woodcut novels, influenced by German Expressionism, weren’t recognised as comics, since the definition of the term was until very recently extremely narrow. (Image borrowed from Mike Culpepper’s blog.)

Same with Max Ernst – his collage novel, Une Semaine de bonté, is one of my most cherished books, though when I bought it, I didn’t think I was buying something from the same shelf as the 80’s Alf magazine. The book, published in 1934, is divided into seven sections named after the days of the week, beginning with Sunday, and it comprises 182 images created by cutting up and re-organizing illustrations from Victorian encyclopaedias and novels.

And what about my dear Edward Gorey and his books? They may not have speech balloons but they’re a wonderful example of a form where words and images go hand in hand to convey Gorey’s ideas which wouldn’t happen if it was either of the two. Below are the first couple of panels from The Object-Lesson.

Chapter Six of Understanding Comics analyses the historical process of separating words from pictures. Pictures predate the written word, an example of which are the prehistoric cave paintings, and the earliest words were stylized pictures. But with time, they started to lose resemblance of the visible world, and began to represent the sound. “The written word was becoming more specialized, more abstract, more elaborate – and less and less like pictures,” says McCloud, whilst pictures were becoming more representational and realistic. It is the early 19th century where the two forms became as apart as it could be possible (McCloud illustrates this using an ingenious iconic abstraction chart with 3 vertices: reality, language and picture plane.) But by the end of that century the impressionists, and later expressionists, futurists, Dadaists, etc. were moving towards abstraction and symbolic meanings, while at the same time, the written language was becoming a lot more direct. This led to the meeting of the two forms, and its exploration in the world of comics. Sadly, in the flux of changes in modern art, comics didn’t get a chance to establish themselves as a reputable form, in which text and images wouldn’t be judged separately.

“The art form of comics is many centuries old, but it’s perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media,” with many comic creators viewing an opportunity to work in other media as a step-up, McCloud acknowledges. However, the book was first published in 1994, and a lot has been happening since then. Many people like me get hooked on the magic that happens in the gutter between the panels, which more than any other medium fires my imagination and engages me in the story. A comic artist is a very talented magician whose ability to conjure up wonders rests on very solid skills: drawing in proportions and perspective, excellent composition, understanding of colours, building up narratives, and engaging the reader.

Now, when I am experimenting with comics myself, and discovering how difficult and complex they are, I know that I will never again frown at Spiderman.