3. Forms of Comics and the Cognitive Process of Reading Them
3.1 The misleading of terms
The word comic is misleading in itself, setting the prejudice that the main theme or aim is the gag, or the joke, while, for a large number of contemporary comic strips humor is not a primary target at all, or, in some cases, it is achieved in a more profound, literary sense. The United States has adopted the comic or comic strip terms around the 1900’s, when there was indeed a period of humorous publications of naïve inspiration, and stuck with it to define the whole sequential art, as Will Eisner would call this art form in the mid-80s, in his own attempt to devoid this art form of any prejudice.
In contrast, the Franco-Belgian term is bande dessinée, which translates into “drawn strip.” BDs, in short, are the mirroring phenomena in Europe, having a great success in the francophone world and still attracting a lot of fans nowadays. Using the same morphology, Germans used Bildergeschichteor Bilderstreifen, which is along the lines of “picture story” and “picture strip,” respectively—although they later taken over the American term. These two terms are free of the aforementioned prejudice, but they are still loose terms, which, in the given situation, isn’t that bad. The insistence of trying to keep comic strips and graphic novels two different genres also comes from an American cultural and academic prejudice that comics are somewhat sub‑literature or juvenile at best. This problem is inexistent in Europe, where BDs are a well‑established literary and artistic form. Thanks to this, there is no true equivalent of the graphic novel present, the bande dessinée encompassing both the adult comics and the ones for children, everything living harmoniously under the same roof.
3.2 Comics and Graphic Novels—different or not?
While comics denote for most people aperiodical publication for children and teenagers aiming at simple, action-oriented stories, the graphic novel is thought of as mainly addressing mature audiences, while employing adult and complex literary themes with a heightened degree of artwork to be deciphered and understood. Also, unlike the serialized strips, a graphic novel is a finite piece of work, and usually much larger in length (sometimes spanning over several volumes) than the 30-32 page kiosk comic book. But, again, we can find a confusing discrepancy here that almost nullifies the definition: more often than not graphic novels are actually a collection of comic strips that were previously published in series, now republished in a complete package, rather than works that were first printed in their entirety. An edifying example is the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which was originally published as a series, in insert form, by the avant-garde magazine Raw (from 1980 to 1991), only then to become the highly-acclaimed postmodern graphic novel that it is today.
A real notable difference between the comic strips and the graphic novel (being so few, all must be mentioned) comes with print quality, the latter having a higher quality paper and overall look and feel. The European equivalents of the graphic novels are high-quality albums, comprised of the same serialized BDs, which usually appeal to the teenager and mature audiences, but since there is no need to differentiate, like in the case of the U.S., the term was taken more from the photographic world than trying to give it more a literary sense, like the graphic novel term tries to convey, in an attempt of its own to create a border between it and the puerile content of comics.
There is a significant attempt to change the whole comic strip/book vs. graphic novel paradigm, and there has been much criticism along the years towards the graphic novel term from many notable writers and artists. It is the forced, artificial birth of this term that created the discord in the first place. Being more and more exposed as being of a cultural origin rather than a functional one, the European trend of gathering everything under the dome of a single word, in this casecomic or comicbook, is catching up in America as well. In an interview, Alan Moore, the creator of the highly-acclaimed Watchmen, gave the following comment regarding the unnecessary graphic novel denomination:
It’s a marketing term... that I never had any sympathy with. The term ‘comic’ does just as well for me... The problem is that ‘graphic novel’ just came to mean ‘expensive comic book’… (Kavanagh, 2000: Interview)
With a more analytical approach, writer Daniel Raeburn goes to the heart of the sub‑literature prejudice and puts the whole cultural problem in the right light:
I snicker at the neologism first for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a ‘sanitation engineer’—and second because a graphic novel is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine. (Raeburn, 2004: 110)
Other cartoonists have avoided to include the term in their works altogether, creating new terms to describe them. Illustrated novel, comic-strip novel, or picture novella are just some of the subtitles they have added to their works, but there is a large consensus that comic book is the appropriate term. One of the reasons why its introduction is delayed, though, is marketing. As long as the cultural prejudice is still present, the sales will suffer, so artists are somewhat forced to reach a golden mean, on one side being the graphic novel terminology which overcomplicates everything and on the other, the ‘comic curse.’
Whether it is called a comic or a graphic novel; a sequential art or a picture novella, the fact is that this kind of art form is in a permanent development, starting with the cave paintings of the Neolithic, going past Trajan’s Column, and continuing nowadays with the works of great artists like Eisner, Moore, Spiegelman and many more. And although it has been around for so many centuries, the amount of academic study that has been invested in understanding and analyzing it is still somewhat limited, which begs for a greater insight in this complex art form.
3.3 What is reading?
In his book, Comics and Sequential Art, Will Eisner dedicates an entire chapter to the act of reading comics. Just like the term comic, the definition of reading, or to read, is challenged of not encompassing the whole process of reading in its current form of explanation and understanding. Thomas Wolf, in an article written for the Harvard Educational Review, and titled Reading Reconsidered, brings into attention that reading is a process of decoding symbols, which are, in their turn, images. This process of deciphering text therefore has much more in common with comics than we would believe at first:
“For the last hundred years, the subject of reading has been connected quite directly to the concept of literacy; … learning to read … has meant learning to read words … But … reading has gradually come under closer scrutiny. Recent research has shown that the reading of words is but a subset of a much more general human activity which includes symbol decoding, information integration and organization … Indeed, reading—in the most general sense—can be thought of as a form of perceptual activity. The reading of words is one manifestation of this activity; but there are many others—the reading of pictures, maps, circuit diagrams, musical notes… (Wolf, 1977: 411-29)
Written language has taken many forms over the thousands of years, and one of the first ways to communicate was through imagery, that later was refined into symbols. The use of logograms, how they are academically called, is thousands of years old, the best example being the Egyptian hieroglyphs that were used extensively and efficiently for over two thousand years. What sets the logograms (or sometimes called ideograms) apart from the other graphemes is that a logogram expresses an idea, or an object (see img. 1).
|Image 1 — Egyptian pictograms|
Conveying familiar objects, forms and postures and other recognizable phenomena into symbols is something from which the comic artist heavily draws from. Turning the recognizable materialism into abstract symbols is one layer of the foundation of the comic, descending from thousands of years of pictographic languages and forms of writing, which shows how the visual and textual is notnecessarily separated, but intertwined and co-dependent.
The essence of Thomas Wolf’s essay is the similarity in the psychological processes of deciphering and understanding while viewing a word or/and an image, therefore making the blending of the two very natural, one of the mediums in which this happens most often being what Eisner calls sequential art.
The same happened in other cultures, for example, with the Chinese or Japanese pictographs, that were refined until the art of calligraphy emerged. Besides the use of pictographs, calligraphy brought another dimension in the use of symbols: the style of execution. Depending on the thickness of the strokes, delineation, and other factors imposed by the writer, the same text can reach new meanings and transmit or invoke different feelings to the reader.While the Chinese and Japanese calligraphy was honed to offer new textual and visual dimensions, when talking about the evolution of comics, the graphical representation of the lettering was also refined and repurposed, one of the best examples being A Contract with God, considered the book that popularized the term of graphic novel in America and overseas, but, nevertheless, among the first of its kind. Here, Eisner puts the text “in service of the graphic story,” functioning as “an extension of the imagery.” (Eisner, 2000: 10) He somehow brings text back to its visual roots, through which the ‘embellished’ text is used to “support the ‘climate’” of the scene (see img. 2 and 3).
If the letters that make a language are, in fact, glyphs, icons, recognizable images, then it can be argued that comics do the same within their drawings, employing on recurring images and repetitive, recognizable symbols, thus creating a visual language that can be decoded and assimilated. Recognizable postures of the human body are often used to convey the desired message. But, as with the pictographs, the illustrator can change the meaning or the atmosphere of one’s comic ‘pictograph’ through various additions (or subtractions) of lighting and other ‘determinatives,’ or adjuvant elements, like facial expressions, dialogue or setting.
Even more, stories can be created without having any text at all. Sequences of images without any dialogue do not weaken in any way the narrative, but in some cases the lack of words leaves more for the fruitful imagination of the reader, enriching the storytelling potential. There are even complete stories created entirely in pantomime, which can still be ‘read’ and completely understood, the only issue here being the skill of the illustrator, which must express the desired emotions through the particular style in which the scenes are drawn. By drawing on common postures, expressions and actions, the pantomimic story is as expressive and full of message like an ordinary, dialogued one, which only stands to show the viability of imagery in conveying the message from the creator to the viewer, or reader. Below, there are two short stories from Will Eisner’s New York the Big City, which use this form of ‘pure’ illustration.
3.4 Filling the gaps with imagination
Symbols are not only letters, thus the process of reading does not consist only in lettering, but the reading and deciphering of symbols. Whether these symbols are pictograms, letters, images or even sounds, reading is a cognitive process which almost any animal, at some level, is employing. The brain’s habit to develop patterns and recognize them in our environment is the basis of reading, reading our world. When dwelling deeper in this extremely intricate and ever‑changing process of the human brain, we cannot say but the fact that comics are by excellence a heavy user of these patterns, hinting us the narrative, but letting our brain and past experiences—our own layout of patterns—fill the gaps. The brain cannot have pattern gaps, and this is a kink that comics exploit with great success, just like shadows in the dim light,we do know something is there, but we have to imagine the rest of the picture.