Sans Genre III
Ask the guy on the street who invented comics and he'll tell you it was Stan Lee. Ask somebody who knows their stuff and they'll give you Richard Outcault. Ask somebody who really knows their stuff and you'll hear the name Rodolphe Topffer. But, and I'm just sayin', check these out.
They're by Katsushika Hokusai, one of the foremost Japanese artists of the early 1800s. The face grids were first published between 1818 and 1820; the weapon grid sometime in the 1830s. They were published in a wildly popular, multi-volume series of mass-produced artists' folios that sold like crazy in their country of origin and went through waves of reprintings whenever the latest in the series came out. Sound familiar? It gets better: the name of the series was the Hokusai Manga. Rodolphe Topffer, the Swiss romanticist comics have claimed as an appropriately distant, even mysterious father figure, was still in his teens when the first of those grids hit the woodblock presses of the Orient. Taken on the surface, Hokusai trumps the Western-centric history we've constructed, those subdivided prints putting down a solid step into sequential art before any of the usual heroes.
But it's no fun to just say that, so let's pick these things apart a little.
There's a "but" that comes with the Hokusai pieces, a pretty significant one. They've got no story to them. The pages divide up neatly like comics and have the same newsprint tinge behind their printer's ink as any Herriman page you care to name, but they don't go anywhere, the panels don't lead neatly into one another. They're multiple portraits on single pages, not quite the one big thing from constituent parts that makes comics comics. It's a fair criticism, especially when you take them next to the engrossing, plot-heavy sagas that Topffer would offer the world a few years later. And maybe if I were writing this article in, say, 1955, that lack of an immediate narrative to pull you in and make you "read the pictures" would disqualify the work as comics right away. But as comics have grown and expanded, more or less completely ignorant of Hokusai's works (as far as I can tell), they've stretched out into areas that give a lot more weight to his unconnected portraits.
Above is a sequence ("sequence"?) by Seth Fisher at his most Japanese, from Vertigo Pop Tokyo, one of early-2000s American comics' more interesting experiments in replicating shojo manga. It's not a perfect comparison with the Hokusai because it comes smack in the middle of a larger story. But... well, here's the full page...
I mean, the ad pages in commercial comics come in the middle of the stories too, but nobody would argue they're in thrall to the larger plot dynamics. And while there was a point in time when basically every panel of every comic published was there to serve the story in an immediate, obvious fashion, that's just not the case these days. Nobody would argue this little Fisher twelve-grid isn't comics, but it's got no more to do with the actual story Vertigo Pop Tokyo's telling here than the Hokusai prints themselves do. No, it's gridded portraiture, just like the pages that preceded it by almost two centuries. We instantly read it as comics because it's in the middle of a comic book, but taken by itself it requires a slightly different logic; one we can apply to Hokusai's images too. There's a larger theme to Fisher's piece -- all the portraits' subjects are characters in the Vertigo Pop comic -- but Hokusai grouped his pictures thematically too. The first two grids above are portrait-sequences of blind people. The third one is shots of traveling performers, followed, no less, by a nice open view of one of their performances. That's edging mighty close to narrative. The last one is weaponry. The story to be found in both Fisher and Hokusai's sequences comes from the accumulated logic of the images themselves, the rhythm of the grids, the repetition, the speculative threads we draw from picture to picture, the narrative our minds construct for it.
Which sounds awfully abstract, but then again, comics demands its readers face up to abstraction. From a book you may have seen:
Two images whose disconnect from one another is far greater than anything in the Hokusai grids. The lack of word balloons or captions to bridge the panels isn't normative, but it's hardly unique, either -- even books like "World War Hulk: Aftersmash - Damage Control" often feature two silent panels in a row without fussing about it. Comics, even in the most meticulously-tracked figure animation scenes, always require the same thought process it takes to stitch up those Hokusai portraits into a unified whole. Those Watchmen pictures have nothing to do with each other, but in the book we read through them without pause. Try it with the Hokusai pages now: there's a vigorous rhythm at play, a picture-to-picture logic that defies you to take them all at once, forcing you into the sequence whether you can glean a larger "plot" from it or not. It's there to be moved through piece by piece, then appreciated as a whole at the end. These grids are almost like comics as music: each face with a unique tone and treble all its own, complimented by the ring of the previous one before complimenting the next with its own little individual burst of sensory input.
At the core the "no story" criticism is really a question of context. Vertigo Pop Tokyo and Watchmen spend pages and pages building up theirs, until we hardly read the image sequences I spotlighted at all: we let the pictures code for abstract information that fits back into the story. Hokusai's comics don't have that kind of picture-idea transubstantiation going on, but they're also not totally devoid of context or significance. This is a comic about blind people. This is a comic about clowns. This is a comic about projectile weaponry. They don't all gotta be Watchmen, after all.
More interestingly, though, Hokusai's near-Dada flirting with image accretion brings us to a fundamental truth about comics: they cannot lack a context. Two or more images in sequence play off each other, even if there's no immediate relation between them, even if everything else is void. When we see two pictures, we go back and forth, we see the second in the context of the first, the first in the context of the second. The grid's sequence may not impose story on its contents, but it imposes subject. Like:
That snippet's by Jason Overby, excerpted from last year's seminal Abstract Comics anthology. This isn't comics about blind people, not even comics about faces, but it's hardly "about nothing" either. This is comics about lines, space, form and emptiness, and not only does the way these two completely unconnected pictures are put in sequence inform the way we experience it (flip it backwards in photoshop if you don't believe me), we can't help but assign some kind of meaning to these abstracts. Shapes are glimpsed. A screen appears, obscuring them. That's tense, that's deep, I wanna see what happens next. This stuff has little basis in Topffer's populist laff riots, let alone Richard Outcault's character-based hysterics, but there's a clear line running from it back to Hokusai. In both, the grid and its automatic sequencing pull disassociated, floating images from the air and force them to speak with each other, building power as they roll ahead. Which, of course, is something all comics do. Hokusai just ignores everything else for that one marvel of the form, the sequence and its tendency to build a sum greater than its parts. There may not be much genesis for Batman or anything in the grids, but for the comics that shoot lines and glances deep into the heart of the medium and its capabilities, this stuff is the foundation. Long buried, perhaps, but still there. Still comics.
And finally, if any further evidence is needed that Hokusai was working squarely in the comics form, he drew some straight bitchin' superheroes.
(The Hokusai images are scanned from the monograph Hokusai: First Manga Master, a book that everyone should own. My thanks to Rory Root. And if you liked this, make sure you check out this great Frank Santoro article on a few of the subjects I touched on!)