Sans Genre VIII
From Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino (1972):
"The connections between one element of the story and the other were not always obvious to the emperor; the objects could have various meanings: a quiver filled with arrows could indicate the approach of war, or an abundance of game, or else an armorer's shop; an hourglass could mean time passing, or time past, or sand, or a place where hourglasses were made..."
What do they mean? These pictures, these fractions of things much greater? They mean nothing. Out of context, they could mean anything, imply anything. But look at them.
In comics, it's never the individual pictures, no matter how lovely they are. It's the context one image puts every previous one into, the furthered understanding of a whole that each constituent part helps create.
And yet when comics are done right, every image is a complete composition in and of itself, something beautiful and isolated, a moment out of time that takes its readers out of time as well, leaving them to contemplate it.
A drawing in a comic is a communication, but not a complete one. A single puzzle piece. The only way in which the individual panel can function completely is as an example of beauty.
But none of this should belittle the panel. None of this makes one drawing closed in by four borders anything less than a thousand pages of sequencing and word balloons and plot twists and data is. Because the highest goal of any art is to communicate something beautiful. What makes comics special is that they are composed of complete beauty after complete beauty. An index of pearls on an invisible string that we glide along as we read.
You may say that comics can be something more than that. Even that they should be. But when the book is closed and the time with it is over and it's packed into the shelf, we all still have our favorite comics, we carry them around in us, sometimes we make lists.
What are our favorite comics? What is the best the medium has to offer? Is it that particular copy of that particular book that you own, with page sixteen dog-eared or the dust jacket lost? Is it ink on paper or the smell of newsprint new or old? Comics exists beyond these things. They are not even your favorite stories or your favorite drawings, the plot points or pencil lines that freeze you and speak to you. What makes us love whatever comics we love is the context we bring to them, or that they bring to us. The way they brightened our lives, or the way we came to them at a time when we were bright already. That string of pearls, that accumulation of beauties, is always one single thing when we step back further, something complete made of many things, each one of them complete as well.
There are things you can appreciate for the way they look or the package they come in or how clever they are. But the ones we love exist beyond the physical, in our minds. The memories of a feeling, or the feeling itself, or whatever the ones we cherish gave us in our time with them. These are true reasons.
And at its best what exists on the page, in the drawing, in the story, in the panels, only helps us there.