Sans Genre IX
I've been having trouble reading comics lately. Not because of moral qualms with the material or difficulty in finding good ones or the pull of other media -- there's no "lately" about any of those things. No, I mean I've literally been having trouble reading them. The act of reading is a pretty remarkable thing when you come down to it, a singular act of will and concentration that we somehow experience as passive enjoyment. Maybe my brainpower is just ebbing away from me, but I'm finding it increasingly tough to see past my own vision and onto the page. There are so many things mitigating between a page of comics and our ability to make a perfect visual capture of it. The quality of light in any room changes a comic's color scheme the second it's opened. There's excess visual information surrounding every comic no matter where or how we look at it, at least until the point that it's held so close to the face we can't read it at all anymore. And then there are the barriers the eyes themselves place in between us and everything we see: sunspots, fuzz, the bridge of your nose in the periphery, the impossibility of taking in everything at once. Sight is the only way we have to access comics, and sight is imperfect.
It's comics' ability to get past so many of sight's imperfections that make the form such a special thing. Film and photography face many of the same problems as natural vision does -- lens flares, unwanted visual information, lack of ability to achieve total focus -- at least one of these things have a way of making it into every photo. And even though digital tools that can correct all these problems are rapidly being developed, those tools can't legislate the way a piece of drapery wrinkles and folds, the way a lock of hair falls, the expression on a face. Accident and happenstance will forever be a major compositional force, and the main contextual force of art forms that use machinery to capture documentary images from the world around them. And whether they realize it or not, when the photographer or the filmmaker begin using the computer to create from whole cloth, they've left the realm of the photographic for drawing. Drawing, in which the artist's vision is the sole motivating force, where the problems of vision can truly be left behind.
But the influence of the photograph has done much to dilute the power of drawing, the art of the picture. Unwanted happenstance may have a great deal of influence over the content of every photograph we see, but the prevalence of photographic imagery has created a knee-jerk impulse toward a documentary quality in drawings that aren't meant to carry it. Without excess information of some kind, the line of thought goes, pictures look like pictures, not representations of the real world that can be read into. Hence the strain of modern comics art that has gone far afield from the word "cartooning" in an effort to engage readers on the same quasi-realist grounds that film does. It's a troubling departure from the early cartoons and engravings the comics form grew out of, which in turn had roots in symbolist painting. Handled correctly, no amount of information a picture can hold is "too much". But where once all pictorial information took the faculty of invention in order to make it into the work, today most imagery contains at least something that the artist didn't intend but simply "shot". For centuries even incidental information was designed to give the image further relevance, added context, or autocritique. Today comics are more likely to be stuffed with lines and shapes and colors that can't be described as anything more than "background detail" -- meticulous documentation of extraneous surroundings -- unremarkable, interchangable, irrelevant.
This is why the blank backgrounds and empty spaces left open and free of lines by the cartoonist carry so much more power than the crumbling concrete and flaking facades of the mega-detailer. The comics form, once again, is in thrall only to the imagination that powers the hands putting images to page. Much has been made of comics' ability to leave the real world's laws of physics and anatomy behind in presenting their apocalyptic battles, but the reality is that comics need not present anything in keeping with the real at all. There is nothing unavoidable in drawing, none of the accessions that photographic imagery is forced to make to visual information other than the content it depicts. In fact, it is impossible to draw something you don't mean to.
In comics all that exists is what the artist wants us to see -- and in the best comics, that means if it doesn't play a role in the story it doesn't exist. Look at the drawings of a Roy Crane or a Chris Ware, a Yuichi Yokoyama or a Jack Kirby. They are silent, pure, free of noise and anecdote. Free, in fact, of the world, of the billions upon billions of tiny distractions and happenstances that clutter up the days and prevent us from attaining the clarity given to superheroes who can see through the pages to their true purpose. The look of reality, in which the biggest difference from fiction is perhaps the existence of the totally irrelevant, is an impossibility for comics, and the best not only acknowledge but embrace this, creating unified drawings in which everything has a role to play and the connection to the world around us has been decisively severed. This quality, of course, is hardly unique to comics -- great visual art across the spectrum of media carries it. But comics is the only medium in which we actually read the pictureplane, in which engagement with the form necessitates an attempt to draw meaning from, rather than simply observe, pictures. Hence, the existence of extraneous information on the page is not just glossed over, as in film or photography: it is analyzed, which dulls the impact of the aspects of the picture which carry relevant information. And by contrast, comic book drawings in which every bit of the picture serves some conceptual purpose are the form operating as precisely and effectively as possible.
To possess natural sight is to understand that some of what we see with our eyes is not, in fact, "real". There are tricks of the light and afterimages, blind spots and blurs, and these things all translate to the photographic image. Because of their status as a story as well as a pictorial medium, only comics present an inhabitable world in which everything we see is real. If it's on the page it's included: not only does comics lack a mechanism to point out visual information as being subjective or nonexistent, it's (at least thus far) wholly uninterested in doing so. The ability to legislate an entire, uninterrupted reality with the work of human hands seems a much more intriguing proposition for most artists.
This quality of comics, in which everything visible must be judged as true, is what makes comic book drawings that carry visible traces of the tools used to make them so wonderfully intriguing. When we look at real-world objects we understand that the layers of light suffusing them or backgrounding them or covering them over aren't their substance, only the way we perceive the wood or stone or plastic or whatever else it is that makes them up. But comics are made of medium, brush or pencil grain, digital fuzz, the folds and overlaps of an uneven paint job. On the page there is no disavowing these things, no saying that they aren't as much of what the pictures are as their content or their characters. They are both the construction of the world inside the comic and the way back out into reality, evidence that somewhere someone manufactured these things. In reading prose we can imagine events that take place in a photographic, real world, the characters as flesh-and-blood humans. But comics take away the reader's ability to imagine their narratives occurring anywhere but within the parameters of the artist's visual style. The fact that it's all just drawings is always apparent, always part of the reading experience. Perhaps comics are inherently metafictional, pocket worlds that constantly tell the stories of their own creation along with the stories they're designed to be telling.
It goes right down beneath the lines, to the paper they're printed on. If the grainy excesses of an ink line are part of a comic's reality, no less can be said for the xerox grain blanketing the pages of a minicomic, or the chips of wood pulp dotting comics printed on newspaper. And comics' readers can't help but pay attention to these things; the format of the book legislates a comic's reading experience as much as the colors of the ink used to print it or the font it's lettered in. In comics, every bit of the object matters. By comparison, how many novels get noticed for their paper stock, or paintings for the qualities of their canvas? The action of reading comics encourages a deep, investigative visual contemplation above all else, a systematic mining of each page for all its details. The ones that are there all matter. And everything else doesn't.
The perfect comic, then, is the one in which every fleck of ink, every slightest color modulation, every tiny waver of every tiny line, is a part of the artist's vision and intention. Even if it happens one day, this comic in which happenstance plays no part whatsoever, it will still be an impossible thing to experience. Its reader will turn on a light to read it, and open their imperfect, afterimaged, fuzzed out eyes, and see the comic covered over by the real world around it, see something beside the world on the page. Artistic intention is a failure the second it meets its audience. But on the comics page, at least, it lives and thrives. The only hurdle comics can't negotiate is human biology itself. Everything else is within reach.