Well, I swore I'd never blog political, and by God I sure broke that oath, didn't I? I'd like to thank all the people (OK, maybe all two of you) who said nice things to me, and I'd like to also thank the ten thousand of you who didn't castigate me for my infernal ignorance.
I have this idea - and you can call me strange if you wish - that unless you're actually, you know, an expert in a certain field, you should avoid making uneducated proclamations in that chosen field. I read a lot on politics and current events, and yet I know I am nowhere near as informed as your average poli-sci PhD. I get pissed off when someone who knows absolutely nothing about comics starts spouting off about comic aesthetics, and on a similar token I try to guard against spouting off on politics because I realize that I am no expert. By that same token, I am not qualified to teach you how to solve differential equations or how to install a new transmission for your car, and I could say that I have an opinion on these things but invariably those opinions would be wrong. I realize that politics are for more of a grey area than the hard sciences, but still, I try to be very conscious of my limitations, and try my level best not to inflict them on others.
But the flip side of that coin is that, modesty aside, I'm still better informed and more knowledgable than probably 90-95% of the electorate. However, unlike your average Joe down at the bar, I try to operate on the assumption that my uninformed opinion on any issue on which I am not an expert is actually worth less than an informed opinion. I realize that's not very egalitarian, but hey, them's the breaks. What a fucking concept.
So, um, yeah. How about them comics?
The Acme Novelty Datebook - Part One
Every now and again I come across the idea that comics art must by necessity be split for consideration into two separate categories: story and art. Obviously, on a very basic level, comics are a hybrid genre, in that elements from multiple mediums are used interchangeably on the page. But to try and separate these inextricably bound elements, to try and interpret the structural interplay of the page as diametrically opposed elements in dynamic conflict - i.e., specifically “narrative” or “lyrical” elements working towards parallel purposes - is to misunderstand the nature and strength of the comics medium. Comics work best when the narrative, such as it is, is almost indistinguishable from the art, and vice versa. The unconscious collision between disparate visual elements to create a sense of narrative cohesion is vital to the act of reading comics, and trying to separate them after the fact makes for scattershot interpretation.
I have long felt that compiled artist sketchbooks represent one of the most adventurous and satisfying horizons in comic art. If you were to ask me what I believe Robert Crumb’s greatest achievement in the medium to be, I would not answer Zap or Weirdo or any of the usual suspects – I would answer that his sketchbooks represent the single purest distillation of his talent, as well as perhaps his greatest conceptual endowment to the medium. Certainly, it probably never occurred to him for the books to be published when they were originally created. I imagine that if he is anything like his profoundly abstruse public persona, he probably finds the idea of thousands of art-crazy fanboys poring over his private doodles absolutely mind-boggling, South of France or no. But the fact remains, these books are an absolute treasure trove of knowledge for anyone with the patience to study them (and the wherewithal to look past the big booties).
This is comics narrative at it’s rawest form: the progression of singular images to create a cumulative effect in the mind of the reader. Certainly, two separate pictures, if taken on separate terms, can have no relation. But if you create the perception of continuity, then the mind will automatically work to create connections between the disparate visual stimulus. It works on simple levels, such as Scott McCloud’s infamously simple two panels with the stick figure lifting his hat:
And it also works on more complex levels as well. Certainly, most long-form comics works are structured as traditional narratives, hence the “graphic novel” appellation. It’s always tricky to read too much into accidental syntax, but in this case the phrase betrays quite a bit about the structural focus of most traditional comics narrative.
If you look at something like Crumb’s sketchbooks, you have a multi-volume work composed of sketchbook excerpts arranged in chronological order. There is obviously no “story” in any conventional sense, but there is narrative, and a narrative of the type that only comics could create. There’s emotional and intellectual progression (replete with perceived crises and equilibrium), recurring thematic motifs, stylistic exploration and even continuing characters, in the form of Crumb, his family and his fictional creations. When the Crumb sketchbooks are printed in their entirety (or, the entirety that he and his estate will allow), they will collectively represent one of the most towering and singular masterworks of our medium.
The first in what will hopefully be a long series of Chris Ware’s sketchbook volumes was one of last year’s most beautiful releases. By taking a closer look at the mechanics of Ware’s sketchbook, not only can we gain infinitely illuminating entry into the mind of one of our greatest living cartoonists, but we can also learn a great deal about how and why the medium works the way it does.