Number Three in an Open-Ended Series of Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Comics
"I prefer comics where it seems like all the panels on the page exist in a latent state with each other, where the flow of the page is an indivisible whole, a totality. But with something like Price Valiant, I don't see a flow there from panel to panel. It doesn't seem like one panel laid the seed for the next panel. It was more like, here's a bunch of ideas and key narrative points, and its like a storyboard in some way. . . . I mean, there is a continuity - I'm not denying that - but it seems to me a continuity that's decided after the fact. . . . It seems to me that's not quite cartooning, by my definition, but it's comics.
- Ivan Brunetti, The Comics Journal #264
Asceticism has been the dominant flavor of "serious" comics for a long time, and while this has proved useful in terms of helping to create and nurture a more critically aware self-image within the medium, it has also become an unfortunate psychological crutch.
Within the comics community, and in those mainstream media outlets where the form is gaining increased recognition, the image of the modern cartoonist is almost invariably similar. Whereas past generations presented cartoonists as robust men with indefatigable work ethics and amiable demeanors - the image of the perpetually sturdy Milt Caniff sitting at his drawing board springs immediately to mind, or Will Eisner looking infinitely dignified in one of the many promotional photos taken of him in the 1940s - the current generation has retreated as far in the other direction as possible. Those cartoonists who dominate the critical discourse (at least in North America) are almost to a man figures who typify isolation while celebrating detachment and spiritual reserve - Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Seth, Chester Brown, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine.
The act of drawing seems almost physically painful for these artists, who never let an interview opportunity pass without mentioning the "heartbreak" of cartooning, or the burdens of extreme perfectionism. It seems for these gentlemen almost as if the joy has gone entirely out of drawing, and the strain is beginning to show in their work, with artists like Ware, Clowes and Tomine beginning to drift further into their reflexively ascetic navels and producing comics that are defined almost entirely by their absence of dynamism - be it narratological or psychological.
The quote by Brunetti at the top of the page typifies, for me, some of the intrinsic problems of this aesthetic fascism. Comics is a particularly flexible and endlessly inventive medium. Because both the language and the form are perpetually malleable, comics can accommodate an almost infinite variety of approaches. The problem is that in reaction to certain historical prejudices - the economic domination of mediocre mainstream comics and aesthetically numb assembly-line production methods - certain very specific schools of cartooning have been elevated to preeminence over others. This has had the unfortunate side-effect that the least intrinsically robust creators have created an environment wherein those peculiar stylistic attributes which typify their cartooning have become dominant.
The most important counter-agent to this trend is time. As we are, under any measure, still in the first-bloom of the form's growing mainstream respect and acceptance, these trends will hopefully level-out as larger audiences inspire larger and more diverse pools of creators. The philosophy that exalts the painstakingly-crafted narrative-strip format of Clowes and Ware over, say, the lushly-illustrated and more static approach of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant is totally arbitrary. The exaltion of narrative clarity over virtuoso drawing is similarly limited, and says much more about the subjective tastes of the observer than any useful objective standards for evaluating comic art. The growing critical recognition for the more illustrative fantasy work of artists such as Charles Vess, P. Craig Russell and Jeff Smith is proof that any imposed boundaries are essentially useless - and that any considered critical vocabulary has to be able to approach apples as apples and oranges as oranges. (To some degree as well, talent has long been considered subservient to genre in critical response - and while there is some validity to the notion that genre acts as a subconscious constraint upon lesser talents, history has proven time and again that transcendent talents can transcend the constraints imposed by the most limited of genres.)
It is also important that serious comics not be suckered into exchanging one set of arbitrary guidelines - the domination of colorful superheroes and children's entertainment - for another more parallel to current literary trends. The most exciting cartoonists of the last few years have shown a resolute willingness to break out of the confines of asceticism in order to embrace less naturalistic and far more exotic modes of storytelling. Just look at Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights - perhaps the most wildly imaginative and deeply transgressive work of the last five years, and so clearly removed from any notion of asceticism that is seems to exist on another planet entirely from the likes of Jimmy Corrigan. Likewise, the release of the monumental Locas and Palomar compilations has refocused attention on the frequently overlooked Los Bros Hernandez, a turn of events which invariably means a return to the appreciation of beautiful illustrations as a key component of comics appreciation.
But the most important release of the last few years may yet be Gary Panter's Jumbo in Purgatory. Almost impossibly dense and mannered, it upends the entirety of the last decade's consensus on comics aesthetics in one fell swoop. Not only do Panter's pages refuse to coalesce into anything resembling a conventional narrative "flow", the sheer density of information communicated in every panel makes the work almost impossible to appreciate on anything but a level of intense concentration. The split between allusive literary meaning and elaborate visual metaphor creates a powerful effect that a more integrated narrative form might find impossible.
The focus on narrative clarity in comics has produced works of staggering focus and depth, but the imposition of unity on these separate elements into a smooth and seamless whole limits the amount of information that can be reasonably transmitted in any given strip. We may soon see a resurgence of cartoonists who will want to disassemble the seamless narrative form of the ascetics and play with the contrast and cooperation between visual and verbal elements in a more expansive and elaborate fashion. There is as much potential for subliminal communication in a beautifully feathered brush-line as in an astringent and mannered pen-stroke.
The Second Part