Let’s Get Academic

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This week I finished a summer course at Portland State University, “Contemporary Comics Theory” (devoting a lot of my energy to this is one of several reasons that reviews haven’t been forthcoming lately). It was a great experience, turning me onto a lot of readings I wouldn’t have found otherwise and the only opportunity I’ve ever had to be part of a conversation in which 15 people discuss something like Heartbreak Soup.

Because it was a college course, there was a fair amount of writing involved and, the class being over, I don’t have much I’m going to do with the papers I wrote for it, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to present them here.

First, the mid-term, for which I chose to respond to Earle J. Coleman’s 1985 article from the Journal of Popular Culture, entitled “The Funnies, the Movies, and Aesthetics.” Obviously, a 20-plus-year-old article is a somewhat dated topic for discussion, but I found it to still have some interesting ideas and descriptions of issues that continue today, plus some of the problems that I found in it relate to ways that people still write about comics. So, hopefully this is actually of interest:


More Than Just Paper Movies

There are two main components to Earle J. Coleman’s argument in “The Funnies, the Movies, and Aesthetics.” The first is that modern comics, though invented alongside film at the turn of the last century, lags behind film in terms of the development of an aesthetic basis for criticism. In his opening and closing paragraphs, he calls for more attention to be placed on the aesthetic qualities of comics and for critics to “de-emphasize psychology, sociology and history” (100) in doing so. The second, which makes up the bulk of the article, is his attempt to begin to define what those aesthetic qualities might be by looking at many of the qualities that make up film criticism and trying each one on comics, some fitting more comfortably than others.

With the first section, Coleman asserts that comics have fallen behind in the application of art theory largely because the form itself is not appreciated as having artistic merit. He points out that publications like the New York Times eschew comics so as not to lose their image of seriousness. As to the source of comics’ disrepute, Coleman puts forth three hypotheses: comics are not valued by the artistic elite because they “appeal to the masses” (89) and are therefore suspect; they are disposable, arriving in their most popular form as part of a quickly obsolete newspaper; the name “comics” itself suggests a lack of seriousness and therefore, in the artistic imagination, a lack of value.

The larger portion of the article is devoted to the similarities and differences between comics and film, and how parts of the aesthetic criteria used to evaluate movies may apply to comics. Coleman notes that both depend on sequential images to create narratives, have an immediacy that make both perpetually present-tense (though he notes that long-form comics provide simultaneous access to several moments and are therefore less bound to the present), and are pictorially driven. Film and comics employ similar visual techniques (the close-up, montage, subjective camera) and Coleman sees in each a dreamlike quality and cave wall predecessors. As outside influences, each has had breakneck production schedules and rigid moral codes applied to them. Coleman even identifies a comics equivalent to film’s auteur theory in the ability of a single artist to control every aspect of a comics narrative and create a vision uniquely their own.

The strongest similarity Coleman finds between film and comics is their mix of pictorial and verbal elements and the dependence that each element has on the other in the strongest films and comics. Invoking Panofsky’s concept of “coexpressibility” (94), he makes the case that something is lost when either the words or pictures are removed from good films or comics. Because of the combination of words and pictures, he argues that comics actually have more in common with drama than literature.

Coleman also finds differences between the two media. Film is more realistic, since it uses physical reality as its medium. Motion creates a sense of visual depth that comics can’t match and is perceived automatically in film, while in comics it requires work on the part of the reader. Perhaps most importantly, because of film’s realism and comics’ drawn nature, comics are far more abstract in their form and effects than film.

Coleman’s main complaint, that critics have not developed an independent aesthetic vocabulary for comics, is sadly still relevant. In Reading Comics, Douglas Wolk takes issue with critics’ use of cinematic and literary terms to praise comics in lieu of coining their own terms (Wolk 13-16). Coleman avoids this trap himself by using his comparison between comics and film only as a starting point toward establishing an aesthetic; he is not attempting to co-opt film language unaltered, just using them to get his bearings. Coleman admits as much, stating that “the present remarks are offered as something of a prolegemenon [sic]” (99-100). He also correctly identifies the flaws in spending too much time and effort studying elements like sociology and history to the exclusion of aesthetics. It is still not uncommon to see comics canons that are based around historically significant comics rather than aesthetically accomplished ones.

Many of Coleman’s observations about the two media are quite astute, highlighting meaningful similarities and significant differences between them. That both utilize words and pictures together certainly suggests a different relationship to the viewer/reader than in solely verbal media like literature or radio, such as a more immediate connection and instant access to the dreamlike quality of “picture language” (90). Coleman makes excellent points about the coexpressibility of comics through examples like removing the images from wordless comics and citing how even the style of lettering has aesthetic implications in a story. In passages like this, he moves beyond a treatment of “comics as frozen film” (90). Coleman’s comparison between the production schedules of movie serials and comics strips, and between the Comics Code and the Motion Picture Production Code are useful (91-92): They initially sound like history rather than aesthetics, but he makes it clear in each passage that these practical concerns have real implications on the content and quality of material in each medium. Mentions of differences like the greater realism of film and the greater abstraction of comics are also important to note, as they provide some of the signposts as to what types of stories would be advantaged by each medium. For instance, because it looks like the reality we live in, it is harder not to take film literally, while the abstract forms of cartoons and the mental work required to interpret the story from panel to panel make comics a natural realm for visual metaphor.

Coleman makes some claims that have been picked up by other comics critics. Like Scott McCloud, he cites sequence as the engine of comics narrative and contrasts this with editorial cartoons (McCloud 20), which he claims depict only the “climax of a situation or condition” (93). His explanation of how comics unfold over a series of moments rather than editorial cartoons’ compression of time into a single (or close to it if dialogue is involved) present tense moment is thoughtful, and gets to the heart of McCloud’s argument in just a few lines.

However, the article does have shortcomings, as some claims are made less convincing by a lack of provided facts to support them. Like R.C. Harvey, Coleman argues that one of the implications of coexpressibility is that better comics find a balance words and pictures (Harvey 4). The idea is a good one, and Coleman doesn’t go as far as Harvey in implying that wordless or other unusually balanced comics somehow fail this test (Horrocks 35), but it still leads to some odd statements. For instance, he refers to wordless comics as seeming “as anachronistic” as silent film, despite the fact that sound was a technological advance coming nearly three decades into the history of film, while comics had the ability to depict speech and sound effects from the beginning. This means that the choice to create a “silent” comic was always an aesthetic one and was not made obsolete by a newer technology. In this context, and with no additional information given to back up the claim that silent comics are anachronistic, it is a strange argument.

A more striking problem is the omission of a basic fact that Coleman implies but never directly addresses, that comics panels are not only sequential, but adjacent to each other on the same page and, unlike film, are not all the same shape and size. He repeatedly hints at this fact, calling comics a “series of panels” (90), noting that the panels are “sequentially arranged” (93), and refers to illusions of motion within panels (97), but never quite gets to the fact that panels are placed together on a page and interact with each other on that page to create the story. Coleman likely assumes his readers are familiar with how panels are arranged in a strip or on a page, but not addressing it explicitly necessarily leaves out elements of comics pacing that are determined by panel shape and size, as well as the mechanism by which readers become the “human projectors” he describes in p.97.

In general, the piece works well, convincingly making the point that comics is deserving of its own aesthetic lexicon and treatment and, for the most part, drawing a comparison with film that illuminates where similar terminology does and does not serve comics criticism. Where it fails is in not backing up all its claims and glossing over a few assumptions, the exploration of which would have brought further illumination. The article provides things to think about further, such as its claim that comics, because of the verbal-pictorial blend, is closer to drama than literature, a notion worthy of exploration in its own article. While flawed, it succeeds in providing a starting point for developing a way of thinking about comics in unique aesthetic terms.

Works Cited:

Coleman, Earle J. “The Funnies, the Movies, and Aesthetics.”
Journal of Popular Culture 18.4 (1985): 89-100.

Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History.
Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. 1996.

Horrocks, Dylan. “Inventing Comics: Scott McCloud Defines the Form in Understanding Comics.”
The Comics Journal 234 (June 2001): 29-39

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics.
New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1994.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 2007.

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