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Comics Column #2 Poetry and New Languages (A Disease of Language, Kabuki)

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Comics Column #2: Poetry and New Languages (A Disease of Language, Kabuki)

”’Comics’ are a social object written in a visual language that combines with text. If novels or magazines are written in English, why should ’comics’ be a language, instead of be written in a language?”—Neil Cohn

VI. “...axis of connection…”

Not that long ago, I wrote briefly for this site on the subject of recurring visual metaphors in Neon Genesis Evangelion. I wrote, then, that—

“It is incredibly difficult to create a solid visual that then serves as a metaphor within the work itself, as the visual has to be potent in its initial incarnation without disrupting the flow of the story, and then must recur in a natural way.”

—and in film, this difficulty is in part because of the difference in “window” that I discussed in my first installment. We don’t, by nature, refer to a specific visual composition as a metaphor that recurs because the objects in the frame are so often moving. This is not to say that it isn’t done—directors like Kubrick and Lynch have been able to capture visuals that work in a single frame, empowered by meaning even apart from context, and oftentimes those images inform on the work as a whole—but it’s an underused technique.

In comics, the most talented creators are finding this skill much more useful to their medium, where individual panels can exist as static images, the motion provided by the context between them. In the already-mentioned Berlin, Jason Lutes used recurring images of a woman whispering into a man’s ear as representative of their ability to find the man’s buried vulnerability. That the second instance (Marthe and Kurt, directly preceding the de-framing nakedness I mentioned last time) mirrors the first lends it even further weight, creating a thread of memory and resonance. And in the newly-released volume two, “City of Smoke,” he calls back to the scene on the lawn that I mentioned in the last installment—the posed image of the lovers directly recalls the moment of vulnerability in a scene where it’s come back to haunt him.

The most blatant and obvious example of this technique in comics is perhaps the many underpinnings of recurring images in Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Images like the iconic blood-smeared smiley button, or of hands reaching from a foreground on the other side of the fourth wall, reaching into the panel, are given an emotional and intellectual power with their first use that compounds each time it is reused.

[Aside: A brief one on the frequent citing of Watchmen as an example ... the book, one of Time Magazine’s “100 Best Novels” (written after 1923) and a current best-seller, is without question a brilliant work. However, it is often misunderstood. I was at a talk a few years back given by Maus author Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer-winner and underground comics pioneer, for the Chicago Arts and Humanities Festival. Asked by an audience member what he thought of Watchmen, Spiegelman was a bit put off, and dismissed it offhandedly due to its use of the superhero genre. While I disagree, it’s hard to miss his point. The title works with common iconography of superhero books, and is rooted very much in its Cold War time period—as an example of “timeless literature,” it doesn’t hold up the way some of Moore’s later projects do—and its complexity makes it a poor starting place for a first time or casual comic reader, which is why the book’s legacy, for all its strengths and its merit, has largely been the dark tone and deconstruction of superheroes, which were the smallest parts of the work. This has everything to do with DC Comics once again falling back on “going dark” when they’re not sure what to do with a property—this time on film. That said, Watchmen is virtually peerless on a level of craft, and techniques like the ones under discussion in this installment have very few examples to draw from in displaying what the medium is capable of on its own merits rather than as the ugly cousin to film, or, for that matter, to prose or any other medium.]

Stuart Moulthrop, pioneering hypertext author, professor at Baltimore University, and founder of a major online haven for critical analysis of Watchmen, wrote in his essay “Misadventure” that this technique was both an elaboration of Scott McCloud’s concept of “Closure” and a call to higher interactivity with the text:

“Like persistence of vision, this mechanism emphasizes causal relationships and sequential continuity; but unlike our response to cinema, the work of pattern completion in comics does not depend on mechanical projection and thus is not limited to a single axis of connection.”

Moulthrop categorized graphic novels in the same class as certain “higher-functioning” video games (my words, not his), a category that he termed “Interstitial Fiction.”

”...an extension of storytelling into and across various gaps and fault lines. Some of these interstices separate intensity from extensiveness [...] Others represent the unmapped spaces between familiar forms, as in the case of comics, which borrow something from prose fiction (comics as over-illustrated stories) and other elements from cinema (comics as runaway storyboards, or movies with exceedingly low frame counts) but really belong to neither of these major domains.”

This is a usable term for a number of reasons, and there are comparisons and through-lines to discuss regarding the intersection between comics and games; however, some might suggest that a step further back is needed, and that this use of recurring visual metaphor hearkens back to the origin of what we call “comics,” which is language itself.

VII. “I’m going to stop now before we start talking about Lacan.”

There were a lot of responses to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, as well as his two subsequent books, which developed his own theories further. Some were contemplative, some were venomous, and some were exultant. One of the most interesting responses, however, came from comic creator and theorist Neil Cohn, who teaches at Tufts University and studies, in his own words, “how [the] visual language found in ’comics’ intersects with linguistics and cognitive science.”

In Understanding Comics, McCloud makes the claim that the tradition of creating “sequential art” reaches back through all iterations of form, from the Bayeaux Tapestry to Medieval Christian art and stained glass series images of the stations of the cross to Trajan’s Column to ancient Egyptian wall paintings. Whereas Cohn proposes that what we call “comics”—whether we refer to graphic novels or humor strips or any other derivation—are a subset of a larger unit called “visual language” and that, to quote his book Early Writings on Visual Language, “like verbalized language, the unique property of visual language lies in its sequence—its syntax.” Cohn, for his part, then spends much of his book looking at how the syntax of this visual language can be diagrammed, taking a great deal of his inspiration from Chomsky’s Knowledge of Language.

We can carry this on through to our textual language, if we’re feeling frisky; Japanese kanji—where a visual character serves as an icon for a word, the grouping and context of those images change the word’s meaning, and then, laid out in sequence, form a sentence—certainly carry a lot of these characteristics. English characters stand for groupings of sound, but they’re still abstract images, many of which evolved from original pictograms of the same nature. A few years back I was interviewing a friend of mine, an author who’s spent significant time in both the east and west, and we discussed this a bit. He was quick to point out:

“English is more similar than it might seem; when we read, we’re not actually sounding out every word, we’re just seeing them as discrete units learned through years of practice. When we look at the word ’cat,’ we see it immediately as ’cat,’ not ’kuh-ah-tuh.’ Even polysyllabic words like ’Neurofibromatosis’ are seen more or less as discrete entities which we can read very quickly without really having to sound out. We see words as images, and read images like words, for example, understanding the visual metaphors in morality paintings of the Middle Ages. [...] I’m going to stop now before we start talking about Lacan.”

[Aside: It’s worth noting here that Eastern and Western comics have entirely different shorthand icons, some of which are hard to translate culturally. There’s little western precedent, for instance, for the “nosebleed as lust” image, which is as common to them as the little skritchy cloud over Charlie Brown’s head would be here. The language developed and continues to develop very differently.]

And this is all a very amusing exercise, but in terms of relevance, my point is not to argue graphic novels, or any sequential art for that matter, as either primal or primary. Its universal understanding and the use of it in instruction is an important point, but one for later discussion. My point here is that one of the most important ways to read and critique this medium is as a visual language—and that the synthesis of text and image is just exchanging one sort of image for another, a fact that “fine artists” have understood for years in their usage of text in paintings (a personal favorite is Suzanne Duchamp’s dada masterpiece “Multiplication Broken and Restored”) and in other such examples. And because of this, elements like the ability to use static images as recurring visual metaphors that inform on the work as a whole as well as on individual scenes have to be viewed as of the utmost importance to the spirit of works that include them. To exclude them in an adaptation or translation of the work is equivalent to performing Finnegan’s Wake with the narration reading the text in strict accent and ignoring the importance of language-play, innuendo, and allusion in every line of that text.

VIII. “When form was all of our vocabulary.”

A few years back, I was reading an article on poet Gillian Conoley and a quote stood out sharply for me:

“A professor of English at Sonoma State University in California, Conoley suggests readers shouldn’t expect poems to behave like advertisements or newspaper stories. That is, we shouldn’t expect poetry to be a totally transparent medium. Instead, we should look to verse for the thrill of discovering, as Conoley puts it, ’language that doesn’t behave in ways we’ve become accustomed to.’” [Emphasis mine]

Most comics on shelves at the present take a hardline “prose” attitude to storytelling. It’s a natural response, but sequential art is a more complicated language than much of its handling gives it credit for. One could almost presuppose that poetry is a more natural textual structure to underlie the work. A good example: the autobiographical stories of Eddie Campbell, which have successfully blended prose narrative and poetic cadence—complementing the artwork, rather than explaining it. While Campbell’s literary references tend toward Henry Miller (or notably O. Henry, which he adapted so skillfully in his recent The Fate of the Artist), there’s something of the beat poet in his rhythms, particularly in the stories that capture his gadabout youth. Campbell and the aforementioned Harvey Pekar were beginning to do similar things with autobiography in the same period, though they wouldn’t be made aware of each other until much later.

Eddie Campbell, whose most famous collaboration with Alan Moore is the mammoth From Hell, a book of complex thematic overtones and sooty verisimilitude which was turned into a rote thriller by the Hughes brothers starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, also worked with the magus on a pair of adaptations of Moore’s magic-themed stage shows, now collected in a volume titled A Disease of Language. Each of the semi-abstract thought pieces is a complicated work that plays on history, geography, biography, and Moore’s own belief in magic. The original stage performances were jazzed up with fire-breathers and other live acts that wouldn’t translate to the page—Campbell had his work cut out for him.

What Campbell does is essentially revise his entire style to fit the project—while his “sketchy” and often minimalist linework for projects like the “Alec” or “Bacchus” series found their full expression in the revelatory From Hell, his more diverse style in recent projects began here, somewhat out of necessity. Given the nature of Moore’s stage performances, Campbell was often working from a very loose sort of “narrative”; to convey it in the comics form, everything about the texts remain in a state of flux: the level of abstraction and realism, the level of literal relevance, and the level of correlation between one panel and the next.

“Surrealist” would be the wrong term, I think, because everything works in service of Moore’s arcane narration, but “poetic” most definitely applies. While the common act of “closure” can be viewed as largely intellectual—a logical connection between two images in which we fill in the gap—this sort of storytelling relies upon a more intuitive, even emotional reading of the text, one that relies upon the reader’s ability to recognize what even the more abstract images provoke within themselves and connect that to the surrounding images in the same way that we explicate the imagery of good poetry. In The Birth Caul, the first half of A Disease of Language, this cadence—which almost inevitably comes with an upheaval of traditional comics pacing—is used to regress over a series of sections through personal history, each step backwards a more universal experience until it passes back through the womb into the most universal experience(s) of the human condition.

Perhaps one of the other strongest examples of this sort of cartooning, and one that has what I’d consider a more interesting relationship with the mainstream, is David Mack’s graphic novel series Kabuki.

IX. “...My language of crisis.”

Getting more personal for a moment—my initial finding of Kabuki is a sort of microcosm of the relationship that the larger mainstream audience has with comics in general. When I bought Circle of Blood, the first volume, I put off reading it for some time—something which I never do with comics (I read them too fast to bother). A cursory flip-through did nothing but highlight my initial prejudices: during the late eighties and early nineties, there was a glut of what were called “Bad Girl” books—over-endowed women who star in paper-thin and ultra-violent stories, including moderately-infamous characters Vampirella and Lady Death, or the book that inspired the Pamela Anderson vehicle “Barb Wire.” A cursory flip-through of Circle of Blood, with its scantily-clad female assassins, would seem to tie it into that genre—the book was released around the same time as those embarrassing titles. In truth, the tone of every volume of Kabuki is different; and whether creator David Mack is using the blood-soaked cyberpunk style of the first volume or the rapturous mixed-media compositions of the fifth, Kabuki stands out as a considered treatise on the nature of identity and creativity, both on its own and within a cultural context that increasingly reflects our own twenty-first century society.

Ukiko Kai grew up as a government operative as a result of a single brutal act, one that echoes through the entire story—the violation and murder of her mother, an Ainu comfort woman, by the sadistic mobster Ryuichi Kai (Ukiko’s father and adopted brother). Her mother’s memory cries out for vengeance, and in the story’s early act it’s the only purpose that Ukiko—now government agent “Kabuki”—has to hold onto. The opening chapters retell both Alice in Wonderland and a famous Japanese ghost play, dressed up in a proto-superheroic comic book style. But when the protagonist has her pyrrhic victory, Mack sets her out on a much more interesting and, for the comic medium, a much more inspired story about redefining oneself after one’s single-minded purpose has been fulfilled. It’s here that Mack’s work on a technical level graduates: from a well-crafted mainstream style with the occasional heightened sense of layout to something that is utterly unique in design.

Mixed media work in comics is rare, but the creators that work in that style and format have a very high pedigree: Bill Sienkiewicz, creator of Stray Toasters and artist of Elektra: Assassin; Dave McKean, creator of Cages, frequent collaborator with Neil Gaiman, and director of the Jim Henson Company’s MirrorMask; and Bryan Talbot, who, while known for sci-fi romp The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and the child abuse story The Tale of One Bad Rat, branched out into mixed media for the unique historical metafiction Alice in Sunderland. Books of this stripe are often considered apart from the general comic medium by some critics, and viewed instead as art books—they fit in more readily, I suppose, with what would generally be viewed as “fine art” because of abstractions and a wider-range of visual styles. While David Mack’s craft has come to be appreciated in this sense, Kabuki as a whole is often an overlooked work and rarely included in this list because it tips in and out of genres.

There’s a certain dark amusement to be had at perception in the comic community that the Kabuki series is both “too rote” and unnecessarily “prettied up” for a tale featuring assassins, and yet supposedly light on plot development. The tale of the government-sponsored Noh agency and the team of female operatives of which Ukiko is initially a member is a framework to talk about something else—in this case, the idea of reinventing oneself, and coming to terms with loss (Ukiko’s mother—the book is very much a personal project for Mack, who lost his own mother as he was beginning the series). Because of the mixed media artwork and unconventional layout, reading the book is a very different process from most recognized comic works, and, in scenes of high drama or action, the story frequently turns inward to show abstract imagery rather than choreography—more concerned with how the protagonist is processing the event than the event itself. Mack often eschews the use of panels entirely and relies upon his command of the page itself as a unit to keep your eye moving from image to image, even as the whole often comes across as nothing more or less than a loving portraiture (an idea that culminates in the volume Metamorphosis where Kabuki constructs a self-portrait out of seemingly unrelated abstract finger paintings).

Mack uses images—a boy with a necklace of ears, a young girl on her knees, a dragon in the shape of a question mark, a crescent moon, a smile and tear in conjunction—to create a language that exists solely in the context of the story. In one notable sequence in the volume Skin Deep, Kabuki’s abstract painting on the floor of her cell becomes some of these images, as she is trapped alone with her memories—having recently been resuscitated, the cell is a new womb, and a traditional Japanese image of maternity looms over the iconography from previous volumes to form a representation of her face. The unusual imagery and composition of many pages read like freeform poetry, and yet the return to recurring visual metaphors and iconography implies repeated and rhyming stanzas and provides a structure to build on.

X. “...Completing the last chapter as we speak.”

Cohn’s syntactic analysis is relevant primarily because he addresses the relationship between the comic panel and other panels in the work besides the ones adjacent to either side. Because pages or strips work as single units of composition, and because visual recall threads through the work as a whole, this should perhaps be an obvious statement, but it’s one that has been largely ignored; the only discussion of visual recall and syntax in visuals is restricted for the most part to analysis that can be compared to other media—for instance the use of the flashback, which is not particularly unique to any narrative form. The use of visual metaphors that only exist within the work, in examples like Watchmen or Kabuki, can often be viewed in the same terms as recurring visual metaphors in film, but there exists a separate component in comics—the place of the image in context to other images around it, as a single term in a visual language.

Recently, the folks here at The House Next Door began reissuing the columns and essays from the respected criticism site 24LiesASecond; I happened to take note of a passage in Jim Moran’s “Casualties of Genre, Difference, and Vision: Casualties of War”:

“In the latter scene, which recalls and inverts the viewer’s first impression of the enemy introduced in the expository jungle sequence, Diaz slowly crawls toward the girl, paralyzed in Clark’s embrace, from an angle echoing the approach of the VC in the tunnel. Lying next to Oahn, nearly adopting her perspective, Eriksson shares her terror as the knife looms ever nearer. Having been concealed from Eriksson’s vision in the tunnel, the “enemy” here resurfaces ironically in the figure of Diaz, whom Eriksson recognizes as such by adopting Oahn’s perspective, and who demonstrates to the viewer the ideological power of cinematic identification.”

De Palma is a director well aware that the technique of recurring visual composition as metaphor is available to him in film. But compare that to Kabuki: The Alchemy, Mack’s most recent volume. While that level of visual recurrence appears—the image of young Ukiko’s lessons, etc.—the structural elements factor into the climax. Each chapter of the volume utilizes different mixed media, not only in putting images on the page (using cut wooden blocks, toy train tracks, and the iconography of a bathroom placard), but even the page itself: some chapters are on graph paper, some panels use legal pad paper, etc. Each chapter represents a lesson or series of lessons that Ukiko needs to learn in order to create something closer to a normal human life, and a productive and creative one at that; in the final chapter, all of these various elements are brought together in every image to show the assembly of Ukiko’s new self.

Mack uses the building iconography, the language that he has established over the previous volumes and earlier chapters, to convey the recreation of a self, and the visuals are constructed in an intuitive and poetic way, often straying from easily-parsed metaphor to abstract relation as you pan across a single image. Mack relies upon nontraditional layout and mixed media craft to break down the usual reading rhythms of comics and provide a unique and sometimes challenging cadence to his work, in the interest of taking his audience inside his protagonist’s struggle for identity. Both halves of this idea—the poetic cadence and the recurring visual metaphors—rely upon a full understanding of the nature of comics as a visual language that depends upon a synthesis, rather than a collection of static images.

XI. “...A new sense of order in the marks.”

Inevitably, all discussions of comics and of film circle back around to synthesis, not only of the various elements that comprise the medium, but also of the various interpretations of that medium that creator and audience both bring to the table—what’s interesting about these two media in particular is how vitally important both of those processes are in understanding the basic languages in which they are written. That unorthodox creators have begun using non-traditional styles of cadence, pacing, and layout to produce a more immersive take on traditional narratives proves the range of possibilities that the comic medium is capable of, and they’re beginning to tell stories that only work in the comic medium, in visual language, rather than something that can be easily adapted from one form to the next.

Whenever a new medium begins its maturation period, there’s a series of growing pains where much of its work relies upon the tricks of more formally established media. When film began, it was much more beholden to theater because the rules and the capabilities of theater were already known. As the rules and capabilities of comics are further discovered and established, it finds further and further distance from the storyboard—a sort of weak irony, in that more than ever comics are being used as storyboards for film.

Next Time around: Kick! ’Splode! “This is what you want!”

Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.