Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Jumping Off The Page, part one

I was thinking a little bit about what I said at the end of my Sin City review, and about the “Blood in the Gutters” chapter of Scott McCloud’s superlative Understanding Comics, and I got a little excited and thought I’d share. This is the first in what I plan to be a series of short essays called Jumping Off The Page.

I’ve been thinking and studying for a while about what makes comics special. Too often I think they’re treated as fake movies, or dumbed-down books. The medium itself is something powerful and unique, and I like to think of myself as a student of the form. Pretentious? Obviously. But it comes from a genuine passion for comics, so I ain’t apologizing.

McCloud discusses in his book the concept of closure, or the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.” He gets into the mechanics of how the gutter between panels is an invitation and a tool for the audience to participate in creating the story; the way panels are laid out on a page, and the action or shift that is implied between them is something that involves the reader and stimulates the imagination. Ultimately, McCloud concludes that “no other artform gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well.”

Well, I was thinking about what I said about Frank Miller’s Sin City – that he had captured a way of imagining things that I’d left behind in my childhood, a way of imagining based on what was unknown and inconceivable, as opposed to the adult method of imagination based on experience and comparison – and wondering if maybe that wasn’t something unique to comics.

Because as much as I loved the Sin City movie, and as much as I thought Rodriguez captured that same surreal fantasy on film, something in the translation was lost. I’ve been asking myself why, and I have some ideas.

When you watch a film, your vision and your hearing are both being engaged, and the filmmaker is completely in control of what you see and hear. The volume, the rhythm, the brightness, the darkness, everything that the audience is able to see or hear is accounted for and controlled by the artist. In a way, this disengages the audience’s imagination. Everything the audience perceives is the result of the creators’ imagination, so there’s little impetus or opportunity to participate in creating the story. While there are stylistic exceptions, directors who tease their audience with what they can’t see or hear, the movie is still prompting the audience about when it’s appropriate to engage their minds and get those wheels turning – the movie itself is still squarely in the driver’s seat.

Going in the other direction, the far end of the spectrum is prose. Prose is entirely iconic, as McCloud points out, and it’s completely up to the reader to determine what the sensual aspects of the material are like. This even applies when the writing is especially evocative or vivid. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite books that always burns an image in my mind – the author is recounting an event of his childhood in which he accidentally fell into a big tub of boiling-hot water:

I reached over and touched my right hand with my left, and the whole thing came off like a wet glove. I mean, the skin on the top of the wrist and the back of my hand, along with the fingernails, all just turned loose and slid down to the ground. I could see my fingernails lying in the little puddle my flesh had made on the ground in front of me.
Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, page 122

Pretty damn graphic, right? But every single person who reads it is imagining something completely different. The color and texture of the skin, the dirt on the ground, the light and the air and everything that is a part of that scene is invented completely by the reader, and is certainly not the same thing as what actually happened, or even how the writer remembers it. Everybody processes the information in their own minds and creates the scene for themselves, which means there are infinite ways the scene could appear.

Comics, on the third hand, treads ground that it shares only (and barely) with music. Comics only gives you a piece of the puzzle – it engages your vision and controls what you see. Music controls only what you hear. But it doesn’t give you the whole puzzle. You know what the shape is, you know what a part of it looks like, but it’s up to you to fill in the rest. What this gives comics is a power to not only share the exact vision of the creator(s), but to involve the audience in the creation of the story at the same time. This power is unmatched by any other medium.

Comics even trumps music in this regard because of the process of closure. Reading a comic, you may see exactly what the artist intended for you to see, but you still don't see everything in the world of that comic. You're still filling in gaps where the comic is unable to show physical movement, helping to build what the scene looks and moves like, even though you know exactly how every element in that comic appears. Even music can't do this - you only hear what the band plays. You don't imagine notes where they don't get played. The musician is still holding on to that control.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are even art forms that engage senses other than sight and hearing – theater, for example, can play with smell and feeling by controlling the environment in which the audience finds itself (though it rarely does) – but it’s almost completely uncharted territory and comics is right in front leading the way.

I really like my art to create a dialogue – a line of connection between the artist and me. That’s why comics are a perfect fit. Comics have a superlative ability to suggest.

How does that suggestion work? I’m not completely sure. But I’m not done thinking about it. In my next installment of Jumping Off The Page, I’ll look a little closer at the mechanics of how that element of comics works.

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