The Gap between Panels / Comics as Documentary

 

I’m returning to a topic I’ve written about before on here, following the excellent email discussion on Logicomix. A lot of the contributors felt the same way as I did about the book – which is that it takes an interesting subject and makes really crap comics out of it. Just on a craft level the people writing it really didn’t know what they were doing. They pushed their artists into putting in endless series of word balloons rather than thinking about how to actually illustrate the complex theories they were exploring. The decision to go ‘behind the scenes’ and show how the comic was conceived and created only adds to the sense that the project was only half-thought out. It’s a whim that somehow fooled enough people to get published. My sense is that those who gave it a pass don’t actually read comics that much.

I have a somewhat professional interest in getting this stuff right. My day job is in digital comms, which at its best can visually explicate a complicated idea in a way that hopefully makes you want to learn more about it. When I wrote the previous column, Joel pushed me to give examples of books that managed to pull off that trick, and I singled out Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News and J.H. William’s work on Promethea. But both of those books are fiction. How would you apply the potential of the comics form to talk about something that really happened – like Logicomix tries to do?

Star Wars

I read two books recently that get closer to an answer. The first is Filmish by Scottish cartoonist Edward Ross – a history of cinema artfully arranged into thematic chapters. Ross plays the documentary comics game on the easy setting. His subject is a visual medium already, and his technique is to redraw recognisable moments in different films, and use captions to explain how they fit into the wider story of cinema. That is not to downplay the achievement – Filmish is incredibly easy to read. The decisions Ross made about how to arrange his panels on the page, or when to insert his own avatar into the action, are carefully considered.

A limitation of the book is that its breezy pace precludes a closer look at how cinema actually works. One example is the rules that make up the ‘invisible style’ of filmmaking: the types of framing and editing that immerse an audience in a story. In the early years of motion pictures filmmakers discovered that certain sequences just feel artificial to an audience, while others feel natural. A comic is a great way to slow down and unpack these ‘rules’ of cinema, but Ross only has space to mention the most obvious examples (no hard cuts, no looking straight at the viewer).

Time

This is by design. Ross isn’t writing a textbook but an introduction. He’s serving tapas rather than a three-course meal. In the copious footnotes he points out the areas he would have liked to expand on if he had more space, and there’s a comprehensive filmography for those who want to explore further. Ross’s purpose isn’t getting the detail in but getting the argument across. His essays don’t just survey the history of film, or its craft. They also explore wider ‘ideological’ issues – for example the way films portray women or ethnic minorities, or the links Hollywood has with the military. The book is really seven extended rhetorical set pieces advanced through carefully curated cinematic examples. It’s quite a feat. The best thing you can say about it is that it reads like a micro version of Mark Cousins’ epic television series The Story of Film – the exemplar for this particular genre.

The second book I read plays the documentary comics game on the hard setting. Queer: A Graphic History is actually in the same series of Introducing… graphic guides that I was rather snooty about in the prequel to this column. These take difficult thinkers like Foucault or chunky themes like modernism and break them down with illustrations. They are comics only in the most basic sense that the page becomes the panel. The major dynamic is between word and image on a single page. Only occasionally do images play off against each other across a work, or you get words arranged in such a way as to create patterns or associations between them.

woman

Queer mostly sticks to the formula established by previous graphic guides. The writer (Meg-John Barker) gives the artist (Julia Scheele) rather a lot of words to draw around, and occasionally Scheele runs out of options. There is a page at the end of the book in which Scheele basically puts a border around a huge bulleted list, where each bullet is a paragraph long. That’s pretty much the opposite of what comics should be like, and it suggests a certain lack of collaboration between the two creators.

Scheele does a better job elsewhere – drawing an elaborate graphic to illustrate Gayle Rubin’s ‘sex hierarchy’ for example, or utilising flow diagrams to break down Barker’s text. Her detailed portraits of queer thinkers also contrast nicely with the more cartoony people she draws in illustrative examples – a subtle way to ensure you don’t mistake one for the other.

attracted

Lots of writers have done what Edward Ross has done with Filmish. Barker and Scheele’s subject is relatively new. Not only that, but it’s particularly unruly to summarise. The book frequently emphasises the debates between queer theorists, and the contradictions within queer thought. It introduces ideas and then has to drop them, saying that it will come back to them later. Given the complexity of the task involved, I’m minded to forgive the occasional awkwardness of composition, particularly as the creators try to synthesise as much as they can, and leave their readers with some prompts for how to think in ‘queerer’ ways. They achieve the task they have set themselves. And unlike with Filmish, I learned quite a lot of new things.

Filmish and Queer don’t get everything right, but they are both far more considered books than Logicomix when it comes to craft. They integrate the authorial voice into the argument far better, and they at least attempt to show rather than tell readers their arguments. These are not difficult bars to clear – which makes the failure of Logicomix all the more damning.

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