January Blog

New Year Graphologies :

I grew up with comics, but when I became a teenager I put them away as one does childish things. It was not until I met my second wife and began travelling regularly to Paris and Brussels to accompany her on trips to visit members of her family, that I had occasion to revisit a genre which in the meantime had grown up into a sophisticated art form. I was browsing in one of the arcades off the Grand Place in Brussels one day when I came across a bookshop specialising in graphic novels. I was immediately captivated, and this became a regular haunt on my trips to the city over the next twenty years. It was here I first came across the series Les Cités Obscures by Schuiten and Peeters. In their work I discovered to my delight an imaginative urbanism in which the past and the future coalesced; these adventure stories explored the mytho-poeic dimensions of real cities as well as materialising the utopias of retro-modernism in the most dramatic visual tropes.

One of the attractions of the French graphic novels that now began to fill a shelf of my library dedicated to the genre was that I could follow their colloquial language more easily because of the visual clues of context they provided. This helped with the conversational French I needed to converse with my wife’s relatives, although some of the phrases I came out with must have struck them as bizarre. ‘Quelle omnivore cette plante, n’est-ce-pas?’ might have been an appropriate comment to make about the man eating aspidistra that featured in one of the Schuiten/Peeters books I’d just read but it probably struck my mother-in-law as a bit over the top as a description of her pet cactus.

Over the festive season I have been reading a number of recent graphic novels given to me by family and friends. In Audrey Niffenegger’sThe Night Bookmobile the heroine is driven to suicide by the realisation that her desire to be reunited with everything she has written and read, which is housed in a tantalisingly elusive mobile library, is impossible and that her life has been wasted in the pursuit of a mirage. Yet there is a happy ending – posthumously she achieves her ambition to work as a librarian in the bookmobile. The moral of the story seems to be that a life and its writing never coincide and that the tension or gap between what we intend them to mean and what others make of them is never annulled; yet the dream of their final reconciliation continues to haunt us as the only afterlife to which our work can be reasonably aspire, once we are gone. The story is conveyed in a first person narrative, and in a series of tableaux vivants, drawn in primary colours and the bold pictorial style lends a sense of uncanniness to the mise en scene. It showed a familiar world of books and libraries suddenly rendered strange and it came to haunt my dreams for several nights.

Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is the first graphic book to win the Costa biography prize. It interweaves two coming –of-age stories- that of Lucia, James Joyce’s daughter and Mary Talbot whose father is an eminent Joycean scholar. The story moves effortlessly between present (in colour) and past (in sepia), drawing the threads of the narrative together around the changing position of girls in society. Its mixing of memoir and biography explores the points of connection between the two genres as ways of telling a life story, without ever confusing them.

Posy Simmond’s Tamara Drew, an everyday story of male egos, female machinations and sex amongst literary folk, uses colour in a rather more complicated way. The story is set in a rural retreat for writers and follows the seasons; the main story centres on the complicated ‘affairs’ between local villagers and visiting literati, in particular the vampish adventures of Tamara, and is mostly drawn in muted blues and greys, with sudden bursts of colour announcing brighter emotional weather. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, often in the form of diary excerpts presented as straight text, with the ‘cartoons’ being used for dialogue and to dramatise physical inter-action. It adds up to a multi-layered text in which the emotional insecurities which lie behind self confidant middle class poses, especially of the men, are portrayed with unblinking precision.

Ben Katchor writes a weekly comic strip for the New York Press and his latest book ‘The Cardboard Valise’ is a compilation of a serialised story. In a recent interview he described his early interest in the form and growing realisation that it could be used for serious as well as comic purposes:

‘…I was deeply indoctrinated that literature was this thing without pictures and painting was this thing without a lot of words, if any words. I had this idea, because of this childhood exposure to comics, that they could be integrated like a film, or like theater. It just wasn’t taught in school, and I said why? I just knew this was something that existed outside of academic activity, but so did movies when I was a kid. As a small kid, I came across things like these early Edward Gorey books in department-store bookstores. These were these really unusual objects to me. I didn’t know how they fit into the comic world or into newspaper comics. They were probably made in the ’60s. Then there were these underground comics in the late ’60s, and I saw that there were adults making these things for other adults, and they were not necessarily genres that are the mainstream comics. This always went on. It existed in a parallel world below critical attention, below all of this stuff. That was the worst thing you could say about a novelist, is that his characters were like comic-strip characters. These were equated with simplistic things’.

Katchor’s humour and outlook on the world is deeply influenced by his experience of growing up as a member of Brooklyn’s Jewish community and he comments on Yiddish as an example of the hybridisation of language that cartoons can exploit:

It’s a language that was spoken differently in different parts of the world, and it adopted vocabulary from where it was spoken. A language is multimedia because you don’t only read it. Sometimes you see it coming out of people’s mouths. I think maybe more of the art of that language was lost, because it was just conversation. In the ’50s, people were still writing a lot, but I think more of that culture existed in talking. My father loved to talk; all of his friends were great talkers and storytellers and jokers. I don’t know what proportion of linguistic heritage exists in print; maybe it was like, 1,000 to 1. Most people were not writers. They were speakers in real life, full of folk sayings. Any language has this richness. Some of it makes its way to print, but not the voice, all the nonverbal parts of language, the body language and all sorts of that stuff. In a picture story you can deal with the notation of a language as text, but you can also deal with the body language’

In The Cardboard Valise Katchor creates a surreal country of the mind where globalisation and its local discontents have taken root. It centres on the conflict between Emile Delilah, a permanent tourist who is always seeking to escape from his own culture into someone else’s, and Elijah Salamis, a supranationalist who believes that all places are the same, and that the only authenticity is to be found in repudiating any cultural artefact that has a local habitation and a name.

Katchor describes his strips as densely annotated images, and in fact the text carries much of the humour. In contrast the world created by Chris Ware in Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth is one in which actions speak louder than words. His graphic novel is a raid on the inarticulate as he portrays the life and hard times of an Irish family in Chicago at the time of the World Trade Fair in the 1890’s. The story centres on the relationships between Jimmy and his father, neither of whom are able to communicate much about what they are feeling and thinking, but both of whom feel trapped by the circumstances of their everyday lives. In order to convey this sense of emotional confinement Ware has created a quite distinctive graphic syntax, splitting the page into a series of boxes that do always not follow a conventional left to right, top to bottom sequence, are of different sizes and sometimes embedded in one another, as they follow the hop, skip and jump of the protagonists’ often scattered thoughts.

Reading these books made me realise that there are limits to the pictures that can be drawn in words; there are some stories that can be better related when text is combined with images. After all, the earliest forms of storytelling were accompanied by pictures. Up until recently in Western culture,the paintings of biblical scenes in churches were meant to compliment the reading of scripture, and for the illiterate were a substitute for the written word.

This enduring power of the graphic made me revisit the argument put forward by Derrida in On Grammatology. In his famous essay on ‘differance’ he makes a lot of the fact that the substitution of an ‘a’ for an ‘e’ in this written word can both make and mark a difference in its meaning, even though the distinction is entirely unvoiced and unrecognised in speech. Derrida draws attention to the fact that the graphic aspects of writing are not derived from speech, but follow their own signifying logic. For example styles of punctuation, the use of particular typefaces, the indenting of quotes from informants or putting them in a smaller point size than the author’s interpretive comments, all convey a preferred reading of the text. Concrete poetry has long exploited what Derrida calls ‘graphemes’, which shape the way the text looks on the page. Following Derrida, it became the practice to put inverted commas around words to indicate that they belonged to colloquial or common sense discourse whose taken for granted meanings need to be deconstructed. This became something of a nervous stylistic tic for a whole generation literary critics. There is no direct equivalent of inverted commas in speech, of course, so that post structuralists had to resort to miming them with hand gestures when reading their papers or giving lectures, which shows that body language can annotate texts even though it is analogue not digital in form.

Derrida argues that there is a substrate of graphic inscription common to both the spoken and written word, which he calls ‘arche-writing’. Certainly for the Ancient Greeks, the root form graf referred equivalently to the art of drawing and writing, a stylus might be used for both purposes; the basic meaning was ‘representing by means of lines ‘, and the lines in question might be a depiction of the human body or an ode to its beauty. In the 20th century it was Paul Klee is his Pedagogical Sketchbook who stressed that drawing involved taking a line for a walk – for as he put it : ‘a line is a point moving forward, a walk for a walk’s sake’. This exploratory sense of an unfolding, auto-poetic, narrative, is what properly characterises the graphic novel at its best. Unfortunately the term ‘graphic’ has come to refer to more or less sensationalist forms of story telling of the what bam splat variety, which today have increasingly become the preserve of the video game and the tabloid press. In contrast when we are considering photography or typography, the graphic element is subsumed within the technology in a way that frees it up as a medium of creative expression. Digital photographers can literally draw with light, and typographers construct a platform or stage on which the text performs. It is the capacity of these forms to surprise us by creating an experimental syntax, suggesting new relations between the medium and its message which marks them out as being more than technical accomplishments, as having a conceptual component.

In Western cultures, since the demise of the illuminated manuscript and the advent of printing, the history of the graphic has been one of increasing distance from the textual and conceptual; the art of book illustration has remained a poor relation, although it often played a significant role in defining public appreciation of literary works. Who could imagine Alice in Wonderland without the drawings of Tenniel or Dickens’ Great Expectations without Boz? Yet it is only recently that artists have begun to collaborate on equal terms with writers to produce books in which the two dimensions are closely integrated. Otherwise the graphic has been pulled towards the scopic, and evolved within the framework of visual culture and the mass media. Poster art, while it can sometimes exhibit great aesthetic sophistication in conveying its message, has largely evolved under the auspices of the advertising industry; techniques of animation, as they have developed from the early Disney cartoons to the present video games have remained embedded in restricted narrative codes. Interestingly the only exception to this rule is when sophisticated graphic novels such as Persepolis have been adapted for the big screen.

At the same time the graphic has been pulled in a quite different direction by mathematics and the sciences, towards ever greater abstraction. A graph started out as a diagram showing the relation between two variable quantities, each measured along one of a pair of axes at right angles to one another. There is still an analog relation between the model and what it represents. However in modern topology and network theory, the graph is simply a series of nodes connected by arcs or edges; it models what is connected to what, quite independently of the size or shape of the elements involved. In other words it is a purely conceptual device, a strategy for mapping the structural features of any possible distributed system, biological or social.

Ethnography occupies an intermediate position between the scopic and conceptual poles of graphology. Its method of participant observation places a premium on the field worker becoming immersed in the immediacy of the culture under study, in order to construct a vivid portrait of its mode of being, but these impressions, once recorded, must be subject to rigorous analysis in order to get written up as an ethno-graphic text.

In my ethnographic research with young people I frequently got them to create photo-stories to represent issue and attitudes they would otherwise find it difficult to articulate; I used memory maps and story boxes for the same purpose. All of these methods involved combining images and texts to tell stories in a way which enabled the young people to express values and beliefs that were often deeply held, but seldom talked about or made explicit.

But like every form this one does also have its limitations. I once collaborated with a well known strip cartoonist to produce a comic addressing issues of youth unemployment. Whatever happened to Janet and John’ was full of ingenious visual gags and dramatic incidents, but I also learnt there were certain things a comic could not easily do, and one of them was complex character development. It is the special genius of Posy Simmonds and Chris Ware to have pushed the boundaries of the medium so that the comic has now become a fully fledged graphic novel.

Many of the comics I grew up with have vanished – although the Beano, Viz and Marvel are still going strong, partly I suspect because of their nostalgia value. The magazines aimed at children and young people nowadays focus on pop culture and sport, although they still contain some formulaic funnies or adventure stories. As for the strip cartoon, it will surely survive as long as the daily print newspaper does, which may perhaps not be very long. I just hope that my grandchildren, now aged 12 and 14 discover the joys of the graphic novel before they get old enough to regard comics as something that is only for kids.