Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Origin's Myth

Many thanks to all of you who publicized The Crib (Heidi MacDonald, Tom Spurgeon, Dirk Deppey, Pedro Moura, Jaime Lebre, Eddie Campbell, who quoted me on his fine blog). I also want to specially thank Nick Mullins and Bill Randall who posted on their blogs about me. It's because Bill said that Ana Hatherly is his favorite inclusion in my canon that I'll write about her in my next posts. But first, a few words about the reasons why I included Ana's O Escritor:
There are, at least, four cultural fields that can help to expand comics as an art form: Medieval (or older art) painting and book illustration; the wordless engraving cycle; Modern and Post-Modern painting; Concrete and Visual Poetry. None of these fields are linked to comics on the gentiles' heads. For a variety of reasons they all have problems to be accepted by the comics milieu as well. Let's briefly examine some of these objections:
1. Medieval comics (let's call them that way) weren't produced for the enjoyment of the people: they weren't reproduced, they were highly expensive items, they were owned by aristocrats. Since the beginning of fandom that comics are viewed as popular art: a child of the Industrial Revolution and modern visual mass communications (hence: comics were born in America with the publication of The Yellow Kid in the New York Journal: "The Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph," October 25, 1896; this is a position that American scholar Bill Blackbeard defends to this day). Besides this sociological criterion we must add two formal ones in this particular case: the existence of juxtaposed panels and the existence of speech balloons. Denying the latter some European scholars (Thierry Gröensteen and Benoît Peeters, for instance) argued that comics started with Rodolphe Töpffer's first "Histoires en estampes" (Histoire de M. Vieux Bois was drawn in 1827 - Histoire de M. Jabot was published in 1833; Töpfferians who are also print fundamentalists must say that Jabot was the first comic, other Töpfferians will say that Vieux Bois is the real McCoy). In his book The Early Comic Strip historian David Kunzle argued that the first comics were created shortly after the invention of the mechanical printing press by Johann Gutenberg (Hans Holbein's Les Simulacres et historiées faces de la mort is among the first books that he cites, but his most famous example is Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, c. 1682). David Kunzle later converted to Töpfferism (He recently published a book titled Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer, University Press of Mississippi, 2007). Barlow's two pages fulfill Bill Blackbeard's criteria, by the way: they were printed, they have a grid, they even have speech balloons or something similar (Robert S. Petersen called them "emanata scrolls").
2. Engraving cycles, from Jacques Callot to Eric Drooker, aren't as difficult to accept (in the comics corpus) by the comics milieu as Medieval illustrations. This happens because they were born from an idea that art should be more democratic: engravings are cheaper than paintings and sculptures. Even so the high / low divide may be a serious objection here. Even if Frans Masereel had a leftist sensibility and his cycles were (are) published in book form, he was a serious painter, he was in the wrong side of this sociological fence. If I defend Picasso as a comics artist the comics milieu calls me a snob and an elitist (doing their usual mind reading they say that I want to include highly regarded gallery artists in the comics canon just to elevate comics' status). Formal features are a problem also: engraving cycles have no speech balloons or page grids.
3. To the comics milieu paintings and poems (visual or otherwise) are not comics, period.
If we consider stained glass windows as comics (something that is not as far-fetched as it seems) Medieval comics were also meant to be viewed by "the masses" even if they weren't printed (David Kunzle opines differently though: "A mass medium is mobile; it travels to man, and does not require man to travel to it.") As for grids and speech balloons it's possible to find said features in Medieval comics, believe it or not. Here's what Thierry Gröensteen wrote on the Platinum List (Jan 18, 2000): "Danielle Alexandre-Bidon, a specialist of the Middle-Age, has given a lot of evidence of the fact that comics existed in the medieval manuscripts, during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Hundreds, if not thousands of pages, with speed lines, word balloons, sound effects, etc. The language of comics had already been invented, but these books were not printed. After Gutenberg, text and image were not so intimately linked anymore, and one could say that the secret of comics was lost, until Töpffer rediscovered it." This is revealing: even the most fervent defender of Töpffer as the "father of the comic strip" says here that he "rediscovered it." This is something like saying that Columbus rediscovered America (he couldn't discover it simply because he found people already living in there when he arrived).
Talking of which, here's one of my few posts to the Platinum Age List (with minor changes; September 3, 2007):
"To discuss is OK, but, in my opinion, it's impossible to reach any conclusions. This happens because the origin's myth is essentialist: it's an arbitrary choice that's based on an equally arbitrary definition (the latter precedes the former). (And I'm sure that I'm not the first one to say this, elsewhere or around here.) The two more common (or so it seems to me) kinds of definitions are based on social (comics must be reproduced and distributed to the masses) and formal premises (essential characteristics of comics are sequentiality, word and image relations, the word balloons, the juxtaposition of the panels, etc...). Social definitions of comics have two problems:1) The sorites paradox applied to the concept of "masses." If one grain of wheat doesn't make a heap two grains of wheat do not; [...] if three thousand grains of wheat don't make a heap three thousand and one grains of wheat do not; etc... When do we stop not having a heap to finally have one? This paradox can be applied to print runs. 2) Social definitions of comics are usually used to deny that Medieval comics are comics (they aren't reproduced). What I say is that they must have been reproduced at some point because I've seen them and I have never seen any original drawings. There's a third point: how come an original comics page is not a comic, but an exact repro is? Mr. de Sa cleverly argued this point saying: the original art is not a comic the same way as the repro of a painting is not a painting. Not bad, I would say... Formal definitions of comics have problems also; I'll mention two: 1) Any formal definition arbitrarily chooses some features and forgets others. This means that, if I chose to say something like "the speech balloon is essential to comics" (oops, there goes Prince Valiant) or "word and image relations define comics" (oops there go "mute" comics out the window) no comics exist at all. Why? Because all comics have panels without speech balloons, without words, etc... A comics reading would be something like this: now it's a comic, oops, now it isn't, etc... 2) All art is based on experiment. More inventive artists are always pushing the limits of their art forms. Comics are no exception, but if we put a formal corset around them what happens is that: (1) we lose some very important artistic achievements (some who defend comics exactly because they're mass art couldn't care less, obviously, but I, for one, do) and (2) we seriously limit the creativity of the artists who chose to create comics. Another problem is that we can't look back to, let's say, Frans Masereel, and view his work as comics (again: some who defend comics...). It seems that all comics have sequenciality, but even this point was argued by Eddie Campbell in a discussion with yours truly many moons ago: he included one panel cartoons in the comics concept. Me?, I have no definition of comics whatsoever. I prefer to say with Saint Augustine: If no one asks me, I know what they are; If I wish to explain them to him who asks, I do not know.

Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, c. 1682.

PS One thing that baffles me all the time is that these aren't comics (remember, we are seeing webimages):

this, on the other hand, is (myths have their own logic, I suppose): "

In my next post I'll address gallery comics and visual poetry.


Alan said...

Nifty. I used to be on the Platinum list a long time ago but eventually fell behind due to a lack of time.

Isabelinho said...

Hi Jamie: thanks! This discussion about comics' origins (which is a bit like discussing the sex of angels, I must admit) happened a lot on the Plat list. If this kind of thing is your cup of tea, you can spend hours scavenging, so to speak, what the Platters said about the subject.