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December 08, 2004


Kip Manley

(One feels one must point out one isn't a total illiterate: the Calvert School put me through Great Expectations and David Copperfield, of course, and I went on a Nicholas Nickleby tear as a kid after becoming enamored of the PBS broadcast of the stage version with Roger Rees. But aside from that.)

As for comics, and prose, and film: comics has the advantage of walking the borderland where representational image and allusive inscription get all tangled up; it takes just a nudge to tip the signifier over into sign and back again. —I'd plump for both Los Bros. Hernandez: Beto, for the obvious Dickensian qualities, not just in the melodrama but also in the caricatures and grotesqueries he draws; Jaime for the very synaesthetic qualities you're digging at: "Flies on the Ceiling" is a fucking masterpiece.

It's an issue (in part) of control: who's got it, and how much. And film, weirdly, has the short end of a lot of sticks. The "authors" are at the mercy of so many contingencies: each other, technology, the setting, the light; the "readers," in turn, must give up total control to the strictly linear reading experience: fast forward and rewind and slomo and freezeframe allow a limited form of lingering, but it's hardly the same thing.

With prose—words, rather—the author to a certain extent is at the reader's mercy. You (the author) won't be able to dictate the precise plums conjured up in the reader's mind: how cold, how sweet, what the icebox looked like, where it stood in what kitchen. But you can be sure that some plums and an icebox are conjured up (so long as the reader has had some experience with plums, and an icebox, yes); because they are so slippery, those things can easily become something else, and with a little help you can guide that: though not so far as to make the plums some girl's virginity, I don't think.

But if you film it, you've got these plums and that icebox, and the only things those can become, really, have time and space to become, are what you can allow them in the movie itself, and that's why maybe film succeeds best as spectacle or as long-form serial storytelling, in which you can remember how in the second season they were in that orchard where they stole the plums, and now she's in the middle of the night pulling a plate of plums out of the fridge and eating them alone at the table, it's just a throwaway shot, but think what it must mean—!

But I'm going on too long to state the obvious. —With comics you get not the best of both worlds but some of the strengths of each: the author (can I not scare-quote it now?) gets to say this icebox, those plums; the reader gets to skip ahead and around like Nabokov if they like, lingering to take in this splash, thrilling over that intricate mosaic of overlapping, cascading panels. And with great power, yadda yadda: the wise cartoonist will take that into account, and Chris Ware will start to play maddening formal games with panel transitions and memory, and Herge will draw flat simple characters—easy caricatures to identify and identify with—in intricately worked-out backgrounds—beautiful, precise jewel-box worlds to explore—which leads to Scott McCloud's masking theory. The reader has the control; the wise cartoonist gives them something to do with it.

Maybe not. —I'm reminded of an illustration from Frederick L. Schodt's Manga! Manga! He's talking about why maybe comics are so popular in Japan, and he points out how natural it is to express yourself in comics when (one of) your written language(s) is ideogrammic: he uses a panel from Tezuka, in which the characters all strike poses similar to and bouncing off the shapes of the various words they're bellowing. I've often wondered not what the pun ends up being, but what it feels like to read it at a glance, on all the different levels that are there.


Yes, didn't mean to make it sound like it is my appointed task to polish up your literary culture - my dear, dear boy. (Good point about the manga. I, too, wish I could know what it is like to be able to make puns like that without actually having a whole line of cheerleaders just spelling out the words.

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