Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why Art Spiegelman should totally teach at the j-school

I just saw Art Spiegelman speak for the second time. (The first time I was a freshman in college.) Before I tear into a description of how awesome the talk was like a mountain lion tearing into a fresh deer (sorry, sorry! gratuitous and unskillful simile), a few words about why the heck listening to a comic book artist is important, especially for a writer or journalist:

People who work in different media can learn from each other. Jim Sheeler, the Pulizter Prize-winning journalist who teaches my Magazine Writing class, talks about how he creates his articles by stitching together scenes. He learned that technique through his broadcast background. When a writer learns to think like a photographer or videographer, amazing things happen.

Spiegelman spoke about comics being more than just "movies on a page," but he also acknowledged a give-and-take between film and comics. Each medium learned from the other, and used the techniques it saw there to create new ways of telling stories.

And that's what any medium -- film, prose, comics, sculpture even -- does, is tell stories. (Another nod to Sheeler on that one.)

When Spiegelman described creating an autobiographical introduction to one of his books, he said each memory commands a different style to tell it. The same is true for all media.

And now, back to the talk...

Some money quotes:
  • "Comics work the way the brain works."
  • "Comics were the first rock and roll." (In reference to a culture that appealed directly to youth, without adult mediators.)
  • "Goethe was kind of like the Oprah Winfrey of his day. If he liked it, everyone thought it was cool."
  • "The closest America has to knighthood is getting a cameo on The Simpsons."
Some money points:
  • For Spiegelman, in comics all the interesting stuff happens on the edges, where things (panels) bump up against each other.
  • He described comics as a new word that defines the space between handwriting and drawing.
  • He likes creating a structure, or at least acknowledging or hinting at it, then breaking down that structure to convey meaning. (This is something that can totally apply to writing.)
  • Comics artists manipulate stereotyped images to make complex meanings.
  • The blank spaces in comics (the villain with no face in Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie's eyeballs, the faces of the characters in Maus) allow -- no force -- the reader to project their own ideas onto the void.
  • Comics allow for a form of witnessing and news telling that is distinct from video or photography. When you look at a scene that has been drawn, you are experiencing the implied presence of the artist, who had to see, interpret, process, and then draw.
  • He talked about Maus as a "metaphor designed to self-destruct." How Kafka-esque!
  • I know he's not the first to say it (see La Ton Beau De Marot, which I still cannot spell after all these years), but the limitations of a medium unlock creativity (i.e., people still work in wood cuts). It's always good to reiterate that as often as possible, I think.
Ok, and finally, Spiegelman said that he thought comics would perpetuate the printed book. He said that comics were "made for their bookness." If you've been following along, you know this kind of flies in the face of a guy like Scott McCloud, who says that the web has allowed comics to become more comic-like than ever before. Hmmm...Spiegelman also cited McCloud in his presentation in the "where are comics going" section. So, while I was puzzling this out, wondering how Spiegelman could both disagree with McCloud and recognize him as the future of comics, some guy with a buzzed mohawk asked that exact question during the Q&A! (This was very convenient for me, because I never get up and ask questions and huge lectures like that.)

Spiegelman's response? Every time the technology changes, a new medium emerges. Newspaper comics are not comic books are not web comics are not animation. Each time the form changes, the content and style change too, and although the media are related, there are nuanced distinctions between them. The form that he knows and loves -- the comic book and what he calls "a comic book that needs a bookmark," i.e. the graphic novel -- is thoroughly book-bound. The shape, format, type of paper, all these things are essential to what the artist is creating.

In essence, he is saying that form and content are fused. Of course, this is the opposite of the web, which was designed to sever form from content (as I recently learned in Digital Newsroom). So, I'm not sure about that, if a form that is severed from its content can or ever will be art. But, that's probably one of those eternal debates that I should put off until a less sober night.

And with that, I've found myself blogging instead of doing what I came here to do (i.e., school work), so I had better wrap it up. Adios!

P.S. Spiegelman did this awesome thing using a simple squiggle as a recurring character in that autobiographical introduction I mentioned. The squiggle became whatever he needed it to become in dozens of different situations (part of a swear word, smoke from his cigarette, part of a game he played with his mom, etc.). That kind of just sums it all up, only in reverse.

P.P.S. I really really really want to hear Spiegelman's wife, Francoise Mouly, art editor of the New Yorker, speak. She sounds so awesome. She's working on a comics literacy project...yay!


jrichard said...

But you forgot the greatest follow-up to the "first rock 'n roll" comment:

"Comics were the original Grand Theft Auto of their day."


Yeah, I wrestled with the medium question myself. Yes, reprinting comic strips into pulp mags created a new medium, "comic books." And in the pure sense of the word, comics displayed on digital formats will only be "books" in name (though the multimedia additions have been tried and have been largely unsuccessful thus far. I think they remind everyone how UNLIKE movies comics are and suffer as a result when other elements are added).

But does this mean that when I download a book for viewing in a Kindle (or on a computer screen) that the text in question ceases to be a "book"? Were "audio books" really something else?

I don't think so. I entertain the point, but we always adapt our language to fit USE, not technology. Cell phones are actually radios, not phones. The etymology of "computer" originated with the humans who used the machines, not vice-versa.

I think "digital comic books" is not a contradiction of terminology (though I agree what Marvel does stretches that definition, since the reader never actually possesses anything).

But these are interesting questions.

I'm glad at least some of our students took advantage of the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Actually I think the best comment you relayed was "the closest thing to knighthoo was being on the simpsons". Earl comics were not rock and roll insofar as the people who loved elvis created a cult around him, and there is no cult around like 30's batman comics although of course batman is awesome. 40's comics are not mainsteam now, just the home of the ultra nerdy collector/historian.