Friday, September 26, 2008

Time Well Spent

One of the most beautifully straightforward scenes in the film Waking Life explores the notion that words are "inert" symbols derived from basic survival instinct.  For those too busy to watch a two-minute youtube clip, the speaker essentially asserts that while some words have clear cut meanings (ex. "water"), others are considerably more "abstract."  With these words, one's interpretation is dependent upon that individual's experience with it.  Her example is the word "love," and she says that your own experiences of love (or lack thereof) directly affect the way you interpret of the word.

It's an interesting point, sure, but she's ignoring the central roles of tradition and culture.  John Doe may not have ever kissed Susie Q, but I'm sure he saw Beauty and the Beast or listened to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a kid.  Regardless, my favorite part of this scene are the little illustrations that the scene's artist decided to add to assist with the viewer's understanding of the screenplay.  Even if you may not know how love feels, you subconsciously associate a cartoon heart with the "intangible" emotion.  Similar picture symbols surround us in nearly every facet of our lives.  If you are driving and see an "M," you might get a taste for french fries.  If you a come to a red light, you know to stop.  And if a tiny picture gas pump lights up on your dash, you know you'd better look for a cartoon shell along the road.

By including these cartoon cues, the artist helps make the same point the writer (speaker) does, and it is more simplistic than we may first realize: the scene speaks to the power of symbols of all kinds, words and pictures alike.  And by combining both types of symbols, this short, two-minute clip leads the viewer to the very "transient" experience it describes.

Two mediums definitionally utilize both words and pictures in a consecutive manner (most of the time).  The first--film--is commonly considered a form of "high" art.  It is consumed in enormous quantities, critiqued and analyzed to death, and still maintains a great deal of respect as an art form.

Why then is the second--comics--so enthusiastically disregarded by the average person?  The question, though rhetorical, has a fairly obvious answer.  The average person has a very specific idea of what comics are despite relative unfamiliarity.  At the very least, this person knows what comics are not: they are not high art, they are not literature, and they are not worth the time.

Now I could go on and on about why comics are negatively stereotyped and why it's unfair and blah blah blah, but if you're at all intrigued, you should check out Scott McCloud's excellent Understanding Comics.  This book is essential reading for anyone with a cursory interest in the medium.  It addresses issues ranging from the ancient history of comics to the speech bubbles they utilize, all with more thought and wit than one might think possible.

Plus, this post really isn't made with the intent to compare comics with Moby Dick or Citizen Kane.  What matters to me is that we--the intelligent, curious, ambitious, and everyone in between--become interested enough in graphic novels (a term used for the same reason we use "film" instead of "movie," or "literature" instead of "book") to want to read them avidly.  Don't pick up the next graphic novel I suggest merely because I suggested it; do it because you have a genuine interest in the medium.

Why should you?  Because that same "transient" feeling described in Waking Life, the one that "we live for," is what comics do best.  By combining both pictures and words, comics are able to more simplistically convey complex emotions, characters, and plots to their readers.  Moreover, many of the most common literary techniques (metaphor, symbolism, et. al) are easily enhanced by mere inclusion of imagery.

Educators are beginning to take note.  School Library Journal found that by simply including comics in junior high school libraries, library traffic increased by 82% including a 30% increase in non-comic circulation.  Jodi Leckbee, a high school teacher in Austin, Texas, details, "a distinct shift in attendance by [her] normally 'borderline' students" when graphic novels were added to her curriculum.  Leckbee explains, "Graphic novels act as a bridge, allowing students to transcend their usual apathy toward reading assignments...A literary piece, like a graphic novel, calls on students to use their analyzing and synthesizing skills, actually requiring more involvement and focus in their reading."

It's about time that we examine our own "apathy toward reading," albeit a singular form.  Please realize that like any form of art, there's a lot of crap mixed in with the good.  On Monday, I'll recommend one of my personal favorites and why.  But ultimately comics are as varied in subject and content as literature and music.  It's up to you to seek out the style or writer that suits you best.  What's important is that we begin to view that seeking as worthwhile.  I guarantee you'll find the benefits to be not only rewarding but transient.


Tim said...

Hi Adam, I am a friend of Dave's and he recently suggested checking out the blog. This is an interesting post, and I agree with the assumption that underlies the post: that art should be based on content and not genre. The medium can certainly shape the message, but I doubt it can ever discount it (and oftentimes it Is the message).

What I disagree with is your comment that symbolism, metaphor, trope, etc are strengthened through image. I believe they are incredibly weakened through image, actually, and for two reasons. The first is the concept of the stock image: each reader of a metaphor (for example, the man is a dog) has in his or her own mind first a personally shifting image of a man and a dog. These images are either not precise (what is your mental image of a man?) or ultra precise (when I think of a bird I think of a robin, for example). So what is lost in an image is the personal applicability of metaphor. This concept of a stock image can be broadened to the prejudices we bring into any reading in general: we do not read as blank slates. So a metaphor like "a man is a dog" can mean different things to different people, sometimes similar things also, sometimes exactly the same thing. The point here, and this is where the second reason comes in, is that uncertainty Helps metaphor. Think about it: by establishing a metaphor you are saying what a thing Is Like and what a thing Is Not. These are not equations, but blended grey areas. A literary metaphor includes a helpful ambiguity and uncertainty that allows for multiple interpretations (though of course better and worse ones) and the possibility for Further (some would say infinite) interpretations. Take a classic example: The Word was with God and the Word was God. This line is to this day being reinterpreted in new lights. Metaphor allows room for time and person to play out their affectations.

Overall, though, interesting post, and I very much want to see Waking Life. Thanks for the read.

Adam said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Tim.

I'd like to comment on the "So what is lost in an image is the personal applicability of metaphor" part, because while I entirely understand your point, I disagree that this is always a negative.

Checking my most trusted of sources, wikipedia, the entry says:

"A metaphor is a rhetorical trope that describes a first subject as being or equal to a second object in some way. Thus, the first subject can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second subject are used to enhance the description of the first."

Note there is no note of to what extent specificity plays a role. What I mean to say is, perhaps the writer would like his/her reader to make some kind of personal reference, but it is also very possible he/she wants to draw a specific connection. Consider this amazingly stupid sentence I just thought of: "Running from the bullies, Mike was lightning; he was Barry Sanders in the present, outmaneuvering everything in his path."

Now in the first half of the sentence, I suppose it would be beneficial to the writer for each person to have a stock image of lightning and use it to draw a conclusion of Mike. But what about the second half? The writer's being far more explicit about what he wants the reader to imagine Mike was like.

In either case, I don't think drawing a picture of lightning or Barry Sanders would hurt the reader. In fact, in both cases, it would probably help the writer get across exactly what he wanted to.

Not to mention that your point assumes a whole lot about what the artist chooses to do. His possibilities to combine words and images are infinite. Perhaps accompanying the sentence above is just a picture of running feet. Maybe it's a close up of Mike's eyes. Maybe it's an aerial shot of the chase. In actuality, it's pretty unlikely that there would actually be a picture of lightning or Barry Sanders. Therefore, the writer/artist can choose exactly when he wants to allow the reader to use their own stock image or not. It gives them more power.

Now to defend the rest of my point, you only gave an example of how "metaphor" might be hurt by using imagery. I fail to see how symbolism could be. By using both images and words, comics authors double their resources. For example, they might work foreshadowing of a death into a conversational speech bubble, or maybe they throw an image that does the same trick into the picture.

Generally speaking, as with any medium, it's really going to come down to the artist. The best can usually get just about anything out of their art form, right?