Posts Tagged ‘comics’

I think, I hope, we’ve moved beyond the question as to whether or not comics and graphic novels are legitimate reading for kids and teens. But just in case another case needs to be made, or should you find yourself needing just one more piece of evidence to get the last word, I’m throwing this idea out there:

Comics existed before most people even owned books.

So the word itself, cartoon, comes from the Italian cartone which was the stiff paperboard Renaissance artists used to sketch out their paintings. Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of cartoons. All those frescos in the churches, they began as cartoons drawn on the walls. Historically, the cartoon was a representative drawing done in preparation of a finished work. These cartoons were illustration, plain and simple, and they came from a long line of visual representation starting with those cave paintings in the south of France.

You see, man’s earliest attempts to communicate story came in pictographs. The pictures, spread across cave walls, told a sequential narrative about The Great Hunt or The Battle for Berries or Hunter Tripping on Rocks. These forerunners of the cartoon predate cuneiform and hieroglyphs and other forms of symbolic language. The pictures told the story in much the same way that a wordless picture book or graphic novel does today. Depending on the sophistication of their brains, it would be curious to take a modern wordless picture book back to cave-dwelling man and see if they understood it.

Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the cave paintings and fresco sketches cartoons they are nonetheless historical artifacts that show that there was a way to “read” before there were words. Up until the Renaissance these cartoons were historical in nature (the Greeks and Romans would illustrate battles from Mythology, they believed them to be historical at some level), but I recently came across what might truly be the genesis of the graphic novel in The Bayeux Tapestry.

Art history majors (and anyplace where the arts are still considered important and taught) know The Bayeux Tapestry to be an illustrated telling of the Norman Conquest and The Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066. The Tapestry itself dates to the 1400s which easily predates the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spigelman and the groundbreaking work by the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner, by a good 500 years. Cartoons and the sequential narrative are not new.

Last week I was reminded of this when the website Open Culture featured an animated version of The Bayeux Tapestry. I don’t often post media within the blog, but this is worth the diversion.

The tapestry itself is a collection of narrative strips – or panels, to use a modern comic term – that read from left to right and top to bottom, just as if you were reading a book. Because you are, you’re reading a graphic novel from 1476, and the best part about it, it’s non-fiction! It’s not only a cartoon, it’s historical!

I hope this puts a cork in the comics-aren’t-reading argument so we can move on to more important discussions. Like what makes a good comic or graphic novel – and why are there so many mediocre ones out there for kids these day?

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(Doing a bit of housecleaning on the computer and stumbled onto this previously unposted bit.  I have no idea what set this off, though I do freely admit to being loopy at the end…)

There is no way on this great green planet of ours that I’m the first person to make the observation that a lot of the classic comic book heroes worked for or were somehow connected with newspapers.

Superman – Clark Kent, Lois Lane, jimmy Olsen, Perry White of the Daily Planet

Spiderman – Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson (and a staff of millions) of the Daily Bugle

Batman – Vicky Vale (among many) of the Gotham Gazette

Daredevil – Ben Urich, also of the Daily Bugle

Green Hornet – Brit Reid of the Daily Sentinel

Howard the Duck – Lester Verde/Dr. Bong of various tabloids

I’m sure there are more, those are just the ones I can remember.  I’ve come across Frank Miller referring to the reporter character in comics as an Everyman character, a stand-in for the rest of society, but I’m wondering if there isn’t something more in play.  Often there is a give-and-take between the journalists gathering information that the superheroes use, and sometimes the superheroes supply the news themselves.  The relationship is symbiotic, almost as if the newspapers were serving as publicity agents for the heroes, but even that’s not all.

Don’t these newspapers tend to operate under the same motto as Superman – to fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way?  I’m wondering of it’s possible that the superhero is the visual manifestation of the “mild mannered” journalist, rooting out and exposing villains, serving for the good of the public.

I think that’s something I’d like to see, but it would be tricky to pull off: the superhero journalist comic book.  I’m not talking about the reporter as a cover, but as the reporter as hero.  I look around at what passes itself as news, what passes as “fair and balanced,” and think it would be nice if we could have some better comic book role models

Yeah, I’m a bit loopy right now.

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The revision work is slow but steady.  But every once in a while I need a break and that means playing around, usually on the computer.  Playing around usually means unfocused wandering, clicking through from one site to another, opening new tabs and travelings down new electronic avenues that lead to new alleys, until thoroughly lost my trail home is all but lost.

Among my recent wanderings comes this, an article on how Japanese manga has become a global cultural phenomenon.  For me, what’s great about this it is from a French perspective, originally published in the magazine Esprit.  There’s a bit of a two-for-one as reporter Jean-Marie Boussou not only examines manga’s cultural rise in Japan, but firmly places it within the context of the post-war French cultural shift that took place in the 60’s and 70s, and why it has grown in popularity among 30-somethings in France.

Absolutely fascinating, and once again the internet lets me know how much we don’t really know in this country about anything non-American.  There are French cartoonists mentioned right and left that I feel I should probably know — that I’m sure every French man and women knows in passing if not from first-hand experience — that leaves me feeling ignorant.

In France, as my generation came of age, we had to make do with comics aimed solely at a particular subculture: elitist, male, at once intellectual, schoolboyish, and more or less rebellious. They were built on the zany absurdity of Concombre masqué, the frenzied wordplay of Achille Talon and the icy eroticism of Jodelle and Pravda – and were far too sophisticated for the mass market. Charlie Mensuel livened up this highbrow cocktail with a dash of Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and Andy Capp, and the work of Italian cartoonists like Buzzelli and Crepax. But if the French censors tolerated Charlie Mensuel with his cerebral, sophisticated eroticism for the offspring of the intellegentsia, they were merciless in their attacks on the popular fumetti of Elvipress, filled as they were with sultry creations that would have set a mass readership dreaming. Jungla, Jacula, Isabella, Jolanda de Almaviva, and their scantily-clad adventurer sisters were barred from display and condemned to under-the-counter obscurity.

Whew!  I’m scrambling for Google to help fill in the gaps in my sorry comic and graphic novel education. Who’s writing like this about American comics and world comic culture these days?  What are all these French comics, and are they available in translation here?

I grant you, I should be doing revisions on my essay — which, compared to all this, feels puny and insignificant and not at all as interesting.  But isn’t that the point of the internet, to have all this diversion at the ready for when you need to get pulled away from things you ought to be doing?

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It’s sad, but not totally surprising.

Over at Comic Book Resources they’re reporting that the DC imprint of graphic novels for girls, Minx, is no more.  From the announced launch the element that struck me oddest was DC.  I think DC comics and I don’t immediately think “girls” or “graphic novels” really, I think Batman.  I think Superman.  I think of a publisher that made their name as the chief competitor to Marvel for the better part of half a century.  Guy stuff.

Also, anytime you start a subdivision aimed at a specific core market you’re acknowledging (a) that you have been neglecting that market, which connotes a sort of guilt, and (b) you’re attempting to correct the problem through a form of market segregation.  DC started Minx because the noted there were a lot of teen girls reading manga.  Imagine if they took similar steps back in the 60s by starting an imprint of comics aimed at black children by giving them their own imprint, a sort of separate but equal for the comic book world.

The problem is that what girls — or any consumer for that matter — wants isn’t their own culturally specific art, media, or entertainment as determined by a single entity, what they want is true integration across the board.  If the observation is that girls are reading more manga the conclusion isn’t that they want their own comics brand but they want comics with female characters in them.  DC sort of got that part right. Castellucci’s Janes books, Good As Lily, The Re-Gifters, all of them featuring female characters.  If that was all it took wouldn’t everyone be beating down the door for that untapped market?

Recently I caught a talk given by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the TV show Lost, talking about what he calls the mystery box.  It’s about wanting to know what’s inside that drives dramas, their secret heart, what makes them tick.  During the talk he shows a clip from Jaws.  I’m not going to recount the whole thing here, so if you want the full experience jump over here and give it a look and then come back.  The thing he identifies though, what he says the film is about, it isn’t what we think of with Jaws.  It isn’t the shark, it isn’t the totentanz for three men in a boat, it’s about one man in personal crisis, a crisis of the heart.  This is the core of the film and the essential secret, the mystery within the box, because without this the film is dead.

I’ve always sort of known this about Jaws, but what I realized while listening to Abrams is that when some cultural phenomenon like Jaws — or a graphic novel like Watchmen, or a TV show like Lost, or the Harry Potter books — garners attention what follows is the parade of imitators desperately hoping to cash in through imitation.  But what they see, what they copy, isn’t what makes the original resonate with people.  What is copied is the artifice, the exterior, and not the core or the mystery.  Sequels to Jaws weren’t about a man in crisis, they were about the shock of the shark, and as such became pale (and laughable) imitators.  The core of the Harry Potter books is no different than a Cinderella story with a bit more Grimm added to it, but the immitators only saw wizards and magic and dragons that adorned the outside of it.

Back to Minx.  DC saw girls reading manga and said “hey, we can do that!”  But what they created were comics, not manga.  The stories were more decidedly Western when perhaps it was a Japanese cultural perspective that was the draw.  DC/Minx saw the shark, they never tapped the mystery box, at least that’s my take on it.  But get this explanation:

Multiple sources close to the situation agree Bond and DC aren’t to blame for MINX’s cancellation, and that this development should be seen as a depressing indication that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all.

Are they kidding?  Yeah, well, we saw that girls liked comics so we started an imprint just for them, but no one really bought them and so we have to conclude the market really isn’t there. No, Minx, from my perspective the alternative young adult comic market does exist, you just didn’t really bother to understand what that market wanted.

You want to know what I think is the most telling part of the news release?

Nevertheless, CBR News was told that Random House, DC’s book trade distributor, has not been able to successfully place MINX titles in the coveted young adult sections of bookstores like Barnes & Noble.

That’s the killer.  Barnes and Noble decided the books should be buried among the bound collections of guys with tights and the girls don’t like going there.  I worked there, I know.  Reason?  That aisle is full of grown men leering through the manga and teen boys acting like jerkworms arguing over alternate Batman universes.  Everyone knows that what B&N says, goes. And if Minx was even going to have a chance at the market they knew they needed better placement than Fanboy Alley.  I bet a face-out in YA of Minx titles might have told a different story then the one we’re hearing about now.

So long, Minx.

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The weirdest things bother me. I suppose everyone has their pet peeves. Today, however, what chuffed me was landing on the following:


That’s very interesting… but what does it mean? Were it not attached to a post discussing a common writing device as an obscenity, as a failure of ability — You know “Has X become a dirty word?” — I’m not sure I would recognize it as anything other than a keyboard scramble. The problem is, as a visual representation of an obscenity, the example above offends.

Yes, I do believe there is a correct way to represent profanity, and I learned it from reading comic books.

There are two elements necessary to create the appropriate substitute profanity, length and symbol. Length is merely how many letter characters are being replaced in the original word with symbols. So for example if you were replacing the work dren or zark you will require four symbols. Similarly, frinx or grife require five symbols, and so on. You can find the meanings of these words, and many others here or, if you prefer, the Classics of the English Language.

Now, as for symbols, the only proper ones available are “caps lock numbers,” those symbols you get when using the caps lock on the number keys. The exception is the exclamation point, a common feature above the 1 on modern computer keyboards that replaced the cent symbol. (Why we haven’t eliminated cents in our daily lives is beyond me, because a penny doesn’t buy anything but a pocketful of dead weight, but I digress.) Basically, anything between the 1 and 9 keys are what you want, non-letter and non-punctuation symbols that serve as your stand-ins for the letters you are replacing. So the available symbols for cursing are @ # $ % ^ & *.

There are two reasons to avoid punctuation. First, you want to reserve them to actually punctuate the profanity in question. Second, adding punctuation in the middle of a word only confuses the reader. Parentheses are considered punctuation as well, because our eyes have been trained to see them outside of words, as something that groups something else. As a result, when used in the middle of a substitute profanity the flow of reading is interrupted while we try to figure out why the word has suddenly been broken down into an algebraic formula. In conjunction with this last point, since we do use letters to represent numbers in mathematics they shouldn’t be pressed into service in representing profanity as well.

Unless, of course, the above example is really a cypher. Hmm. I hadn’t considered that. No, I can’t think of any 11 letter profanities. At least not any with a repeating letter represented by (.

The order and representation of symbols is totally up to the writer, though consistency is always best. For example, if in one place you were to write “Get the #^@* out of here!” it only makes sense later to have the character ask “What the #^@* is wrong with you?!” Unless, of course, what they are saying is “What the &*#@ is wrong with you?!” because that’s a totally different thing.

As a final note, comic books have a wider set of characters to choose from because they employ symbols not found on the keyboard. The inward spiral, for example, or sometimes a simple smudge. But even then, the same rules apply, and when they are broken those word balloons don’t look right. You get the idea, but it’s like when a kid uses a word wrong and doesn’t realize it; the intent is undone by the ignorance. Unless you happen to think that sort of thing is cute. I can’t help you there.

There. I got it out of my system. Now it’s off to farking work.

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