Getting Serious With Comics

journalismIf there is any doubt in your mind that comics is a serious literary genre, I would recommend that you have a look at the remarkable collection of stories which is Journalism by the Maltese-American comics writer Joe Sacco, a volume which gathers together his previously-published reports from conflict zones around the world, including the illegal war in Iraq, the underground war in Gaza and the struggle for progressive independence in Chechnya. In his own preface to the book, Sacco acknowledges that there will be those who find it difficult to take seriously a journalist whose preferred medium is the comic strip:-

“There will always exist, when presenting journalism in the comics form, a tension between those things that can be verified, like a quote caught on a tape, and those things that defy verification, such as a drawing purporting to represent a specific episode. Drawings are interpretive even when they are slavish renditions of photographs, which are generally perceived to capture a real moment literally. But there is nothing literal about a drawing. A cartoonist assembles elements deliberately and places them with intent on a page. There is none of the photographer’s luck at snapping a picture at precisely the right moment. A cartoonist ‘snaps’ his drawing at any moment he or she chooses. It is the choosing that makes cartooning an inherently subjective medium. This does not let the cartoonist who aspires to journalism off the hook. The journalist’s standard obligations – to report accurately, to get quotes right, and to check claims – still pertain.”

“The blessing of an inherently interpretive medium like comics is that it hasn’t allowed me to…make a virtue of dispassion. For good or for ill, the comics medium is adamant, and it has forced me to make choices. In my view, that is part of its message.”

Joe Sacco, from Preface to Journalism

The use of pictures to tell stories, however, is as old as man himself, as evidenced by the discovery of cave paintings in Western Europe dating back up to 35,000 years. From 113 AD, Rome’s Trajan’s Column is an early surviving example of a narrative told through pictures in sequence, while Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes and medieval tapestries such as the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066, are all examples of combining sequential images and words to tell a story. The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century meant the temporary separation of words and images once more as they required separate printing techniques, but a mass medium had been born and the form could be delivered to a wide audience. As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. By the middle of the 19th Century these publications were including illustrations – soon to be known as ‘cartoons’ – as a means of commenting on political and social issues of the day. Before long, many more artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a narrative, and the comic strip was born.

From its origins in the daily newspaper strips in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century, publishers recognised the popularity and the potential of the comics genre, and comic strips began to appear in booklet form, first as reprints and then as original stories. Their popularity spread rapidly across the globe in a variety of new forms and formats, as readers began to identify with the cartoon characters and look forward eagerly to the next instalment of their adventures. This identification with character is key to the success of comics, as it is with other  narrative media, and lies, according to Will Eisner, in the peculiarly human need to step into another’s shoes, or to imagine oneself in another’s position:

“Perhaps the most basic of human characteristics is empathy. This trait can be used as a major conduit in the delivery of a story. Its exploitation can be counted upon as one of the storyteller’s tools…………..Empathy is a visceral reaction of one human being to the plight of another. The ability to ‘feel’ the pain, fear or joy of someone else enables the storyteller to evoke an emotional contact with the reader. We see ample evidence of this in movie theatre where people weep over the grief of an actor who is pretending, while in an event that is not really happening.”

Will Eisner, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative

Eisner recognises here the similarities between the comics genre and film, although as he points out elsewhere in his 1996 study Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, they also have their – fairly obvious – differences. While both comics and maus.jpgfilm rely on the interplay between words and pictures, film has the additional element of sound and the illusion of real moving action, whereas comics has to generate the same effects from a series of static images on the page.
Comics and picture books have long been associated with storytelling, and some of the comics of my own youth in the 1960s consisted of  a combination of comic strips and text-only narratives. In many ways they were a bridge between early reading and the ‘serious’ reading of adolescence and adulthood, but since comics were apparently easy to read and consisted predominantly of drawings, for a long time they were regarded not only as inferior, but as a serious threat to literacy. Eisner believes that this reputation was partly justified, as for decades many writers in the comics genre pandered to the lowest common denominator in terms of the intellectual demands of their content, but it would be interesting to consider a philosophical question here – whether reading anything ever made a person less literate than they were before they read it.

By the end of the 20th Century comics had become something of a niche market, as they found themselves competing with more sophisticated media, though paradoxically the evolution of the graphic novel  had also revived the genre to the point where it became accepted as a literary medium worthy of discussion and study. When Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, the comics genre had truly arrived back in the mainstream.

See also previous post The Wonderful World of Comics

For some notes on understanding how comics work, see my summary of Scott McCloud’s seminal work Understanding Comics 

Don’t miss 26 Ways to Use Comics in the Classroom and 5 Free Tools for Creating Comics at Free Technology for Teachers

Another must-read: Malcolm Wilson‘s excellent blogpost Comics in the Classroom – Online Tools

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