Lately I have been reading a lot of comics (graphic novels, bandes dessinées, stripovi, as you prefer), for a number of semi-work-related reasons, in large quantities and of all kinds: standard French 48-page serial albums; collections of one-page newspaper cartoons such as Titeuf and Gaston; indie samizdats from the US and Germany; luxurious editions of Hugo Pratt with Umberto Eco’s forewords; select manga; the occasional beautiful Italian work (Italian graphic novels are among my favourites); comic renditions of famous literary works (mostly rubbish); and German underground/indie, which I am only just discovering.
Reading so prolifically, and also as a career comic-reader, I have been noticing that many graphic novelists, mostly contemporary but also older, actually struggle with telling a story in sequential images. Their montage, editing, transitions, choice of angles, page layout, and caesuras (by which I mean, the point where one page ends and another begins, although this is not official comic-book language) are often confusing. This is not something I noticed before – either because it didn’t happen as much, or because I wasn’t as sharp-eyed, or because I was reading more comics from ‘mature’ comic scenes (Japanese, Italian, Belgian, Ex-Yugoslav), and fewer from ‘new’ ones (American, Australian, German).
The art of the comic, what makes it its own art form, consists perhaps of only two major poetic interventions: reducing a sequence of actions into key images, and organising such key images on a page to make a meaningful composition. A comic must make sense in a single image and on a single page, and between the key images and pages. As Debussy said, music the space between the notes. No one has explained it better than Scott McCloud:
Anyway, examples. Baru’s Autoroute du Soleil, while mostly good, had some very confusing action sequences, where it was entirely unclear what was happening to whom. Another classical French BD, the Nathael-Beja Les Compagnons du Reve, was fine on the level of page, but had such strange jumps between pages, as well as between albums themselves, that I could almost call it wannabe-postdramatic with a straight face. And what exists there of German graphic novelism has been so comprehensively disappointing that it single-handedly spoiled my until-then very high opinion of German culture: page after page of humourless, poorly graphically rendered, mostly pretentious rubbish, integrating neither the potential playfulness and imaginative freedom of the drawn medium, nor demonstrating real understanding of the craft of the sequential art. It seems quite obvious that German graphic novelists think that writing bleak, vaguely depressing stories is all it takes for their comics to be serious; but that is, of course, not the case with any art form.
A little bit like what happens when I read so many bad plays in a row that every sign of craft warms my heart a bit, I have been really appreciative of the good work I’ve found: Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories, Berberian/Dupuy’s Monsieur Jean, Kati Richenbach’s Jetzt kommt später. Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass, a beautiful visual rendering of Paul Auster’s novel, deserved all the high praise it got. (It is a fairly uneven work, to be honest, but it wrestles with the novel interestingly: while much of it remains on the level of illustration, where it takes on the story-telling with its own tools, something truly wonderful comes to life.) Indeed, comparing the early sketches for this book with the final panels is really instructive, for the way all the usual, ordinary flaws present in the early drafts have disappeared by the final version: enormous verbatim textual chunks, cinematic angles (there is less need for rotation in comic books), a heaviness of image, static squares, and an absence of flow, dynamic page layouts, symbol, sign. (By the way, one book I found almost unbearable to read because of its insistence on committing all of these crimes at once, on almost every page, was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic novel which really wanted to be a TV series.)
And so, anyway. The language of graphic novels is primarily visual, with text – the same way in which the language of theatre is made of images, sound and movement, with some text. The regular privileging of text over image, in many (but not all) Euro-American cultures, brings the two medium into the same trouble: always having to fight for the right of the non-textual to speak, defend its ability to convey meaning. Both, as somewhat marginal arts, are also under assault from the visual language of film, still the all-pervasive mass medium of our time. The archetypal error of text/image balance judgement in the comic book is the caption: “I walked down the street” accompanying a drawing of shoes on the pavement, or some such thing. In the theatre, it would be something like a spoken “I looked at him” in a monologue, followed by looking. You know what I mean.
I have been wondering why so much clunkiness lately in the sequential story-telling of comics, why such errors of visual dramaturgy (because that’s what it is). I think it can be brought down to two contradictory reasons: on the one hand, smaller readership and fewer craftsmen in the profession; on the other, more interest in both making and reading comics by newcomers to the medium. It is neither a happy nor a sad story, just one of shifting audience and sensibility. On the one hand, the delightfully smooth-flowing imagery of a classical comic, like Gaston or bloody Asterix, is getting harder to come by; on the other, we have people like Chris Ware, imbuing the medium with an advertising, graphic-design sensibility; or Shaun Tan, working on the thin fence between comic book and picture book.
The renaissance of the art form has brought about a renaissance of criticism, primarily, as usual, in blogs. I do often think theatre critics could learn a thing or two from reading how good comic criticism is inventing a language for itself from scratch, a way to talk about the integration of the visual, the textual, the narrative, the stylistic, and the symbolic, without getting bogged down in the (inadequate) vocabulary of literary criticism (where one always ends by offering the nonsensical praise: ‘this graphic novel is so good it isn’t a graphic novel, it’s literature!’). Even when they’re relatively frivolous, like this one; but especially when they’re serious, like this or that.