Mumblings about Comics

I’d like to think that I’m as full of gripes about cartooning as Crumb, Spiegelman and Brunetti, but I’m miles away from being the self deprecating curmudgeon that seems to be the norm in the world of cartoonists.

Interestingly, the cartoonists I’ve met are quite different. Here in the United States, cartoonists get ecstatic when they meet someone that treats doodled images and words as seriously as they do.  The unabashed excitement that spills onto booths and tables at conferences like APE and SPX can attest to this.  Me? Well I’m a little reserved, and would rather just show someone my work than hype it up. But of course, some cartoonists are like that.

Today, with self-publishing as serious and respected means of existence as any other for cartoonists, the world of comics has changed significantly. Artists are finally telling the stories that they’ve been meaning to tell for so long. And why not? It’s taken long enough. I’m part of that world and I’ve been trying to figure out what that means. More specifically, with my own comics and my study of the work of others, I’ve been trying to pin down what it is that cartoonists do. What is their craft? What is it about them that makes their storytelling unique. I may not have much, but for the moment being this is what I’ve got.

Cartooning is a no nonsense medium, either the story clicks with the reader or it doesn’t. I think that this has to do with the inherent transparency that exists in comics. As a storytelling medium, authorial honesty comes to the forefront. It’s easy to separate the brilliant work from the bullshit and it’s hard as hell to fake.

If you’re a hack, there’s no way to hide it. The absurd amount of time that it takes to translate and communicate personal visions into images and words makes easy to tell when a cartoonist is truly committed to the story he’s telling.

This is particularly true when it comes to independent comics. Why bother spending days to plan, pencil, ink, touch up, paginate and print a single work that gets read in minutes if one is not truly committed to the work? If there’s no heart in there’s no work.

Craig Thompson’s Blankets wasn’t a hit by accident. Thompson had his own personal story to tell and he spent the necessary years to tell it right. Upon the urging of Chris Staros, he painstakingly rewrote sections as needed. It was refined and polished while still containing that rawness of human spirit.  It’s that sense of commitment to ideas that is intrinsic to comics, or at least finished comics.

Something that intrigues me everyday is the process of reading comics. Cartoonists play a baffling game that transforms the reader’s mind into a zoetrope of associations. All at once the reader is presented with a barrage of images, but rather than seeing a Dadaist slurry of words and images, there is order. There is meaning. Miraculously, the cartoonist creates a story.

Cartooning, and comics especially, feel like a challenge where the objective is to build a story, one image at a time with the help of a reader that the cartoonist has never met and most likely will never meet.

Together they are responsible for the generation of some kind of meaning and through a slow iterative process, like in speech, the artist and reader develop communicative conventions. To be more specific, the two co-create an amalgam of rules and expectations that morph into what can be thought of as visual grammars.

Cartoonists straddle a strange barrier between verbal and visual communication that is not too often talked about. Cartoonists like Chris Ware, Calpurnio and Jon McNaught highlight this often unnoticed barrier by

forcing images to be read and text to be looked at. Distilled down to the iconographic, their work highlights the constant interplay of the two and captures how we as humans distill and process our lives using visual and verbal language.

But hey, all of that is boatload of poetic theoretical nonsense, and you don’t normally see that kind of drivel coming out of the mouths of most straight laced cartoonists. Well, you do see it coming from Frank Santoro, but he’s an exception. Most cartoonists just crank out the work they’ve got to crank out and move on. They’ve got bigger fish to fry, right?

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