It’s been a long time since a defense of comics as a medium of expression has been necessary. You might not like Zot, but Understanding Comics was the defense that the medium had long been waiting for.
I’d argue that it stands in the same place that a lot of scientific research does. It explains and concretely addresses the instinctive notions that many of us have about the world that we live in. They may not necessarily say anything new, but they allow those things that we already thought we knew to be said with some sense of objective truth backing them.
As in all disciplines, because of the constant shifting of paradigms, after a certain amount of time, readers may struggle to see how the seemingly antiquated thesis put forth by an author or researcher breaks any ground. Today’s comics world in the United States can be seen to have reached that point. A 2011 reader of Understanding Comics might see the work to be not much more than a well thought out statement of seemingly self-evident truths. Well of course, it’s over 20 years old! In my eyes, It’s a good thing that the universality of comics is genuinely seen to be a self-evident truth of comics.
How can I say this? What justifiable evidence do I have that isn’t tarnished with the bias of a publishers dirty money?
Well, simply look at Rage Comics and Image Macros. They’re One panel gags and simple strips and people love them. They use them, they make them, they share them, they change them, hell, when they’re good they even print them out!
For you folks that have been living under a rock lined with original pages of Gasoline Alley, here’s what we come the consensus that these two things are.
The Rage Comic
“Web comics with characters, sometimes referred to as “rage faces”, that are often created with simple drawing software such as MS Paint. The comics are typically used to tell stories about real life experiences, and end with a humorous punchline. It has become increasingly popular to create the comics using web applications often referred to as “rage comic generators” or “rage makers” (Know Your Meme)
I once saw John Porcellino in Pittsburgh give a talk about poetry and comics.
He spoke about the universal difficulty that we have as humans in making connections with others via our creations. Are we expressing things right? Will it matter to anyone? Will anyone read this? With a chuckle he went on and discussed how he had discovered a magnificent fact about humans.
When presented a poem, most people would opt to not read it. Draw them the poem and they all read it. All of ’em.
Besides being a core driving element of Porcellino’s work in minimal line poetry, it’s got a lot to do with the online explosion of rage comics. Honestly, how likely are you going to read about someone’s awkward encounter with a cashier at a bowling alley or insights gained while showering?
If someone draws, I promise you, you’ll be far more inclined to read it.
Here are some examples. I’ve included a couple of comics for those who don’t know much about these comics. If you’re already acquainted with them, feel free to scroll down
The Image Macro
On internet forums and imageboards, image macros are used to emphasize a certain phrase (often an Internet meme) by superimposing it over a related picture. Although they come in many forms, the most common type of image macro is a photograph with large text superimposed in Impact font, using all upper case letters and coloured white with a thin black outline. (Wikipedia)
Interestingly in a manner similar to gif responses, macros flesh out text with uniquely specific tones. Macros allow for intentional tone to come across clearly in communication online without folks having to have any metacommentary and to maintain an even level of discourse. While amibiguity is possible, it’s less likely.
An important element of these image macros and rage comics is that they also give the voice of joke and allow for multidimensional jokes to exist in few words. This ties in to the notion that in order for humor to be successful it needs to do three things. not be mundane (the less mundane the better), has to carry some kind of information that we are learning (the more aspects the better), and it has to be understood quickly (the quicker the better). In the case of image macros, the immediacy lent by the combination of text and image is superior to any text only set up. The multidimensionality can be seen when we see recontextualization and alteration of images.
One variant of these Macros would be the Advice Animals. Each animal has a personality that is created by the collective. Variations of one animal create subsequent animals which have differing personas. Here are some examples.
I feel quite confident in saying that what we’re dealing with here are comics free from cartooning. People are taking existing images and juxtaposing them, sequentially and creating narratives. While someone has to have photographed or illustrated the images used in both image macros and rage comics, as a whole creators are not creating the images that they are using.
I see the Rage Comics as a modern form of picture writing, where the writing utilizes the ability to copy and paste to its full potential. There’s no need to describe emotional reactions with words because they are captured by the embedded images.
Now, after all of that, this digital behavior might still seem infantile and unoriginal. The content of it, might end up unimportant in the long run, but the semiotic strategies that are being used are of because they relate to the thing that is essential about humans: communication. What better than to have one more way to reassure us that we are not alone in our experiences on this earth?
Comics-wise, it is important to take note of these developing picture writing trends because they further evidence the universality of picture writing and sequential narratives. As it stands these two patterns of story telling and character creation are being built upon comic’s established framework. Quite literally, many of these comics depend heavily on traditional frames. What’s special about these generalized faces and expressions is that by their repeated use and constant recontextualization, they are becoming the semantic units of a greater image language that can communicate in new ways!