The Interspace of the graphic novel

22Jul07

/1/ – Graphic novel or comic book?

The idea of a field like comic book studies (which is a not really established field within another not really established field – Popular Culture Studies) might appear pretty laughable even to non-academics, or more serious lit folks who thumb their noses at comics in general. Comics, for many, are still viewed as a children’s medium despite the fact that comics have grown up with their readers – becoming more and more adult over time. They have not, as far as their self professed aim, been ‘for kids’ specifically since the end of the Silver age in comics (roughly the early 70s) one of the events signaling this shift being the death of Spiderman’s girlfriend (for a time) Gwen Stacy (also see women in refrigerators – which criticizes comics for using the death of women as major plot points).

This ‘growing up’ of sorts could also be seen in part due to another reason the end of the golden started to happen in ’54 with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent by Dr Frederic Wertham. Most of Wertham’s claims are the kind that today would be leveled against video games, save his accusations that comics were advocating homosexuality (Batman was clearly fucking Robin) and supposedly Wonder Woman was causing lesbianism (his evidence for this was her independence and her golden lasso of course).

The decline of the serial and the rise of the trade paperback has most likely attributed to this as well – the difference between comic books and graphic novels is similar to the supposed difference between HBO and TV – it looks better, its more expensive and it is more explicit. But, after all, there is still the perception that comics/graphic novels are ‘low art’ simply because of their association with less skilled art and/or as being geared towards a less intelligent audience. Bill Waterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame had this to say about the artistic division and comics:

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At times it seems the very sequential nature of graphic novels/comic books proves deeply destructive in terms of their being recognized as art, why? That will be addressed in a bit, but more on comics as a medium/art form. There have been some events in the world of comics in the last few decades to eschew some of the more negative views of them. For instance, Art Spigelman’s Maus which won a special Pulitzer prize, Allen Moore’s The Watchmen which won a Hugo award.

Because of the superhero renaissance staring in the last 10 years or so with films like X1-X3, Blade trilogy, Spiderman films, The Crow series, Batman Begins, Superman Returns, American Splendor, Ghost World, Art School Confidential, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, V for Vendetta, Constantine, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tank Girl, Men in Black, The Shadow, The Rocketeer, Hell boy and several other, comics have experienced a somewhat renewed spotlight upon them. But what the transformation of comic to film makes clear is the peculiar difference of graphic novels.

/2/ – Interspatiality

The wealth of the graphic novel lies in the very strangeness of drawing, something I discussed in a previous entry. To summarize the point quickly – Badiou points out how in drawing the whiteness of the page is both a ‘closed totality’, in which the lines are contained and, at the same time, the background only becomes such once the lines are drawn. The act of drawing that both cuts into and creates background can similarly be seen in terms of the comic as a medium. While comics/graphic novels can be viewed as simply an illustrated story I think such a view leaves out the specific effect that illustrations create, when combined with the written word.

While there are many excellent examples of this, I believe that Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets does an exceptional job of taking advantage of said attribute. In many scenes/pages, Thompson plays heavily with the panel borders and within the panels to mix the characters with their surroundings. Charles Burns uses similar techniques in his novel Black hole. There is an interesting tradition of the subject and it’s relation to a given background that Žižek discusses in his forward to Adrian Johnston’s amazing text Time Driven. In the forward Žižek notes how with the Mona Lisa how the figure seems to not fit with her dark, almost gothic surroundings. Žižek compares this to the cheesy effect in older films where a screen is projected behind the actors while they are in a car, in a train etc. [This kind of disjointed landscape effect is taken to the extreme in the film Airplane! when the Captain is driving to the airport the screen changes from passing trees to various anachronistic battles, impossible settings etc.]

Žižek argues that this effect represents the peculiarity of modernity, where, through Kant’s ‘transcendental turn’, the subject no longer ‘fits’ into the world, the entire being of the subject becomes an excess, an protuberant object, a spot on the fabric of reality. As Žižek writes in his article “The Thing from Inner Space”: “Jacques Lacan Defines Art itself with regard to the Thing: in his Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, he claims that art as such is always organized around the central Void of the impossible-real Thing – a statement which, perhaps, should be read as a variation on Rilke’s old thesis that “Beauty is the last veil that covers the Horrible.”

To bring the discussion back to the realm of the graphic novel, doesn’t the explanation of the Joker’s madness in that it is explained as a ‘super sanity’ as being too in touch with reality. And wasn’t that one of the better insights of Freud during the Victorian era? The fact that those with mental illnesses were not less human but all too human?

/3/ – Betrayal of the eye

If the peak of modernism was about the disjunctive (non)relation between the subject and it’s background, then what does the graphic novel speak to, how does drawing as a form of art connect to a certain kind of psychology? The key to the graphic novel is not just what is left ‘outside of the frame’ but in that it highlights what is left out when one goes from one frame to the next. Instead of being just the slowness of the eye, as it would be in cinema, the graphic novel uses the lack of movement as a border itself, it is a series of snapshots which refuses to be placed at the ‘appropriate’ speed of the eye.

We can take this argument a bit further, and into somewhat strange terrain, by taking a look at serial killing, naturalism and representation. In her text Pretend we’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Annalee Newitz discusses how naturalism, and in particular Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, presupposes the American obsession with serial killings (one should immediately question the boundary between impressionism and naturalism in literature). Newitz argues that what is at stake in naturalism is an anxiety of contextualization and, more importantly, the problem of how to place oneself in relation to the text. Newitz discusses Walter Benjamin’s well known “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and notes his statement regarding how the reproducibility of film and photograph, inherently lend themselves to a decontexualizing effect. [A quick side note and swerve back to the realm of comics – one should think of the character Mojo and how well he disgustingly embodies Benjamin’s nightmare as a partially mechanical alien who utilizes ‘mystical powers’ to control entire populations with the media.]

While Newitz goes on to mention Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, she does not say anything of it besides the fact that it points out the American obsession with murderers. Something to note which can bring us back to the discussion of comics, is not only the rejection of the film on the level that it refused to look for meaning (an attack also famously leveled against Gus van Saint’s Elephant) but that structurally and stylistically the film was unbearable to watch. Stone’s film contains many times the standard amount of cuts and switches between at least a dozen kinds of film, color filters, kinds of cameras etc. The point here is that the very ‘ease’ of mechanical reproduction can serve to undermine the concept of ‘magic’ that Benjamin suggests – it can purposefully disrupt the seamless flow of media.

To return to Newitz’s note on lost context, and to swerve back to graphic novels, one could take a look at Daniel Clowes Art School Confidential and the film of the same name. While the short comic was Clowes’ brief comment on the art school he attended, the film combines such experiences with a fairly odd murder story. What’s most amusing about the film’s end is that the main character, though talented, only became recognized as an artist after he framed himself as a serial killer and in addition a police officer posing as an artist was praised as an artist. Instead of Newitz’s accidentally lost context we have a purely functional and intentionally mistaken context.

/4/ – Drives and time’s strangeness

What this can lead to, to bring up psychoanalysis once again, is the tension that existed throughout Freud’s work between the id and the unconsciousness. This tension is particularly apparent when one looks at how Freud was unable to articulate the issue of Trieb or Drive. As I have mentioned in other posts, drive is different from desire in that while desire fixes itself on a particular object in order to consume it, drive obtains no pleasure from the particular qualities of the object it consumes but gains pleasure from the very act of consuming itself. It is, as Lacan puts it, the pleasure of the full mouth. Freud initially states that drive is found somewhere between the body and the mind, but later seems to place drive as emitting from the ‘seething cauldron of the id’ as Adrian Johnston puts it. Ever later on, Freud seems to mesh unconscious and id together when discussing drive.

To bring this to our concern of interspace, one need only look at the issue regarding the unconscious itself. The unconscious can be viewed as a an entity upon which consciousness is built, as a kind of positive entity in and of itself, or the unconscious can be seen as a far less articulated entity, as not even a place or being in itself, but something that exists by way of the failure of the conscious mind. This confusion results in part from Freud’s treatment of the death drive as, at times, just another one of the drives and, at other times, as a privileged form of drive. [On top of this, at least in some of Freud’s texts, when one should translate the word as drive it is translated as instinct.] As Adrian Johnston points out, drive is somewhere between being in the realm of the biological, of instinct, of the ‘seething cauldron of the id’ and, on a totally differently level, as something beyond the body, the soma, that is, to borrow a phrase from Laplanche, ‘caught in the web of signifiers.’ So what does it mean to say that the drive is both concerned with biological time (the stupid time of repetition, the beating heart, the persistence of organisms) and at the same time taking into account historical temporality, the concept of progress.

In order to veer this discussion back to the graphic novel, it is worth mentioning a thinker who seemed quite apt at understanding the stupid repetition of the everyday as well as meaningful, historical time – Blaise Pascal. In regards to the first point, Pascal knew very well about the artificiality of belief and that if one acted like one believed (in the form of prayer for instance) then one would believe. On the second point I refer to a long quote from Pascal that serves as an introduction to Johnston’s aforementioned text. I’m going to quote the first third of the passage:

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts.”

The quote seems to have an obvious message, one that’s cliché even: “Carpe diem!” or seize the day (or more accurately gather the day!). It seems that the phrase is taken too often to enjoy short term pleasures, or chemical emotions, but more accurately, and to follow Pascal, it should be seen as more about the importance of making one’s mark, this is why he highlights the pain of the present. Now this can easily go wrong, one can (to act as an obsessional in Lacanian parlance) forever put off action because the present becomes only fodder for the future, but it’s important to see the potentially of the present on the present.

/5/ – The boxed dialog life

I think that this is the importance of interspace in the graphic novel – it is not a distanced stance, of the grand author or big Other but instead the completely contextualized stance where the very production of the narrative becomes part of that narrative. Again, not in a postmodern metafiction kind of way (a la Calvino’s steam pouring across the page etc) but through the very details of the story as disjunct, the very tension between biological time (my reading eye, by pulsating heart over the page) and historical time (the meaning and progression of the narrative itself).

To bring things full circle, or sort of, at least back to Blankets, in the closing pages the book’s protagonist (Craig) leaves his house, walking slowly in the snowy cold. He mentions the importance of making a mark, no matter how temporary. But before he speaks to this point, as he first steps out into the cold, he makes note of the small cloud of vapor escaping is mouth as it vanishes into the night. And just before this Craig points out how at times, when we wake from a dream, we feel like a ghost, and that it is only ritual and the measurements of time (holidays, the seasons) which remind us of change, that biological time.

To return to the graphic at the beginning of this piece, that of Ghost World, (and to nod at several works which have noted it’s existentialism) when Enid leaves on her bus to nowhere, what we are left with is not the horrible nihilism that everything is meaningless but something more troubling, something that demands a sense of responsibility. I think the feeling is captured in the very brief lyrics of Pedro the Lion’s song Rejoice:

Wouldn’t it be so wonderful
if everything were meaningless.
But everything is so meaningful,
and most everything turns to shit.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice
rejoice, rejoice, rejoice

It’s not simply that we can give up, it’s that there is some process which causes us to give up, that there is reason not to surrender so immediately. The interspace of the graphic novel highlights the collision of the temporal register of the biological and the historical, the realm of necessity and that of glory, and the crossover of the urgent moment, where we can celebrate the urgency of being able to live, to know that we are the machine by which one frame moves to the next.

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