Thursday, November 29, 2007

Interpretation of TIME

As I finished reading the rest of Clockwork Angels, I was still perplexed by the confusing construction of the comic. Instead of reading the comic right to left, like we had discussed in class, I found myself pausing and reading the comic from all different angles. As I was doing this I was noting the different interpretations of the plot, and every interpretation differed slightly. How could this be possible? The same pictures, the same story, and characters could be interpreted and seen through a different lens because of a slightly different angle. Hernandez is hovering over something, which causes confusion and relates to how humans connect with their world, and I believe it’s the interpretation of history and the concept time. Through her comic, Hernandez is able to not only suspend time, but also morph it so it may be seen through a different perspective.
The concept of history resonates all over this comic. The interpretation of history has always been a confusing, and a distorted “story” which no one can simply agree on. An event might occur, and two different people can see the same event and have a completely different understanding what actually happened.
The present war can attest to this situation. Some Americans view the war as a righteous and noble cause, while some see the war a ill struggle in an attempt to gain power, and even beyond the united states other countries and the civilians view the war as an invasion. It is the same event, but no one views the same war from the same perspective.
Humans do not all read the same, and they all do not see time through the same lens. I believe Hernandez incorporated this concept into her art in order to touch upon a idea, that literature can have a hard time conveying. Many novels give a straight forward moment-by-moment picture of the plot. The author controls the story, but Clockwork Angles, the author put the steering wheel in the reader’s hands, and allows for more room to move around. Hernandez allows the reader to apply his/her ideology to the work.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

To Wander

A point was made in class yesterday that “heightened reality in fact says something about reality”. I agree with Doug’s point that Hernandez uses a unique style that, when examined closely, acts as a signifier of human nature: the tendency to jump from one thought to another, to speak in response rather than always in a complete thought—the disjointedness of our communication with one another is so easy for us to understand, and yet presents itself as muddled and confusing in this medium at first glance.

When I thought more about the idea and the fact that I could do it, but not understand it, it reminded me of how my mom and I talk to each other when we really get going. I spent last semester abroad, and this past summer at the shore, and then this semester back at Loyola…so as a result the time I do spend at home is all the more important. I walk in the door, and take a seat at the kitchen table after hugging my mom and dad, and we start filling each other in on what we have missed. I respond to what my mom says; as I think of something else, and start another topic, she remembers a different story she has to tell me. As we attempt to make up for lost time, we jump around from topic to topic. When my dad or younger sister, Lizzy, enters the conversation, they have no idea what could have prompted us to talk about what we’re discusses. And yet, we precede for hours as if it’s logical that we touched each subject.

McCloud notes that the Western idea is to start with a goal…to converse with an end in mind, to have a start and finish. The Eastern trend, contrastingly, wanders—which is what the Manga style demonstrates; it illustrates the style that my mom and I talk in. A lot of what we have read this semester follows that trend—whoever introduces a topic leaves it open to discussion. The style of the authors, as well as the presenters in our class, has left open-ended questions that are meant for us to explore about what we are reading. This last work by Hernandez is the epitome of the idea of the class--we have to work through what we are reading to identify the signifiers and signified that we are presented with. The story illogically, at times, (during the train scene, or when Temper’s wedding is referenced) depicts events that are explained later. It is not the details of how the climax was reached, but rather the relationships (Amy and Temper, the people of Heaven and the sisters that were separated) along the way that solidify the meaning of the story. It exemplifies the pattern of reality, and its unpredictability—and yet, when the details are revealed, still leave the reader in question. As Anzaldua points out, the creative have the responsibility to communicate their ideas, and as students, we have a responsibility to examine this points and explore what they signify.

A Question of Genre

As a comic book, Clockwork Angels portrayed an interesting story of two women struggling against a (near) faceless villain in 19th century New Orleans/Texas. Even though the story contains elements of myths, science fiction, and romance, it also contains a hint of the “fairy tale” convention. This, I think, was implied in the “Director’s cut” version of the graphic novel. In the end notes, Hernandez references many Disney movies, e.g. Aladdin and Lilo and Stitch, and I remember her inspiration to be a comics artist from another Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This led me to think of the parallels and the contrasts between the typical Disney fairytale and Hernandez’s Clockwork Angels.
One of the main similarities between the two types of “fairytales” is, of course, the happily ever after ending given to the “good guys” and the not so happy ending for the “bad guys.” The sudden and unexpected turn of events in the favor of the “good guys” seem to always undo the “bad guys” in the most ironic ways. Hernandez references this favorite ending in Aladdin, whereas I could also see it in Hercules, The Little Mermaid, and The Beauty and the Beast (just to name a few!).
The most interesting, however, lies in the differences, which ironically enough are somewhat based on the similarities, between the two “fairytales.” First, the two genres are catered to the girls, yet each addresses a different perspective to the audience. The Disney movies seems to promote the ideology that a girl is always in need of some rescue, favorably by a cute guy or a handsome prince, who will whisk her away from the “bad guys” and keep her somewhere safe, like in his castle. This perspective instills, what I like to term, the “damsel-in-distress syndrome,” which plagues our society in different mediums.
Hernandez, however, counters this syndrome in Clockwork Angels. She presents her “good guys” as women, who not only save themselves but also save their friends/sisters from a monstrous (male) villain, the “beast.” Their acts become a means of female empowerment, which not only repels the typical fairytale but also other comic books that include women for the main purpose of the hero’s rescuing them. In this graphic novel, Hernandez promotes the idea that we started out with this semester: Girls could be superheroes too!

Sex, Sexism, and the Clockwork Angel

One of the things that I found interesting in our class discussion of Lea Hernandez as a comic book/graphic novel writer was the fact that she was so frustrated and appalled by her creative contemporaries and the genre in general. Her frustration stemmed from her belief that the medium had too strong of a sexually-driven concentration. In addition to the gratuitous focus on sex, she felt that the industry consistently degraded the status of women, objectifying the female body and role in society.
I was surprised, however, not that the comic book industry is fueled by raging hormones (how many times have we heard the tired advertising strategy, “sex sells”), but instead that the material in Clockwork Angels did not seem to be too far from that with which Hernandez had become concerned. It might make sense that Lea’s approach would be very conservative, an opposite focus on empowering and promoting women and their respective place in comic culture. Instead, however, Hernandez’s graphic novel is extremely sexually-charged and in some places, downright explicit.
The Victorian style dresses, which Hernandez researched and wrote about in her acknowledgements, are indeed an interesting topic at which to look. While the clothing of the girls might not be as outwardly graphic as the scantily-clad behind in the picture on Hernandez’s website, the girls are by no means strangers to deep-plunge necklines and ample cleavage. I know my mother would never let me go out of the house like that, but then again, Temperance and Amy’s maternal situations were not exactly ideal.
The real issue for me, however, was the subject matter. I’m not saying that I find the material offensive; instead I am merely surprised by the fact that Lea would choose to include such a bizarre, sexually-charged storyline involving a love affair between two girls, complete with a climax in a less than innocent bedroom scene, if she wants to be taken seriously by her chauvinistic male colleagues. Is this her best attempt to de-objectify women? Is this her way of trying to assert girl power?
Of course, an argument can be made that maybe this was written before Lea Hernandez got fed up with the machismo and sexism of the industry, but I am merely suggesting that before Lea begins throwing stones, she makes sure they won’t fall at her feet.

Clockwork Signifiers

When Temper gives a real reading of the deceased Parrish's belongings in Clockwork Angels, the reader sees three specific objects in her mind's eye that she is able to read: a book, a shirt, and a set of tools or toiletries. These are highly personal items and representative of basic signifiers that have been incorporated throughout our readings this semester. The book is symbolic of the written word, one of the earliest common signifiers. In Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, special attention was paid to the written word and its evolution from visual representations. Thus, this signifier symbolizes communication, which becomes especially important when considering the format of the texts that we have read in this course. The comic strip to poetry to the short story are all related, and in some ways interrelated, by the simple human need to convey ideas to others. The shirt is important as an outward display of a culture or time period. As we noted in Clockwork Angels, the clothing style is typical of the time period in which the story is set and grounds the more fantastic elements of magic and psychics in reality for the reader. Clothing can also be the only accurate way to distinguish between the characters such as Temper and Amy who are drawn in a very similar manner. The tool or toiletry kit, whichever it may be, is representative of basic human needs and functions. The idea of either the simple needs of a particular trade or caring for one's appearance and outer seeming in a private environment signifies the relationships between people on either a personal or professional level. Generally speaking, most human interactions can be divided between these two categories.
It is also significant to note that Temper is unable to describe the face of the murderer that she senses in her vision. The face as signifier and object has been an important theme in our studies. Temper is unable to identify with the murderer on a human level and, as a result, cannot perceive or remember his face. In this case the signifier holds a meaning or insight into a particularly abhorrent aspect of human nature that Temper either does not relate to or insists on ignoring. As a result, a gap is created between her and the subject of her vision as a person that cannot be bridged until she comes to an understanding of him as a person.

The Black Sludge

Last class we talked about the black gutters during the scene where Temperance is reading the dead. Everyone noted it as an instance of time stopping and dislocation for the reader. After all, the black background with white spots looks like the sky with stars. People were saying that it illustrates the suspension of time during Temper’s out-of-body experience. However, I took the spotty black gutters to be something different when I initially read the story. To me, the black in between the frames reminded me of sludge, and the white spots as almost complete over-taking of the original, standard gutter by this blob.

During this scene, Temper reads a painful death; she herself is left disillusioned and pained by it. It gets to the point where she falls to her knees in mental and physical agony. The black gutters, or sludge, as I saw it was representative of this experience. The normal notion of time is vanquished with the implementation of this different style of gutter; here, time seems to slow down lag, where one earth second could feel like hours within Temper’s mind as she reads the death. Moreover, she is trapped by these gutters and her reading. At the bottom she is drawn completely surrounded by the visions and the sludge, asking bewilderedly, “What kind of crap was that?” She is even blindfolded, indicating that although she is still within the world – the white between her and the gutters and frames – she is still wrapped up in darkness.

These gutters do still represent the passage of time; the white spots in between the cells facilitate this. However, the amorphous black ooze, the nothing, dominates these pages. They relate to Temper’s other-worldly experience and translate it visually for the reader, slowing him/ her down to feel the pain as acutely as Temperance does.

The Faces of Clockwork Angels

While working on my presentation for Clockwork Angels, I came to an interesting conclusion about the novel. I believe that the plot of Clockwork Angels, while unique and riveting, is essentially inconsequential. Clockwork Angels is, for me at least, an exercise in redefining the way a story is told. As I read it I paid specific attention to the faces throughout the story, how they were displayed and what they represented to me.

I don’t know if I was drawing more on Lévinas or McCloud, but the depiction of faces in Clockwork Angels was like none I had ever seen before. A large part of my attention to their detail was a function of necessity; often I found myself examining the faces of Amy and Temper in an attempt to distinguish between the two. Adding Milly and Glory into the mix only complicated matters further—but as I read the story I came to find that to be a result of their familial bonds. The confusion I found in the faces of the characters was confusion not only to myself, but to classmates, and even characters in the novel. The blurring of identity lends itself to make possible the transformation at the end of the novel—the seven sisters are so alike that they share countenances.

When Amy and Temper are presented in the same frame, I could not tell the difference between them except for the jewelry they wore around their necks. When I saw a frame of them later in profile, looking at each other and embracing, a thought struck me. Amy and Temper are so similar because they are like mirrors to one another—not only can they not exist without each other but they fulfill each other. The love they share as the novel progresses is quite explicitly described not by words or action, but sheer visuals. They are depicted as one figure when transformed to the angel, and this signifies both their unity and similarity at once.

On the other end of the face signifier is the male antagonist, Sacerdote. Sacerdote is depicted sharply in contrasting black and white, often wearing suits. His face however, is a blank canvas. It is nondescript, shaven, lacking any significant features. His eyes hide behind large spectacles, blacked out so the eyes cannot be seen. This dually prevents us from knowing Sacerdote, but also impresses upon us predisposed notions of visual. He appears evil, lifeless—and that is what he is. His face is a blank canvas for us to impose our own judgments, our own ideas. Because he represents nothing outwardly, we are so easily able to imagine him as evil incarnate. He functions perfectly as a villain, mysterious yet concretely nefarious.

Clockwork Angels becomes a work of art to me. Rather than focus on the story I focus on the details such as these. It is a great example of a playing with how a story is told. Clockwork Angels signifies all the things that make a great story, it resonates to us—but not because of the story. It is powerful because of the way it is told, and in doing so serves as an example of unconventional storytelling.

Timeless Harmony

I think Doug makes a very interesting point about thought and it’s relation to Hernandez’s Clockwork Angels. While I think the sequence of images and words plays an important part in our connection with the novel, I also believe Hernandez’s plot line and character relations inspire thought interaction.
Throughout reading the text, I had to stop and figure out what exactly the relationship between Temper and Amy was. I think part of the reason why I had to do this was not only because half the time I needed to read the page 5 times before I could piece together what was going on, but also because I was intrigued how Hernandez incorporated a lesbian love story considering the Victorian time period. Also, many of the times when Temper and Amy are shown expressing romantic feelings toward one another, there are no panels; the images take up the entire page and give the feeling of moving beyond the page into our reality. This also plays into the concept of timelessness we were discussing in class. By showing the images of Temper and Amy without gutters, I think Hernandez shows the timelessness of a basic love story, but at the same time suspends us in time because of the homosexual aspect, which is a prevalent issue and signifier in the world today. Similarly, this relates to Sarah’s connection between Levinas’s concept of the human face and Hernandez’s similar depictions of Temper’s and Amy’s face.
By having their faces extremely similar, there is positive universality and sense of timelessness. The readers can incorporate their own interpretations of the characters and their actions, which allow the reader to make a personal connection to the story and message. The reader learns through reading the text to not pay attention to the specific character, rather their thoughts and emotions they express. I feel Hernandez is encouraging the reader to look past gender boundaries focus on the universal emotions we, as human beings, all feel and experience in terms of relationships.
As sort of a side note (and I know this isn’t exactly a smooth transition, but this thought just came in a stream of consciousness), I also think the theme of timelessness connects with Temper’s ability to read the dead. With this ability, Temper is bringing the past into the present and connecting it with the future. Each of the authors we have read this semester has employed, in a sense, Temper’s ability; they read the past of their ancestors and work towards incorporating values, principles, beliefs, and traditions into people’s lives today. This synthesis of time will ultimately create a harmony, which Temper and Amy experience in the final panel, within our lives.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Signifiers in Clockwork Angels

In Lea Hernandez’s book, Clockwork Angels, there are several signifiers, including the necklace worn by one of the protagonists, Temperance Bane. Temperance wears a locket shaped like an insect that resembles a cicada. A cicada is an insect that molts its shell occasionally and emerges from the dull, dead case with a fresh, glittering shell. Inside Temperance’s locket are pictures of her and her father, who she does not initially realize is Stuart Parrish, a man who is just as evil as her mother and who is connected with the villain Sacerdote. Temperance undergoes a cicada-like transformation and rebirth in this book. She separates herself from her father and her mother by following her Uncle Jules Bane’s advice and giving herself up to love for Amelia. The cicada image is prominent in the sequence in which Amelia and Temperance have sex and the doves symbolically fly off the roof of the house. Temperance and Amelia are freed in this book, just as a cicada is freed from its dead shell. The cicada signifies rebirth and Temperance is given a chance at lifelong love when Milly gives Amelia her heart. Similarly, Milly and Amelia are both reborn when they sprout wings and transform into their true form as angels.

Another signifier in Clockwork Angels is thoughts of the dead. Temperance Bane possesses a talent for “necrometry,” which is the ability to read the dead. This talent is exploited by her mother and Temperance resolves not to read the dead anymore, until her skill is needed by her uncle to solve a mysterious murder case. Temperance agrees to do a reading, and she realizes that she is only asked to read when people need to have a suspicion confirmed. She says, “Most people that came to me already knew the answers to their questions.” Temperance is able to read the final thoughts of the dead. This suggests that humans are signified by their thoughts. The female characters in this book are not easily distinguishable; their features are very similar. This is to further expound the point that humans are not signified by their outward form, but by their inner thoughts. Sacerdote appears to be human, but he is not because his thoughts are not human; he is a monster. Amelia is not fully human, but she becomes human at the end of the book through the reciprocation and recognition of love by Temperance. Humans are signified by their thoughts and emotions, not by their outward appearance.

Hernandez’s suggestion that humans are signified by their thoughts and emotions relates to Levinas’s exploration of the human face. He encouraged people to look past the individual features of the face and to listen to what comes from the mouth of the speaker. Speech is thought verbalized; thus, Levinas and Hernandez are making the same point. The human being is signified by thoughts and emotions, even if these are not tangible or readily seen.

Today’s discussion really got me thinking about what Hernandez is trying to signify through Temperance’s ability to “read the thoughts of dead people.” To read the thoughts of dead people would mean that, it sounds redundant to say, when we die we are still capable of thinking. The ability to do so, to think, to use thoughts, in death, let alone life, is puzzling for me. I began thinking about what I do when I think and, what it really comes down to, is having these little blobs of words floating around in my mind; the things I say are usually written out in my mind in one way or another. My thoughts, therefore, are just another kind of strange, invisible signifiers prompting me for some kind of signified (more thoughts, speech, etc.). Sometimes I’m not even sure how the thoughts become something signified which, again, leaves me wondering how one could read the thoughts of another person when I can’t even make sense of some of the things in my own head.

This all leads me to believe that Hernandez, through her style, the way the speech and thought bubbles are placed, the way some parts seem disjointed, is attempting to show us a piece of ourselves; a piece of ourselves that we may share with Temperance. On one level, the comic itself shows us the thoughts of characters and the fact that these characters are outside of us, dead, image stills in the medium of comics, it’s as if the reader is capable of reading the mind of a dead person like Temperance. On another level, these images, captions, words, were all the thoughts of Lea Hernandez, a kind of “dead” author—somewhere else outside of us and the comic itself. So that it’s as if we are reading her mind in a way as well; through reading Clockwork Oranges we are reading a part of Hernandez’s mind at the moment she wrote a particular image or word. On a third level, for me at least, these words and images make us more aware of our own thoughts, those of which we are normally dead to. Because Hernandez is so different in the way she formats the images and texts in the comic, my mind was constantly second guessing itself, asking whether the sequence of images/words made sense this way or that. Thus, like Temperance, the reader is placed into a world where they are in a constant interaction with thought: the ultimate signifier. Hernandez is showing us that it doesn’t take some supernatural gift to read the minds of the dead. This is something we do everyday in picking up a book, looking at an image, or reading a comic.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


As I continued to read Understanding Comics, I could not get the image of McCloud “praying” and asking why are we so involved? In his clip of various cartoon charters with human faces (pg30). The image is so astounding because it conjures the idea of religion, and praying to a comic? No, we created the comic…so are we praying to ourselves? Why do we see faces in any simple dots and lines? It seemed to be a desire, a desperation McCloud is pointing out. Why does the “other” hold so much importance. Soad I think you really captured the idea of children’s fascination with cartoons. Cartoons are simple; they are entertaining, and reach children on a level of comedy. The simple nature of a cartoon, the simple shapes, draws the child in because they can understand indentify with the simplicity. As we get older, we view cartoons differently, we search for a deeper meaning, the plot, the protagonist…we ask why? What is the purpose? Then we have to view the “other” to find it.
McCloud’s clip of praying to the comic reminded me of an element of Marxist Critique. Marx explained the ideology of the human being is its desperate need for community, but also to create itself in nature and even beyond nature. Marx came up with the theory of the creation of God by man. He believed God was a creation of man in order for man to validate his existence. We believe that man is a creation of God in his image, or is this the other way around? Did man create God in his own image? Marx continues to identify that man had to believe that there were answers, and they were not simply found on earth. The unexplained had to be explained and manifested in some form, what better form than the ultimate “Human” the immortal MAN, GOD. Marx points out that man needs to answer to something; he needs submission in order for answers and explanations to validate his existence in a world which does not provide a book of answers. So man creates his own “teacher” and his own book of answers in the only form that will allow him to feel he matters. Man reflects himself beyond himself. He is able to project humanity beyond this world, and still retain a hold on his existence.
Magic and myth also correlate with this theory. It provides reason and explanation because after all we are reasonable beings, we must find the answers that when we ask WHY, we are not left we empty space? The closer we can relate to the explained the more we feel we can validate our existence.
McCloud illustrates that words and pictures have driven toward opposite sides of the spectrum, but meet in the middle at a more basic level. Could we have been our creation of this separation of the picture and word? We did invent both. And if so, then we are actually creating a reason for our own existence by finding a meaning out of a meaning we invented and created. The answer is a reflection of the self.
As a child, I would read comics every Sunday morning when I got home from Church. My sister, Jenna, and I would fight over the rainbow pages of the Sunday Record, looking to glean whatever we could from Garfield, Jump Start, Ziggy, Cathy, and, of course, good old Charlie Brown. This practice was close to ritual. We would throw the rest of the newspaper pages, Arts and Society, Business, Finance, World News, and who knows whatever down, strewing them across my mother’s newly pickled hardwood floor without a moment’s thought. Then, when my dad needed a section, Jenna would tell him that I was the one who had thrown them helter-skelter, even though she “tried to stop me.” I would huff and puff as I was made to pick up the sections and neatly fold them again while Jenna would look on with a mean smirk and glowing blue-green eyes, the same color as my own. But then again, this was the girl who had promised, “Hit me. I promise I won’t tell mom.” Which I feel for every time, never failing to deprive myself of dessert for any given week. I can remember my mom’s strong, calm voice as she reminded me, “Courtney, we do not hit people- even if they ask us to.” But that’s another therapy session entirely.
Needless to say, my exposure to comics was limited. Aside from the Sunday funnies and my uncle’s yellowing Archie collection we kept stored in our garage, I didn’t have much knowledge of comics or comic books. Finding out that Superman was a picture before he was a real guy would have completely blown away my concept of reality, in an overly dramatic explosion that would have made Siegel and Shuster proud.
You know how there are some things that you know that you don’t know? Well, as I got older I became quite aware of the cult following for the comic genre. I knew that there were people out there that ate, slept, and breathed the stuff, but what I didn’t understand was WHY. So when it came time to enroll in courses my junior year, I decided that this one class, Special Topics: Comics in America, sounded like it might actually be something different to learn about. Something cool. Which is where I was first introduced to my good friend, Scott McCloud.
Little did I know that at least three of the courses I would take in my time at Loyola would require the text. Foolishly, after the first comics course ended, I tried to sell the thing back, only to get the ever-frustrating “no value” response from the cashier. Now, I am not shy in my deeply rooted bitter sentiments toward the bookstore- it infuriates me when I buy a 200 dollar textbook in September and receive 4 dollars when I sell it back in December (I usually end up just donating my books just to spite them). BUT my initial anger in the “no value” situation eventually turned into pure, unadulterated joy when I found out that I would be using it again, and in fact, more than once. Take that, eFollett.
In spite of my raving tirade against the bookstore, there is a point at which I am hoping to arrive (hope being the operative word, anyway). This book- this zany, crazy book with its awkward and undoubtedly dorky author—it’s got something to it! In each class that it was mandated, I learned to look at a different part of the pages, eventually coming to the realization that this McCloud guy, despite his graph-paper jacket and Harry Potter-esque lightning shirt ensemble, actually has some pretty good sense after all. And it wasn’t just in classes that I thought about his meanings.
Suddenly, I was walking around (compliments of p.93), wondering (similarly to Doug’s statement in class about his present state in relation to the office of a given professor), “Hey, how DO I know if things are still there when I’m not!?” Which, aside from being a very unapologetically ego-centric thought, lead to other philosophical questioning, like “And how do I know that things exist when I’m sleeping,” etc. etc. Whoa, Court, don’t get ahead of yourself here, you’re not Descartes now will you ever be. But still, the thoughts raced through my mind faster than- dare I say it- a speeding bullet. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
One of my favorite panels in the whole book is on p. 83. It is a picture of “The Big ‘N,” a painting by Al Held which is just mostly blank space aside from two little triangles on the top and bottom. This is just one of many things that McCloud includes in his book that just completely blew my mind. So much so, that I showed it to my roommates- and, let’s be honest, when is it ever cool to show your homework to your roommates? Well, it is when it comes to Scott McCloud.
Writing this blog now, I am almost ashamed that I tried to sell this book back. It has quickly become one of my favorites, a tribute to an “invisible art,” but also to a previously invisible psychology that I had never considered. The relationship between the words, the panels, and their meanings do not leave once a page is turned (or, do they? haha). Every frame is separate. Every word and phrase is as well. And yet, it is the symphony of text and image that brings the meaning home. McCloud sums up his book in the final pages, “and all that’s needed is the desire to be heard—the will to learn—and the ability to see.” Well, I don’t know if that’s “all” that is needed. But it sure is a darn good place to start looking. And at least this time, my search for knowledge won’t end up with me having to pick newspaper sections up off the floor.

That's What Christmas is All About, Charlie Brown

“In truth, don’t all lines carry with them an expressive quality?”(124) Last semester, while I was studying in Paris, I took and Art History course that met every Wednesday for two hours in the Musee d’Orsay (for those who have never been—PLEASE GO—and for those who have already visited the museum I’m sure you know what I’m talking about). It’s home to works of the master’s of their trade: Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and the list goes on…Several of these artists (if not all), mastered the technique of the expressive line, and communicated with their audience through their tones and brushstrokes, rather than expressly through the subject of the piece. McCloud references their work, and how the use of line conveyed abstract emotion in a concrete detail.

It is not difficult at all to group these artists into the category of “masters of their medium”, but McCloud challenges the readers to look past the proclaimed masters, and specifically references other artists, like Charles Shulz. I naturally consider him a very talented artist, but would never think of comparing him to Monet. McCloud pushes me to ask myself…why not? He is, after all, “a storyteller, a creator who has something to say through comics and devotes all his energy to controlling his medium and refining its ability to convey messages effectively”(180). His lines should then be considered expressive, too: McCloud notes their soft curves that reflect the mood of his stories of “Peanuts”. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a perfect example of McCloud’s point: when Linus stands on the empty stage, illuminated by a singular stage light, and tell what the true meaning of Christmas really is, he is clearly voicing Shulz’s opinion of society’s commercial take on a sacred holiday. But from the soft colors, to the smooth lines, to the Linus’ calm voice, Shulz is making his point approachable to adults and children alike.

As McCloud notes in his last chapter, “the wall of ignorance that prevents so many human beings from seeing each other clearly can only be breached by communication”(198). Each of these artists, including McCloud are combining words and images to express their thoughts and ideas—in a way that is certainly still subject to individual interpretation—but it is better to say it, than not say it all.

Joseph Merrick's Face

Here is a picture of Joseph Merrick, better known as “The Elephant Man.” One website describes him as being “history’s most horribly deformed man.” As is to be expected, he had a horribly tragic life. His disease started to develop around the age of four, and after awhile he was ostracized by his community and family alike. He ended up joining the circus as a sideshow freak. In his 20s, he met a doctor who claimed he could fix Merrick’s deformities. Merrick died in the hospital when he was 27.

Now here is another “picture” of Joseph Merrick. It’s not actually Merrick, but it is a depiction of what he most likely looked like if it wasn’t for his deformities. Modern forensic science and technology has allowed researchers to examine the structure of Merrick’s skull and create an approximation of his non-deformed face.

What does this have to do with Understanding Comics? Well, both the pictures of Merrick and McCloud explore how a viewer reacts to a human face. Merrick, because of his deformities, was labeled “The Elephant Man,” and therefore had his humanity diminished. He was even shunned by his own parents because he was so grotesque and inhuman to them.

Conversely, the speculative face of Merrick is an average Joe; nothing really exceptional save maybe a particularly low brow line. It’d be hard to imagine someone who would look upon this face as offensive or alien. Similarly, McCloud locates the translatability of comics in their cartoonish method; indeed, the more cartoon something is, the easier it is to relate to. Basically, cartoon here means common or inoffensive. Something is easy to relate to because it is so vague and expected.

This is why Merrick’s real face is so shocking while his “normal” face is rather boring. The deformed face is so specific, so completely unique, that humanity has a hard time seeing the humanity. Any person would be hard-pressed to say Merrick is not, in fact, a human. Nevertheless, it was his painfully tragic situation that no one could see that humanity in his face.

Illuminating Comics

In one of my other classes this semester, I’ve studied some of William Blake’s pieces. I learned how he accompanied paintings and drawings along with the text in order to “illuminate” the themes and provide the reader and observer with a deeper understanding of the poems. I thought this was an interesting approach to poetry and didn’t think anything more of it after class let out. Then, I started reading McCloud’s Understanding Comics and realized Blake’s “illuminated texts” were essentially early forms of comics. The pictures and text create a perfect balance, each influencing the other, offering deeper meaning, a different perspective, and an understanding that brings together the artist or author and the reader (196).

As I contemplated more about this idea, I began to see how the techniques, concepts, and philosophies McCloud puts forth in Understanding Comics not only unfold the world of comics, but also really apply to each of the signifiers we have been studying. Geography, tattoo, and the human face have each been mediums through which the generations have communicated and come to a deeper connection between one another; however, these mediums are visual and enhanced by the verbal. The comics offer a synthesis of the visual and verbal mediums inviting the reader to become aware of the whole world that surrounds us. When McCloud is describing the process one might approach to learning the art of comics, he says, “He learns to see BENEATH the crafts of draftsmanship and scripting to see the WHOLE picture” (175). Through this, McCloud, as well as the other authors featured in this course, is suggesting by looking at the various signifiers beyond the superficial, we will be exposed to the whole world, where there is balance, support, illumination, and the possibilities are “endless” (212).

It’s funny, reading Doug’s blog reminded me that I too was a huge fan of comic books when I was a kid. Actually, it might not have been a comic book per se. It was more like a kid’s magazine that featured weekly installments of some major story that centered around Aladdin, the main character of the magazine and its title (not in any way related to Disney’s Aladdin or Arabian Nights’ Aladdin by the way). When I was reading Doug’s blog, I remembered my fascination with drawing the character. I somehow convinced myself that if I could draw him, I would be able to control the character too. I could make him go on better adventures, have better friends, since they were often mean, and look even more stylish, since I sometimes thought that the artists took too many liberties with his hair. I could mold him into my own image; he’d become my own creation. I know; a tad bit narcissistic there, but I was only 10. I thought I owned the world! But solipsism isn’t something new.
Earlier in Understanding Comics, McCloud makes the point that “we humans are a self-centered race” (32) since “we see ourselves in everything” (33). This could be related to the comic book character, especially McCloud’s, as we have already discussed in class on Tuesday. He becomes part of us because we see our selves in him. But I think our crowning achievement does not lie with our identification with an image, but rather our identification with our words that identify with our image. I think for first time I realized my emphasis on words. McCloud makes this great point about how words introduce the concept of time in the comics.
Since words are made of sounds, and sounds are the only things that could exist in time, this highlights the immortality of words. I think this is especially significant for me or maybe all of us as English majors. As for myself, I tend to pride myself on the things I read or read before. I still brag about reading this book over another book. My favorite book to brag about is Pride and Prejudice of course. This undoubtedly leads to another thought. Can some words be more “immortal” than others? Is it an accessibility issue? Or does it solely depend on the reader? I think a book’s immortality is divided between the writer and the reader. Obviously, the writer has to be skilled with words to have an impact of the reader. Then, the reader can attribute more meaning to them by adding his or her own interpretations of them. Interestingly enough, McCloud makes the point that the comic book artist and the reader are accomplices in any work of art.

Melting Clocks and Marching Elephants

As I glanced over the posts of my esteemed colleagues, I noticed that there was a prevalent theme of encountering art in early childhood. Clearly if McCloud was seeking to touch something deep within his readers regarding their conceptions of art, it seems to have worked. As I read through his philosophy of comics, and particularly his discussion of time in Chapter Four and the connection between emotions and style in Chapter Five, I was strongly reminded of one of my favorite artists: Salvador Dali. I first encountered Dali when I was very young; my friend had The Persistence of Memory hanging in his room. I don’t think either of us knew what it may have meant or even who painted it, but it was something that resonated with me even them.

Dali was surrealist. There is disagreement over the definition of surrealism, but in general it is a form that tries to visualize the thought process absent all reason and aesthetic rule. It was a movement highly influenced by Freud; another definition might be that it is a style that seeks to give form to the unconscious. If Dali drew comics, he’d be on the right side of McCloud’s pyramid, fairly close to the top. It is his conception of time, however, that is his strongest link him to Understanding Comics: Dali was highly influenced by Einstein’s work and the idea that time was relative and not fixed. This lead to perhaps his most famous artistic symbol: the “soft watch” or the “melting clock.” In any given painting, Dali represents many different time periods on a single canvas; birth, growth, death, and decomposition are intertwined and seemingly unified in his depiction of the unconscious. In his painting Soft Watch at the First Moment of Explosion, he depicts exactly that: a moment frozen in time that is simultaneously able to convey movement. This is very similar to McCloud’s analysis of the comic book image: it is a static, but uses various artistic techniques to convey movement and time. Whereas Dali captures a single moment representing many “times,” comics allow the reader to move back and forth through time at will. In both cases, it is the role of the “other” to construct the parts into a whole. The form is constructed specifically for the reader; its complete significance is relative to the person reading it.

The literature we have read this semester tries to do something similar with form and purpose. McCloud speaks of the idea specifically in Chapter Seven: artists choose particular forms based on what they want to convey and their conception of “art” per se. It makes sense then that Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera mixes so many different genres of literature; at least one of her purposes is to challenge the idea of the borders individuals and societies erect between each other and its impact on our humanity. In our tattoo section, we discussed the particular “forms” that tattoos take (like those of the Samoans) and how the form varies with the purpose of the tattoo. The connection between all of these elements – Dali, McCloud, and the rest – seems to be that the form and purpose cannot be separated; in at least some cases, the form may have even been an unconscious choice on the part of the author. Since all works of art will ultimately be seen outwardly, the consequence of the form on the observer must be taken into account.

The Treachery of The Senses

While reading Understanding Comics, I often found myself pondering the very nature of art. At one point, McCloud says, “The idea that a picture can evoke an emotional or sensual response in the viewer is vital to the art of comics” (121), and I think this is true not only for comics, but all art. While I do find most popular art aesthetically pleasing, there is no value in just aesthetics for me. Instead, I have always valued art that produced a feeling within me.

I’ve never really been drawn to traditional art forms such as landscape, impressionist or classical. As far as traditional art movements are concerned, I enjoy the Romantic movement the most. Caspar David Friedrich is a favorite, but only because he often portrays fragmented and obscure subjects. I’ve always been much more drawn to modernist movements, such as expressionism and surrealism. When I view art I want to be challenged, forced to consider my own perceptions. Essentially, I seek the evocation of a certain feeling; I want the art I’m viewing to transcend its medium and present something new to me.

One of my favorite paintings is referenced in Understanding Comics— that is Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. I first found the painting while studying surrealism, and ever since it has stuck with me as an example of what I consider perfection in art. I have always appreciated it for its simplicity and frankness, yet its inherent ambiguity. The Treachery of Images forces the viewer to not only reconsider their interpretation of art, but also their perception of the entire world.

While reading Understanding Comics I became aware of another dimension of my appreciation for Magritte’s painting. Through McCloud’s discourse on cartoons I realized that The Treachery of Images is essentially a comic, and an iconic one at that. It features both text and images, juxtaposed yet each one illuminating the other to a higher level of meaning. The portrayal of the pipe is itself an icon, and through this representation it holds a world of meaning for the viewer to interpret. In a sense, its simplicity is paradoxically what makes it so complex—like McCloud’s cartoon face, it is something that we see ourselves in. Bolstered by Magritte’s caption, we realize that we cannot take everything as it is at face value.

All of this artistic suggestion then brings me to the idea of perspective. McCloud writes of the “invisible art” and the reliability of the senses. I’ve often wondered about the reality of the world—whether it actually exists or is just a representation of something and nothing more than this. We rely on our senses to perceive the world, and rely on them with complete faith. In art however, we often make deductions, draw connections to things that aren’t necessarily implied. In the idea of the “gutter,” McCloud covers this topic. Art can take the place of a false reality—something that we perceive and feel genuine emotion from, even though it is not an actual entity. That something visual can have this power on us, with no help from other senses, makes me think of Lévinas’ thoughts about the face.

We live in a state of “profound isolation” according to McCloud (194), yet are so reliant on each other for social contact. However, that social contact is often nothing more than a reflection of our own needs. Often we act social because we are uncomfortable with being alone—not because we genuinely care what other people have to say. While this is not always true, it is sometimes, and in this capacity we search for art in each other. In the visage of another human being, we often look to find something about our own selves.

Comic Possibilities

When I was younger I developed an interest in drawing. My mother, the artist of the family, encouraged my doodling, buying me sketch pads and other supplies. I began by copying my favorite cartoon characters, but quickly advanced to copying photographs. I always enjoyed art class in elementary school and did fairly well.
It was about this time that I also became interested in comic books. Naturally, my first passion was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In general, I stayed away from the more mainstream Marvel and DC comics, instead opting for the likes of Savage Dragon and lesser known characters. My favorite heroes did not hide behind masks despite the fact that society did not accept them. Soon, my dual interests combined nicely in my head and on the covers of my textbooks.
I have a distinct memory of my grandfather asking me what I wanted to do for a living when I grew up. “An artist,” I answered.
“No, no,” he said. “What are you going to do for money?”
“Well,” I continued, “I never said what kind of artist I wanted to be. Maybe I'll be a comic book artist.”
“Don't be silly,” he said dismissively. “It's good to have a hobby, but you need to learn to do something useful so that you can support myself.”
Though I continued taking art classes through high school, I never felt the same about it as I did before that moment. Drawing was just a hobby that branched out into charcoal and fairly mediocre attempts at oil paints. It was something I enjoyed, but could not legitimately pursue it in college. Instead, I developed an interest in, quite possibly, a less marketable skill: creative writing. I guess I showed my grandfather, huh?
I wish I had examples such as Maus and Understanding Comics when I was a child to fan out in front of him. Scott McCloud appreciates comics in a way that I never could. He has a superb understanding of the form and function of the art as well as the history of comic strips as a medium. More than that, however, McCloud's book is a perfect example of comics functioning in a way that is not traditionally expected. Understanding Comics is a textbook, in essence. What is interesting is that the book is an incredibly effective text. The form of comics successfully conveys factual information on a subject that would otherwise be difficult to teach. Similarly, Maus is a very effective memoir that shocks the reader by presenting the story of a Holocause survivor in a visual form using animal characters.
It seems to me that one of the most important lessons to be learned from our readings in this course is that the theme of the author should not be restricted by the medium he or she chooses to use. Tales of the Tikongs uses short fiction and character sketches to give an overall impression of a unique island culture. Borderlands/La Frontera is even more extreme in twisting the written word to suit the author's purpose. Anzaldúa freely mixes poetry and prose. She incorporates several languages into her writing and only translates her work back into English sporadically.
The message of the writer, in each of these cases, does not suffer as a result of their unorthodox forays into literature. As a matter of fact, a strange format unsettles the reader, but in a way that causes him or her to observe the text much more carefully. In some cases this requires the use of a Spanish to English dictionary. Others force the reader to pay close attention to recurring characters and the roles that they play. Maus and Understanding Comics incorporate the visual arts into their literature. The dialogue carries much more weight because most narration is unnecessary and the written word strengthens the action that takes place in the drawings. In many ways, these two texts represent just the tip of the iceberg in reference to what artists can create using comic strips.

The Two Pitchers

McCloud’s Understanding Comics entirely changed my perception of the medium of comics. Sure, as a kid I was really interested in comics. I loved Batman, Spiderman, the X-Men. I even went as far as buying a book, around age 8, at one of those school book sales that tried to teach you how to draw all your favorite super-heroes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand what all these weird circles and squiggly lines were trying to tell me. I couldn’t understand how a bunch of circles and blocks suddenly became what I saw fighting crime in my comics. After a few failed attempts, I was much deterred and decided that becoming a Power Ranger was probably a better route for me.

Nevertheless, after that, I felt as though I kind of grew out of reading comics. I began seeing it as a childish thing; something that needed to be left behind in childhood. So, I stopped reading comics seriously. I’ll admit to picking one up now and then when I’m in a convenient store, but only when no one else is around and mostly just to see the way the artwork has changed.

After reading Understanding Comics, I realize that I was never able to separate the medium of comics, its form, from the various genres that exist within that medium, its content. The biggest thing I took from McCloud is that the best comics, despite whatever intrinsic content the creator brings to the comics in its “trends, genres, styles, subject matter, themes”, allows the reader to bring their own content into what is written (p. 6). The two images that really bookend this idea for me is the pitcher as the comics’ form, and the liquid within as the content. At the beginning of the novel it seemed like an interesting way of explaining how I stereotyped comics, the art-form and medium, as the genres I had read as a child. I, as McCloud writes, had mistaken the “message for the messenger” (p. 6). However, when I reached the end of McCloud’s comic book, I came upon that image again; the filled pitcher and the empty pitcher. For some reason, this image struck a chord in me and I quickly found the image at the beginning of the comic. I saw the panel with McCloud’s character stating, “the trick is to never mistake the message—”, and at once, I saw that the character was the message; that visually he was the content McCloud had chosen but, on some other level, the character was myself and that I was bringing content to the character and, in doing so, was filling up the empty pitcher that is the medium of comics. I looked back at image of the two pitchers next to each other on page ninety-nine and I couldn’t help but see two pitchers full. I had brought my own existence, my own content, into the comic form. Thus, while McCloud is stating that one shouldn’t mistake one genre or style of comics to speak for the form of comics, I believe he is suggesting that form and content are forever connected in comics because of what the reader brings to what is visually represented. The reader, ultimately, fills the pitcher.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Feeling and Art

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics explores the relationship between text and image and demonstrates how the two can be used to engage the reader and convey a message. The ability of comics to express emotion by the shape of a simple line (McCloud 125) is fascinating; the comic form seems so universal and unlimited. However, the expression of emotion in lines also made me consider the limitations of the comic form. For example, how or could a blind person appreciate comics? I have heard about blind artists before so I decided to search online and see if I could find examples. One blind artist, Esref Armagan, has been blind since birth, and another, Lisa Fittipaldi, became blind as an adult. Both of their paintings are incredibly realistic and rich in color and emotion. Their paintings may be viewed at the following sites:

One site I found quoted two renowned artists who both stressed the importance of feeling to emotion. Neither artist felt that vision was the primary sense used in painting; feeling seemed to be the essential component of painting. Pablo Picasso said, “Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen,” and Jackson Pollock said, “The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.” The works of Armagan and Fittipaldi are not as abstract of those of Picasso and Pollock, but feeling is essential to their works. Fittipaldi said, “The images in my mind's eye became clearer as my sight diminished. Now, by hearing or experiencing something, I can picture it in my head and paint it.” The ability of these artists to still experience art despite an inability to physically see it made me reconsider the creation of art and the senses that inform it.

On pages 132 and 133, McCloud demonstrates how emotion can be expressed in the background of a frame. The frames that McCloud uses as examples demonstrate that the creation of visual art is not about seeing at all, but about feeling, just as Armagan and Fittipaldi demonstrate in their works. The background images of fuzzy swirls demonstrate the overwhelming confusion and disorientation that people feel with or without sight. I am not sure how a blind person could read a comic because the text cannot have the same effect without the images; however, the comic does demonstrate that the creation of art is not dependent upon sight, but upon feeling and emotion.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Unlike reading other kinds of genre, the reading of a graphic novel/comic book requires a greater degree of audience involvement than in any other genre. I think McCloud emphasizes this on several instances throughout the first part of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. McCloud first points out reader’s participation as he explains the comic rendition of Magritte’s painting. After McCloud explains the true treachery of images, he directly questions the reader, “Do you hear what I’m saying?” (25). The rhetorical question serves many purposes. One of them is the level of identification with the reader. The author/speaker phrases a question in a way that the typical reader would hear or use in his or her world. This strengthens the level of identification: the figure of McCloud becomes closer to the reader, because of the apparent “similarities.” The second purpose of the rhetorical question is pointed out in McCloud’s response: “If you do, have your ears checked, because no one said a word” (25). This shows that the author/speaker figure becomes an inner voice for the reader. As a result, the authorial figure becomes further identified with the reader; the voice becomes part of the reader him or herself. The process, I think, is easily facilitated in the graphic novel/comic book genre rather than in any other genre, because, as McCloud points out, “when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself” (36). Moreover, the comic book artist depends on the reader’s imagination to navigate across the panels, as McCloud points out, “every act committed by to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice…the reader” (68). This, I think, leads me to believe that in the comic book, audience participation seems to be crucial, almost necessary. This is fostered by the process of identification that is established between the reader and the comics characters.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The comic medium is often discriminated against as being appropriate only for the action-filled comic books of youths or for the humorous strips in newspapers; therefore, some readers are immediately alienated by the form of Art Spiegelman’s brilliant Maus. Some readers fail to recognize the potential that the comic medium has for conveying important messages. Art Speigelman chose the comic medium because it was the best way to convey his message. The icons present in comics enable the reader to enter the story in a way that readers cannot enter written text; therefore, the comic allows the reader to have a different understanding of the events portrayed because he/she enters the story and subsequently experiences the events vicariously. Icons focus the reader’s attention in ways that words cannot.

According to Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics, an icon is “any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea” (27), such as a mouse representing a Jew and a cat representing a Nazi, while a symbol is an image used to “represent concepts, ideas, and philosophies” (27), such as the Nazi swastika. The icons in Maus are animals representing different nationalities. The mice, cats, frogs, reindeer and pigs are drawn very simply so that they are abstract enough for human readers to identify with. Unlike animals, words are “totally abstract icons. That is, they bear no resemblance at all to the real McCoy” (McCloud 28). Spiegelman wanted his readers to transfer themselves into the story so he chose picture icons supplemented with dialogue and text, rather than text alone.

Spiegelman chose animal icons as opposed to icons representing humans because of “the universality of cartoon imagery. The more cartoony a face is…the more people it could be said to describe” (31). Mice can represent more people than human icons can because the details of more elaborately drawn humans alienate readers who do not share the human icon’s characteristics. McCloud asserts that when “you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another” (36) since you pay attention to others’ features in vivid detail. Alternately, one is only aware of a vague “sense of general placement of one’s own features; thus, when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself” (36). The mice have eyes, noses, and hands, which readers recognize that they themselves have, but the mice do not have distinguishing features that would cause readers to view them as they would view other people. The mice icons are just human enough that we can see ourselves in their place, but they are not so human as to alienate readers. Spiegelman had to find a perfect balance in his drawings in order to bring readers into his story, as opposed to shutting them out.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Art of the Comic

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is surprisingly elegant in its dissection and analysis of the comic. In discussing Spiegelman's Maus, the question of whether or not it is effective as a memoir in the form of a comic was raised. I cannot imagine McCloud's piece existing in any other format and still succeeding in disseminating the art of comic strips. At times the panels are hard to follow physically, but, in general, presenting visual information and examples along with the written explanation is very beneficial to the reader.
I especially appreciate the techniques featured in comics as described in this work. In the present culture, it is all too easy to dismiss comics as vulgar and low brow. After all, if the creator were any good at writing or drawing, wouldn't he or she be a novelist or a painter? From a strictly analytical perspective, Understanding Comics is excellent. It discusses the vocabulary of comics and breaks the genre down into its contingent parts in a step by step process. McCloud then takes these pieces and expounds upon their purpose in the past and present and their possible uses in different contexts and styles. In particular, I was impressed by his clinical and artistic treatment of the “gutter,” the dead space between panels. This space is often taken for granted, but has great implications to the art form. Making these gutters wider or longer or eliminating them altogether have consequences that affect the reader in a significant way.
It is especially interesting to compare current comics to Aztec and Egyptian art as well as in their early twentieth century European forms. Looked at in the context of our class, it seems that McCloud's Understanding Comics is a mapping device for a specific culture in much the same way that The Whale Rider and Borderlands/La Frontera are. Rather than exploring a particular people, though, McCloud analyzes the history and growth of a form of literature. Consequently, he comes to look at many nations, peoples, and histories in regard to a single facet. Japanese comics have a very different style from western comics and value certain principles of art and storytelling on a different scale. These cultures shape comics, but the comics also shape the worlds that they exist in. This seems to be McCloud's main argument and it is this argument that allows for wacky, humorous comics as well as serious, historical comics such as Maus. The only limits of the comic strip as a form of literature are the skills of the creators and the willingness of the readers.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Images Speak

After reading what some other people have posted, I am interested in how Speigelman’s use of images is connected to the idea of writing, and perhaps more specifically to writing down an oral tradition. We have scene the concept of writing down oral tradition before, particularly in Tales of the Tikongs. As in Maus II, the written records of these stories were destroyed. In Tikongs, they became toilet paper; here, they are destroyed after the writer’s death. In Maus II, the “text” of the story has disappeared; what’s left are the images: they are images of Spiegelman’s father’s family and friends from Poland. Like the images his son creates in the graphic novel, the images of memory are separated and fragmented. This element is also reflected in the Speigelman’s narrative style, which shifts seamlessly between the past and present as one of the fragmented images returns to the surface as a result of being triggered by some other experience. The images Spiegelman’s father shows to his son are all of faces. Each face communicates a story to those who view it. The story is not in words or even tattoos but through the experience and interaction of that person with the “other.” Oral tradition nature requires it to be concerned more with emotive content than with precise language. Spiegelman’s work follows suit: rather than a work of textual sophistication, the faces and the images convey an emotion to the reader that text never could.
One might also consider why Maus II is subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale” and what connection this may have to orality. Spiegelman’s father didn’t ever write down his story of survival; it was passed to his son orally. He then transformed it into an extremely emotional work of text and graphics. By putting it into a form of writing, Spiegelman has ensured that the “survivor’s tale” will survive and that it’s most important element – its emotion content – will continue to be told to successive generations in a language that is not restricted to one particular culture or location.

Moderation (In More Ways than One)

In preparation for freshman year at Loyola, we were required to read The Long Walk, a heart-wrenching true story of Slawomir Rawicz, a man who escaped from a Siberia prison camp during the Second World War. Throughout the course of the story, many of the main characters die from heat, cold, over-exertion, exhaustion, starvation, and thirst. What to the reader seems like an emotionally grueling experience and narrative is, ironically, almost completely devoid of any personal expression of feeling. After each tragedy, Rawicz continues on his tale, not commenting on his pain, grief, guilt, or dejection. As an extremely stoic raconteur, Rawicz always maintained a certain distance in his reflections, never allowing the reader to know the depths of desolation he must have felt in his soul.
During class discussion, we were all made to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the book. I raised my hand and pointed to the author’s lack of emotive description as a strength. However, in response, the moderator challenged my statement. She felt that Rawicz’s numbness was actually a weakness in the text, an isolation and alienation from the reader. She believed that this formed a disconnect and made the story less human.
Of course, as an incoming freshman I was easily intimidated and did not attempt to support my assertion. Instead, I sat there and listened as everyone in the class enthusiastically agreed. Still, in my head I knew why I felt the way I did.
It wasn’t that he had felt nothing, but rather that he choose not to include and openly share it with the reader.
The telling of the story is what is most important. I believe that the narrative was made stronger by the decision to give the facts and let the reader decide for themselves the proper emotion to be felt. I think that it shows a certain confidence in the reader’s heart and scope of understanding to let him make up his own mind. The emerging illustration is of a faith in humanity; the subscription that from the ashes of catastrophe, an appropriate emotion will come.
The one recurring thought I had while reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus was that his story was very similar stylistically to that of Rawicz. Spiegelman’s father’s harsh depiction of the Holocaust, focusing especially on the atrocities that occurred in the concentration camps and afterward, is extremely informative but not overly or even slightly emotional.
As an English and Writing major, it is safe for me to say that I’ve read quite a few books. Of them, however, The Long Walk and Maus have been the ones that most stuck out in my mind as devoid of explicit emotion. Besides the occasional “I was sad,” both authors are not even the slightest bit emotional in their recounting of events.
It is ironic to me that both of these stories are of similar experiences in World War II. How can two stories so full of turmoil, despair, and hopelessness- stories that must easily be some of the most painful to tell- elicit such a small amount of emotion from the narrator? Have they become so used to crimes against humanity that they no longer felt pain? Were they desensitized by the Nazis as the Nazis themselves were desensitized by Hitler?
I believe that the answer is actually quite the contrary. The narrators, having been through so much, having suffered so greatly, felt the impact and weight of such hardships so deeply in the actual experiencing, that they can have nothing further to elicit in the retelling. The emotions are so obvious that they are blinding, and the feelings they create in the reader are far more powerful than the words could ever suggest. So yes, they were “sad.” They were very, very sad. But they chose not to lace together words like they did shoes in the work camps. They chose not to bind together phrases as they themselves were bound in chains. They will not strip readers of their emotions as they had once been of their clothing and dignity. Instead, they tell their story. And we listen, unguided by prompts. The telling alone is enough. The telling alone is already too much.
That’s what I would have liked to have said to my moderator.

Putting a Face to a Name

As many of you have already noted, the power of this novel is in the images. There is no doubt that stories of the horrors of the Holocaust are jarringly graphic. But I have never read a story or a history textbook that chronicled everything in pictures; pictures have been included of the before, during, after, but never simultaneously all three. Spiegleman writes of the rampant diseases that his father was surrounded with, and includes drawings of mice with blank stares and lines of anxiety around their eyes. Vladek contracts typhus, and Spiegleman draws him writhing and screaming in pain. Spiegleman tells how his mother’s camp was barbaric, but then draws an officer kicking the weak woman in her stomach. Anja and Vladek are finally reunited after the war ends, and Spiegleman communicates their astonishment and emotion when they first see one another again. We not only meet the people Vladek encounters through words, but see images of them—perhaps only once before they are murdered.

In short, the images in the novel are literally graphic. They transcend the power of Vladek’s story to another higher plane. The reader is able to physically relate with the emotion and the horror of the event, as well as the reality of surviving. No matter how it is told, the story of the Holocaust is atrocious and unfathomable. But pictures accompanying stories make it real. These names we read have faces. Spiegleman’s choice of non-human characters are what make the graphic nature of the story possibly approachable; the fact that what happened did not actually happen to mice makes it a bit more bearable, insinuating the impossibility of such inhumanity, while simultaneously illustrating that the Holocaust was a point in history where humans treated one another like animals. Finally, the juxtaposition of the past and the present, both in black and white and drawn the same, remind the reader of the reality of the events of the past and the continuance of the future.

Reality Comes Full Circle

Going along with what has been discussed about the inclusion of the photographs among the Speigleman's drawings specifically in Barry's post, I was most affected when I came to the page that had Vladek's photograph, but then I remembered that the book essentially opens with a photograph, yet when I looked at that photo, I did not feel disoriented, rather I passed over it, not thinking anything. In retrospect, however, I think this is a clever technique used by Spiegleman. As I read through the novel, I become accustomed to the images of the the mice and eventually the disorientation wore off, but when Vladek's picture appeared, I found myself feeling very a human face. By putting the picture of Richieu in the beginning of the novel, assuming the reader will pass over it, acknowledging its presence but not its significance, I think Spiegleman is suggesting how society has the tendency to be narrow-minded and unaware of others who surround us.
In addition to this, in the last panel of the novel, Vladek calls Art "Richieu." While this goes along with Vladek's increasing memory loss which is addressed in the last several pages, I feel this brings the novel to a full circle. Richieu was mentioned at the beginning, in the dedication, and now he is mentioned at the finale on the book. This idea of the full circle shows how the past is always present, and never truly in the past. In fact, this theme plays out through the entire novel because Art is indirectly living the past through his father's stories. We have also seen this theme in several of the texts we have read and goes along with the concept of the va. Distance or space, whether it be literally by page numbers, geographical, or in time, is a relationship. By mentioning Richieu in the last panel, Spiegleman is conveying the va between his brother and him, his father and him, his ancestors and him, and the whole of society and him.

Broken Image

Doug, I think your analogy of the grave and the tattoo on the earth is perfect. Yet, I want to analyze the image further. The “cartoon” of the grave stone and symbol of death conveys the ending without the methodical “the end” to conclude the cartoon. It serves to compliment the book and reflect the entire cartoon as a grave stone. The book is not a grave stone, but like one it continues to live to both immortalize his father, the Holocaust, and also allow Spiegelmen to move on. So he both recognizes his past and continues to live his life. The book too, symbolizes a tattoo on the world, and a unification with Spiegelman’s past and continuation of his future.
The image on pg116 paradoxically conveys a broken image, but also collaboration on the page. The images of Validks broken body conveys Spiegelman’s guilt about his own separation and lack of understanding for his father. Spiegelman could have easy “broken” the image of Valdik by dividing the pieces among two different pages in order to convey his guilt, but the image is on one even though the pieces appear separately. The book collects the images and allows Spiegelman to convey his guilty feelings, but also his reconciliation.

Tragedy through Image?

I would absolutely agree with Ryan about how Spiegelman’s drawings give way to a sense of anxiousness, unease, as moving through the Maus. There were times when I had to turn away from the images on the page, not only because of how graphic an image’s context may have been, but also because the way it was formatted or drawn just struck me as being too real. Spiegelman’s greatness is his ability to capture that kind of tragic sadness in any given image. Take for example the photos that Vladek gives to Art. Spiegelman could have easily drawn each of the pictures in their own respective boxes but, instead, we see them sprawled about the pages as if Vladek is showing the photos to us (we become Art’s eyes looking through the photos strewn about the page). Then, on page 115, the pictures overflow, they begin to crowd around the captions of Vladek and Art sitting, and seem to pile on the ground. In this, I saw how the photos, Vladek’s memories begin to overwhelm him (and the reader as well), piling up and forcing the caption of Art and his father into the background. That is until the next page, when we see the effect these photos have upon Vladek. His face turned toward the ground, on the scattered pictures and guilt filled memories, the image captions break Vladek apart. They begin separating his body, showing the inner turmoil within Vladek. It is here that I felt that Vladek was the most vulnerable. He is, literally, broken.

I think the final image of the grave works in a similar way. It’s funny I had never really thought about what the image of the grave evoked within me, with Halloween being just last week I kind of felt desensitized to it, but after weeding through stupid mental images of zombies raising from the ground, I realized the image of the grave, without a doubt, just symbolized death to me. Which is weird because, in a way, I think graves are supposed to be a kind of physical stamp of one’s life on earth. It’s like a tattoo of a person’s existence upon the world. So, Spiegelman’s use of the grave to end the book seems fitting in that it ends the book, ends the his father’s story (and maybe some of Art’s obsession with the Holocaust) but, more importantly, it respects and commemorates the lives that made the story. It’s as if the story (both Vladek’s and Art’s) lives on through the gravestone.

Pen and Ink

While reading Maus, I often stopped to linger on the images and drawings presented by Spiegelman. The effect of only having dialogue and drawings resonated for me, and it served to bring the story to life in a unique way. I still think that the format of Maus, the graphic novel is odd; but I also think this enables the novel to function in ways that a traditional one could not.

I have previously discussed how many of the visual devices within Maus work towards unwritten implications. Whether it be the shrinking of Art himself, the anthropomorphizing of the characters, or the strange adornment of a mask—the visuals in Maus dually and paradoxically illuminate and confound. Spiegelman’s drawings display a sort of nervous energy to me, an anxiety. From the panels in the past featuring Art smoking cigarettes and shouting in to the memories of Vladek’s past, they feature contrasting images in stark black and white, with backgrounds often consisting of crosshatched black ink.

While this is a traditional black and white inking technique, it lends a chaotic look to the panels—especially the ones taking place in Vladek’s memory. They convey an ominous sense of desolation in their darkness, it creeps up and overtakes the images. Often we see the Nazi’s faces large, catlike and terrifying, screaming at a mass of smaller, nondescript mice. The mice in their depiction lose their identity—they are featureless and uniform. Spiegelman is able though, in such small figures, to convey a sad look of despair in their eyes. Perhaps it is because they are large and black in small white faces, they appear as orbs with shadows beneath them, creating haggard and tired look. It is almost shocking at the end when we see an actual photograph of Vladek, how different he looks from the mouse version.

The disparity between Spiegelman’s depictions and reality reflects the difference found in the actual concentration camps. The Jews became stripped of their identities in places such as Auschwitz and Dachau. They lost their families, possessions, past even. They physically changed as they became starved and beaten. At one point, Vladek says something to the effect of, “I didn’t survive the holocaust.” The man who entered the camp did not leave, he left as someone completely different. Spiegelman’s representation of Vladek’s tale works so well as a graphic novel because it attempts to show the reader the realities of the holocaust—often highlighting subtleties that may not be expressed through words alone.

Pictures in Maus II

Maus is a very moving and powerful graphic novel. Much of its success is due to its medium. By replacing the human face and body with common animals, Spiegelman paradoxically brings the reader closer to both the humanity and the horror of the situation because of the lack of the humanity. Similarly, Maus is not some cartoon that attempts to point at a massive event in history – the Holocaust – but rather at Vladek’s truly individual experience. The two panels where the graphic novel breaks from its illustrations – the pictures of Richieu and Vladek – are two of the strongest instances of this interplay between the individual person and the overall lack of humanity.

Maus is dedicated to Richieu, Spiegelman’s older brother who passed away in the ghettos of Poland. The picture of his younger brother, who appears to be no older than eight in the photo, has a very ominous character even before the reader gets into Maus II and has any idea who the boy is (assuming they did not read Maus I). Later, a staged picture of Vladek in souvenir concentration camp clothes is presented in the middle of the illustrations.

With the presence of both of these pictures, Maus is brought away from the artist’s pen and back into the concrete reality. The reader is reminded that this account is really real. It ended one of these lives and permanently tarnished the other. Moreover, by instituting the human face as the reality of the genocide, Spiegelman establishes a relationship between the particular and the many. He thereby reminds the world that the Holocaust is both one story and many stories, and that no story holds preference over another.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Comic Book? Really?

What you’re reading that for? Class? What class? Are you serious? An ENGLISH class? This isn’t a novel. I didn’t know you guys had any fun! Back in my day, we read history books! Slacker!
All these were responses to my enthusiastic claim that I am reading a comic book about the Holocaust for my Honors English class. I could sympathize with these comments. I was thinking the same thing when I first found out that we were going to read comic books. I was perplexed. I had never read a comic book (I know, I know! Where have I been?!) because I tended to look down on them. I wasn’t going to bother with them, I said, since I could get a much better experience from a novel. I know comic books are always filled with pictures, but what are mere 2-D images when I have my own imagination working on a spectacular image—no, scene—that is partly inspired by the writer’s words and partly by the feelings invoked by the events of the story. I was a complete snob about it. When my sister asked to get a graphic novel once day, I looked at her with disdain. Go read a book I shouted, filled with scorn at her audacity to mention such a thing to me, an almost fanatic English major.
Until very recently, I continued on with this view of the inferiority of the comic book/graphic novel (a term which I simply hated. I thought it gave some sort of credibility to comic books by bestowing the scholarly term “novel”). My negative take on the whole comic book genre was reinforced repeatedly, as I complained, or sometimes bragged, about reading a comic book in an Honors class. Some straight out laughed at me, and really wondered about the course (Sorry Dr. Ellis, but rest assured. I gave them plenty of reasons to believe that our class was both fun and challenging). Some didn’t believe me, especially since I usually complained about the lengths of novels we are always forced to read. Others were envious, hoping that they, too, read and discuss a comic book for “legitimate” reasons. For my part, I was waiting. I knew I would be forced to pick it up and read it eventually, and until then, I wasn’t going to look at it and focus more on the more scholarly readings that I had to do. But now that I finally picked up Maus, I can’t seem to put it down! I had to force myself to, so I could write this blog before its deadline. As I am writing this, I keep looking at the book, at the intricate drawings that seem to be filled with details yet at the same time look sketchy; at the bold words on every page that seem to scream violence, pain, surprise, etc.
Now, to me, Maus II is a great introduction to the graphic novel genre. Even though I am still harboring some belittling thoughts about comic books (they’re sooo for kids!), my very positive first impression of Maus II is forcing me to think that comic books or graphic novels could be legitimate forms of reading. And now, when anybody wonders, “Are you seriously reading this book now?” I could response proudly with, “Yes, I am. You should too! It’s worth your time!”

Correction to post

In the first sentence of my second paragraph, I meant to say, "In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the powerful characters, the German cats, are shown to have the least desirable characteristics despite their physical strength." Sorry about that!

The sound of a person v. the look of a person

I have been babysitting one family’s children for three years. Connor is now four and Zachary is three; their baby sister will be one in November. The two older kids are at a neat stage in their development because they are learning how to play make-believe. They love to pretend that they are animals and they enjoy telling me what to be even more. If we are playing sea creatures, both of them want to be the shark; if we are playing house animals, they both want to be the dog; if we are pretending to be at the zoo, they both want to be the lion or the bear. Sometimes tears ensue when they want to be the same animal. I suggest alternatives and ask them what is wrong with being a minnow, a kitten, or a penguin. Then I ask, “Well why can’t you both be sharks/dogs/lions?” I think the make-believe is an outlet for their ongoing power struggle. Since they are so close in age, they are constantly competing for dominance and attention. Tonight, they will both be trick-or-treating as Spider-Man, but they will wear different colors to try to minimize the arguing; Connor will wear a red costume and Zachary will wear a black costume. Last year, Connor was Buzz Lightyear and Zachary was Superman. The costumes that Connor and Zachary wear signify similar characteristics: strength, power.

In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the powerful characters, the German cats, are shown to have the desirable characteristics despite their physical strength. Cats are predators that hunt and play with their prey before tearing it piece by piece. The Nazis in Germany similarly hunted Jewish Europeans, and then kept them in concentration camps before killing them. Nazis did not believe that a person could be both Jewish and European, or Jewish and a human being worthy of life. There was no room for Jewish people or people of Jewish descent on the Nazis’ map. In Maus, the animals that represent different nationalities (and the qualities that those nationalities have come to typify), do not always act the same way. For example, there is one pig (representing a Polish person) that, despite being a prisoner, perpetrates violence on other prisoners as a Kapo (Spiegalman 32) and then uses Vladek to his advantage. However, there is another pig that is not at all self-interested. He is a priest and shows Vladek how his tattooed identification number is a sign of fortune (Spiegelman 28). Vladek recalls of this pig, “He put another life in me.” This shows that outer appearance does not always reflect what is inside. Similarly, in an interview about his book Totality and Infinity, Levinas encourages people not to notice the color of the Other’s eyes, but to enter a social relationship with the Other through speech because outer appearance is meaningless; it does not reflect a person’s inner potential for social relationships. Levinas says that “it is discourse and, more exactly response or responsibility which is this authentic relationship” (88). Levinas goes on to suggest that it is only through interpersonal relations that justice is possible. He says, “Justice, exercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation” (90). The priest-pig in Maus demonstrates the social aspect of justice; he shows that it is speech—not appearance—that is the true indicator of a person’s soul and capacity for meaningful relationships.

Connor and Zachary’s obsession with physical strength and power does not worry me much now because they are still very young; however I hope that when they get older, they realize that being strong does not necessarily mean physical prowess. As they grow, I think they will learn that being a mouse (minnow, kitten, penguin) is not a sign of weakness, and they will also learn that looking like a cat (shark, dog, lion) does not necessarily condemn a person to viciousness and inhumanity. Hopefully, they will learn to trust the sound of person, rather than the look of him or her.