Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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. AnzaldĂșa 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.

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