bandes dessinés, comic books, Douglas Wolk, gag strips, graphic narrative, gutter space, horace, independent comics, indie comics, Justin R. Hall, leslie salas, propaganda, Reading Comics, rene magritte, Scott McCloud, Sequential art, Simonides of Ceos, the new yorker, The Treachery of Images, Tijuana Bibles, Understanding Comics, visual literacy, webcomics
Gutter Space #1 by Leslie Salas
Why Focus on Comics-That-Aren’t-Superhero-Comics?
Comics as a medium has a richer and more involved history than many people recognize or remember. Comics analyst Douglas Wolk explains in Reading Comics “the argument about the between relationship between painting and poetry, the generic classical terms for image-making and word-assembling, has been going on for a long time. The earliest people to try and figure it out concluded that painting and poetry were basically different forms of the same thing.”
Simonides of Ceos’ formulation poema pictura loquens, picture poema silens aptly illustrates the point that “poetry is a verbal picture; painting is a silent poetry.” (Horace later reduced this to ut pictura poesis, “as is painting, so is poetry.”) This is mostly true in the broad sense that both are ways of representing perception: comics functions as a successful marriage of the visual and lingual.
The medium of comics also goes by many names such as graphic narrative and visual storytelling. In light of this muddled nomenclature, let me clarify that by saying “comics,” which seems to be the most common term, I specifically refer to “sequential art,” as defined by cartoonist Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
Comics started their ascension into literature around World War II in the form of propaganda ads: some sort of illustration with a caption below it. Think of the captioned cartoons in The New Yorker or René Magritte’s famous painting, The Treachery of Images, with the painting of a pipe and the caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”—“This is not a pipe.”
From there, the art form evolved into gag strips, like those you would see in the newspaper. The strips took a pornographic turn with Tijuana Bibles to help soldiers overseas needing entertainment (or as psy-ops propaganda leaflets to convince reduce soldier’s morale),
and even mainstream comics still had a political agenda (see the cover for Captain America #1, where Captain America is punching Hitler in the face).
The political content of American comics caused them to be cut off from Europe and Asia (Axis vs. Allied Powers). As a result, two other comic traditions, Japanese manga and Franco-Belgian bandes dessinés, evolved independently. It is only now, several decades after the end of WWII, that all three styles of comics flourish worldwide.
Comics critic Justin R. Hall notes that “comics meets [people’s] sensibilities on a cognitive level.” We live in a visually saturated world, so many people of all ages are naturally drawn to the combination of words and pictures. Reading comics, however, requires a different type of literacy that incorporates not only words, but visuals such as movement between panels, line of sight, and gutter closure.
By reviewing independent comics and webcomics that aren’t superhero comics, my goal is to draw attention to some of the interesting and effective techniques used by cartoonists all over the world. This can help develop visual literacy, identify various narrative structures, provide a dynamic view of cultures, and prompt interdisciplinary study. Plus—it’s interesting and fun!
And if you’re sad that I’m excluding superhero comics, check out Sean Ironman’s column, Heroes Never Rust. He’s got you covered.
Leslie Salas writes fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and comics. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute. In addition to being an Associate Course Director at Full Sail University, Leslie also serves as an assistant editor for The Florida Review, a graphic nonfiction editorial assistant for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and a regular contributing artist for SmokeLong Quarterly.