Medium deserves more critical recognition
In elementary school, “Calvin and Hobbes” was the epitome of humor and entertainment.
The repeated story-lines where Rosalyn gets locked outside, Hobbes attacking Calvin when he gets back from school, Spaceman Spiff intrepidly going where no six-year-old has gone before and Susie getting hit with stuff never ceased to bring humor.
However, my enjoyment of the comic stopped at the general feeling of amazement at Calvin’s willingness to stay late during recess, something I had always wanted to do.
Now that I am older, I have returned to comics and have gained a greater appreciation for the medium.
Now, they seem like art.
As I look for more in comics, I expose myself to the different forms that comics can take.
The art form of comics is not limited to the lackluster syndicated comics in The Seattle Times.
Comics don’t have to be funny, or even fictional.
Famous graphic novels such as Marjane Satrapi’s memoir “Persepolis,” or “Palestine,” journalist Joe Sacco’s account of early 90’s Palestine, are successful non-fiction works that explore modern Middle Eastern conflict.
Comics, like paintings, can be about anything.
“Maus” uses mice to tell narratives about Nazi Germany while Gary Larson’s “Farside” addresses everything from animal cruelty to amoeba humor.
While the medium may be the same, the content of comics has a wide variation.
So what is special about comics as a medium?
Comics are unique in their ability to combine literature and visual art in a way that attempts to engage all five senses.
At a 2005 TED Talk, Scott McCloud, author of the authoritative manual on comics “Understanding Comics,” claimed that, “comics are a visual medium, but they try to embrace all of the senses within it.”
A perfect illustration of how comics make use of a combination of the two is seen in one of my recent favorite comics.
The comic officially titled “On Fire,” by KC Green, is an artistic form of literature and drawing.
First the comic is narrative: this is a short story of a dog trying to calmly cope with a situation that is clearly horrid.
For students, the phrase “that’s ok, things are going to be ok” is a mini-narrative that is repeated every finals week.
It is the equivalent of trying to force a brave face for a bad situation.
Second, there is the image quality of the comic.
While the images are still, there is a movement to the dog and his surroundings that is communicated through the space between the panels, known as “the gutter.”
Comics are different from a movie in the sense that what happens between the panels is space for our imagination.
While a movie shows us what happens in between movements, the gutter is the space where we can imagine what happens in between.
It moves different than a movie and the story is told different than a book.
Also, as aforementioned, part of the success of a comic is its ability to introduce a relatable narrative.
It’s no coincidence that this comic is also a popular meme.
What recent mainstream comics and memes share is a strong theme of relatability, an element that seems to be the one of the main tenets of meme-dom.
Does this mean memes are art too? Not necessarily.
Memes are confined to the internet era, where a silly image with a silly caption can be shared infinitely.
Memes are more defined by the rate that media can be communicated than the actual content.
A comic can be a meme, but this does not mean that all memes perform the same work that a well produced comic does.
Returning to Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson is not an artist because of the way that he draws Stupendous Man, or how he imagines Calvin interacting with dinosaurs.
The art is not the reletable narrative of a boy with an amazing imagination in an unrelentless world.
The artistry is the way that the two are combined.
Calvin and Hobbes would not be the same in a movie, it would not be the same in a book.
Watterson marries narrative and image to create something that can be appreciated by readers of any age.
Readers can choose to only enjoy the action and/or the slapstick of comics.
But, as is with most forms of art, there is more complexity to be appreciated then what can be seen at first glance.