Form & Function With Ryan Claytor (Part 2)
Welcome back to the second part of the dialogue with Ryan Claytor of Elephant Eater Comics. Ryan is both a scholar and a gentleman, producing the best autobiographical comics around, be sure to check them out!
Justin: Regarding under-promotion, I love the fact that you brought up marketing. I was initially going to cite that as a weakness of the medium, but didn't feel it was fair since it doesn't have to do with content. In any case, I totally agree with your characterization. In my experience, once people are actually exposed to the medium they really enjoy it and become hooked. The key is thoughtful and targeted exposure beyond the men-in-tights mentality of the big two. I am cautiously optimistic about a mass shift in public perception. You're talking about changing a culture though, and that's a notoriously slow process. As I've studied organizational dynamics and corporate cultures, you can actually reduce this to a formula: Information + Behavior/Action = Cultural Shift. I think we're starting to see more of the information (exposure) being put out there and the audience is altering its behavior and generally starting to embrace this "new" media, though I think it will take another decade or so to get full paradigm shift.
On the topic of story beats and possible over-usage, have you encountered the Latin phrase "ars est celare artem" in your studies? "The art is to hide the art;" I think this sums up what you're saying nicely. If the audience becomes overtly aware of technique, then you've effectively broken the fourth wall, and not in a good way.
As for visual depth, I see no disagreement there at all. There are plenty of examples of artists who've effectively used overlap, perspective, and foreground and background differentiation to achieve a sense of depth. I think what I was really struggling with was the texture, that (in theory) you could run your hand across the Jackson Pollock and it would feel like tiny rocks on a sandy beach. You can't necessarily do that with reproduced comic art. I think your position is a good counterpoint though. If I'm saying that comics can't do texture in the way I've described oil paintings, you're essentially saying that sequential oil paintings should be considered comics then. Is that a fair statement? Glass half full vs. half empty? If so, I think that's a wonderful spin and very inclusive. See, you're the Barack Obama of the medium!
Ryan: Ha-ha! If that's the case, I've got a helluva job in front of me. Which, now that I think about it, we probably do, in the case of that cultural shift we're talking about. I completely agree with you that the shift will be slow to come, much like the changes Barack will be making (PLEASE be patient America!). I wrote about the importance of this change in public perception in my thesis. Aside from the new marketing strategies we've brought up, I think it's important for comics proponents to educate ourselves in a variety of genres within the medium to be able to tailor-make suggestions to a comics newcomer, and influence change on a more grassroots level as well.
In an effort to wrap up a couple of these thoughts, I was NOT aware of the phrase "ars est celare artem," but you can be sure I'll be using that in the future. And, yes, I am saying that sequential oil paintings should be considered comics. Almost every definition of comics talks about images in sequence, this is to say nothing about the types of images used.
Justin: Moving on to more limitations, I may be taking this too far, so correct me. But, what I'm struggling with is the emotion of the medium vs. the physicality of it. What I mean is that while you can physically touch a comic, you can't feel rain drops against your face, the touch of a lover, or the pain of getting punched in the face. Artists hope that with their skillful depictions and careful word choices they can convey the emotion of it all, but the reader can't actually participate in the depicted action. Is this just a basic conceit of any artistic medium though and not a fair criticism?
Ryan: Believe it or not, I have experienced these types of sensory indulgences in artistic productions before. Maybe you have too, as I'm thinking of an attraction at Sea World in San Diego. I'm referring to a pappy children's film they tout as "4-D." Basically what it amounts to is when the character on the screen splashes, some little hoses from the seat in front of you spray a bit of water, or when a gust of wind blows across the actors on the screen, a secondary tube poofs a gust of air in your general direction. However, referring back to my new favorite phrase, "ars est celare artem," I wouldn't say this hid the art or made me feel a part of the experience. In fact, it felt more gimmicky than anything else. But aside from the rare, Sea World San Diego 4-D experience, I'd wager to say that the physical limitations you mentioned are not unique to comics, and therefore wouldn't do us much good to go into it all too much, since we wouldn't be differentiating comics from any other medium. I suppose if you were interested in hooking up a sort of clown-prop where a page opened and water would squirt at you, you could conceivably engineer that, but I'm afraid it would just hearken back to those dreadful days of comics in the early 90's when be-jeweled gimmickry and foil covers were all the rage. We don't need to do that again. (Enough with the variant covers already, *a-hem* Marvel *a-hem*. Excuse me. Phew!)
Justin: Another dynamic I'm fascinated by is interaction with the audience. I don't think this is a limitation per se, but certainly a strong dependency. Was it Will Eisner who said that the most important action is what happens in between the panels? In other words, artists are reliant on what the reader infers because comics are very interactive. If panel one has a bloke throwing a ball at another bloke, and then panel two shows the second bloke wincing in pain, our reader can infer that the ball struck him, though the action was never expressly shown. Do you consider this a handicap or an opportunity?
Ryan: I'm going to channel my inner-Barack and go with a diplomatic answer for this one. I'll say it's both. On one hand, in comics the "closure" between the panels necessarily eliminates action. (McCloud refers to closure as the "phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.") If action wasn't eliminated, we would be looking through a very long and tedious comic book. So, yes, there are limitations to closure, but in keeping with our glass-half-full mantra, we can also use this to our benefit. Just for example's sake, I watched a bit of Rush Hour 2 last week while at the gym, and there was a fantastic example of how closure can be used for comedic benefit. The scene, which would work equally well in comics, went something like this: Chris Tucker in China, talking with a street vendor selling live chickens. I'm going to paraphrase this inaccurately, but the dialogue went something like this:
Chris Tucker: How do I get to the bank?
Vendor: (Speaks in Mandarin perhaps. Regardless, she holds up a live chicken offering it for sale, making it obvious that neither party understands the other.)
Chris Tucker: No, I don't want your chicken. How do I get to a bank. A BANK!??!
Vendor: (Joyfully readies her chopping block to prepare Tucker's chicken)
Chris Tucker: No no no no. Do NOT kill the chicken.
Vendor: (Still on the same line of action)
Chris Tucker: Lady, put that cleaver down. Put it DOWN!
This continues without resolve until the camera cuts to Chris Tucker walking down the road carrying a cage with a live chicken inside. That's closure. We weren't shown the full resolution between Chris Tucker and the vendor, but we can infer what happened. The bonus payoff is the punch line that is created by the closure. If we watched Chris Tucker finally accept the vendor's sale, explain that he will take the chicken alive rather than dead, pay her for it, and then walk off, the punch line would be nonexistent.
So to sum things up, I think it can be both a challenge and an opportunity.
Justin: Along those lines, some writers and artists rely heavily on an audience's familiarity with other works to achieve their artistic messaging. I'm talking beyond homage here, and I think this may be unique to comics. I mean, I can spot a Jon Favreau steadicam shot in Swingers that is a blatant homage to a scene in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, but I don't have to actually watch Goodfellas to "get" Swingers. I don't have to watch Ridley Scott's Blade Runner to "get" the noir/sci-fi blend that much of Paul Pope's work is informed by, it's not limiting.
Yet, if you look at a book like Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary, you have to be pretty familiar with pulps like Tarzan and Doc Savage, all the way up through Lee & Kirby's Fantastic Four, and the first wave of Vertigo properties to really understand the meta-textual commentary in that work. Perhaps the best example of this is Watchmen; I read a great analysis of this recently that brought up the term "kenosis" to denote a relinquishing of the form. The author stated that Watchmen is a revisionary work because it sends a "wave of disruption" back through time that devalues the superhero paradigm. That said, you don't hand someone a copy of Watchmen to read if they've never read a superhero comic or aren't familiar with the genre. If they haven't met those prerequisites, then an artist would risk failing to deliver an inherent theme, which is a severe limitation potentially. Am I reaching here, or do you cotton this notion of dependence on an audience's consumption of previous works being a liability?
Ryan: I think you have a good observation, that comics is a medium which relies (perhaps more so than most) on intertextual references. Oddly enough, that holds true for comics in both mainstream and independent genres. You mentioned Watchmen and Planetary for examples of just a couple books with meta-textual allusions which were published by one of the big two. However, even in underground or indy comics, there is a lot of reference to other texts, and they refer to works in both camps of comics (mainstream and independent). Just look at Project Superior from AdHouse Books for a great indy sampling of superhero referenced stories, or any autobiographical comic that harkens back to a childhood growing up on a steady diet of capes and tights.
So, while I agree that comics do have a fair bit of intertextuality, I think that the most accessible works do not depend on a reader's knowledge of an entire medium's history in order to understand the story at hand. I'm going to disagree with you a bit on your Watchmen stance. True, Alan Moore created a very layered and multivalent look at superheroes which is enhanced by an understanding of superhero history. However, I've handed that book to non-comic-reading friends who were able to appreciate it with only a superficial background of comics history.
I think our discussion of comics referencing other comics also borders on a discussion of continuity, in which a particular comic book series references itself, almost like a soap opera. Take Spider-Man for example; in order to understand the current storyline and relationships, it's better to have familiarity of character origins and past drama that has unfolded. In that case, I think continuity can be daunting, and as you suggest, a liability. If there are 500 prior issues to read before one can enjoy the current narrative, in my opinion that's a lot to ask of a new reader.
Justin: I like that term, “intertextuality,” to capture a connectedness of what might otherwise be a diaspora of thought or works. As with other aspects of the medium we’ve identified, I think we’re in agreement that it can be both a liability and a potential enhancement. In my mind, the medium’s best writers, artists, or projects have the ability to do both – position themselves as accessible works for non-comic readers, yet also appeal to a comic-reading audience capable of detecting the additional references.
Ryan: I think you hit the nail on the head, the best works can speak to both the seasoned readers and the comics noobs in the audience. Gosh darn it, we're such fence-sitters. Our conclusions never seem to pick a side. Ha-ha!
Justin: Ryan, this was tons of fun and I feel like I learned some things that will hone my eye and make me a better critic, so thank you!
Ryan: Indeed, this was a great time. We'll have to do this again in the future.