The Art of Graphic Narrative: An Apology for the “Lascaux Hypothesis”

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Imagine a huge convention center that could house both the San Diego Comic-Con and Miami Art Basel simultaneously. As both conventions are happening they spill out into a common area where the attendees to both can mingle. Most walk past each other oblivious to the other’s presence, some stare dumbfounded, some snicker and point, and some mutter profanities under their breath. Never mind that comic making shares many of the same tools, materials, and skills that fine artists, animators, graphic designers, and illustrators use. Or that artists such as Raymond Pettibon, Takashi Murakami, and Henry Darger and designers such as Chip Kidd, Christoph Niemann, and Tomi Um (to name only a few) have freely found inspiration in comic art and the ways comics communicate. Despite these many obvious connections to clearly say where comics and art meet and overlap still remains difficult. Part of what is at issue is the very idea of what makes something art, or indeed what makes something a comic, can be rather nebulous, but underscoring these differences is in part the disparate status of these professions and the people who enjoy them but also the separate needs of the critics who talk about them.[1]

Stepping back from the longstanding cultural division between comics and fine art it is fairly easy to see that the vast majority of fine art leading up to the 20th century was based on narrative. Only with the ascendancy of modernism does the idea of narrative assume a pejorative and antiquated status associated with the worst affectations of the Art Academies of yore. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rise of the popularity of comics coincides with the degradation of narrative art as these two arts, like jealous siblings, carved up the cultural landscape. Narrative is making a comeback in the fine art world and some comic artists are now represented by art galleries, but the language and means for talking about narrative art has been largely forgotten, and furthermore, now new interests intend to frame comic art more as a form of literature rather than as a form of art.

Challenging the idea that comics are at all comparable to art are comic scholars, such as Thierry Groensteen who mockingly calls this idea finding comic-like features in art of the past the “Lascaux Hypothesis.” He argues that comparing comic art to narrative art, including the ancient cave art of Lascaux, is an inherently flawed project because no one has satisfactorily defined what is meant by the term comics or by what aspects they are related to the past.[2] Indeed, defining comics has been a problematic exercise for sometime, largely because the focus has always been on some kind of distinctive visual aspect, such as speech bubbles or panels on a page, when clearly there are legitimate examples of comics that do not have any of these qualities. Groensteen and others have further disparaged this Lascaux Hypothesis as a strategy that scholars have used seek legitimacy for their subject: that the lowly topic of comics is in need of padding its portfolio so that it can be taken seriously as “Art.”

Indisputably the relative status of “High Art” and “low comics” has had an enormous influence on their contrasting critical receptions and what has kept the study of comics separate from other areas of fine art. The challenge of connecting comics to the history of art is somehow having to contend with these past elisions, omissions, and condescensions at the same time seeing the connections and common ways each works. Connecting comics to art should be no less fraught than comics and cinema, comics and theatre, or comics and literature. Each has had an influence on the other, but it is remarkable that today the comics to art relationship is the one that provokes the greatest suspicion. The scholars who are wary of this comparison inevitably come from areas that have a vested interest in maintaining their own non-art authority over the subject of comics. Unfortunately, defining comics has become more concerned with walling off the topic from related forms of narrative art, such as children’s literature and fine art books, and arguing for its uniqueness instead of its more evident connection to visual art of the past and present.

The prevailing research attitudes toward comics can be seen in the way Charles Hatfield refers to his subject of Alternative Comics as an “emerging literature.” In his subtitle there is a conflation of two ideas that have become quite commonplace among new comic scholars: first, that modern comics are without precedent, and second, that they are a form of literature. Both of these ideas have become mainstream to a such a degree that seeing comics as art seems counter-revolutionary to those who would rather wipe the slate clear and talk of comics being a wholly original creation. Comics in their estimation is a new invention, like the lithographic press or television, which wholly changed means for communicating stories with pictures. This assertion has received very little critique and there has not been much research into comics by art historians who could bolster the idea that comics are first and foremost a visual art.

Looking back on the comic Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud wrote, the “trick is never to mistake the message for the messenger.” In his first effort to shape the study of comic art McCloud pushed people to consider how comics communicate independent of particular plots and characters as a way to see the potential that comics have to communicate beyond any particular example they may have known before. Rather than assume that comics were merely the means to make superhero stories, McCloud effectively demonstrated how visual features, such as word-image relationships and panel-to-panel arrangements, can alter the meaning of the individual parts of the comic. This semantic way of looking at comics provided a useful tool kit to get started discussing comics, but this project to understand the visual means comics use to communicate has since stalled. Part of the problem was due to McCloud’s penchant for self-invented categories and terms that arbitrarily framed some elements and obscured others. Several comic scholars have attempted to refine and rethink McCloud’s categories in a more rigorous and academic way, but the utility of these revisions have faded as the newer, more nuanced categories complicated rather than elucidated understanding the comic reading experience. Newer scholarship on comics seems applicable only to a narrower set of contemporary examples rather than to the wider history of graphic narrative.

The other problem with McCloud’s self-invented categories is that he gave the impression that there was no prior knowledge of the way comics work and that comics were a unique phenomenon that had little precedent in visual means they used to communicate before they were invented. To his credit McCloud suggested there was a historic connection to older forms of visual art, but he did not really clarify that relationship except to say in a general way that they had a very long history. This lack of attention to this idea that comics have a historic past has meant that any effort to attribute some connection to past visual narratives in art seems like simple grandstanding or vain posturing to give the lowly subject of comics some gravitas.

The maturation of the field of comic studies currently has a literary semiotic basis that has been fully embraced by scholars in English Departments and Communication Studies and has become a significant research component of the Modern Language Association. Much of the current scholarship is based on the idea that visual aspects of the narrative are yet another kind of “text” that requires interpretation. The advantage of this interpretive approach is that it makes comics comparable to other works of literature and highlights themes and ideas that can be found there. It also provides a framework for analysis through well established ideas of narrative structure, such as narrative arc, catharsis, and denouement. The widely used term “graphic novel,” and less common “graphic literature,” embodies this notion of image as text, as if the pictures were a stand-in for the written word in novels.[3]

To push back some on the idea that comics are a form of literature and somehow comparable to written texts, it is important to recognize how visual images described in a text are different from an actual visual image. Peter Mendelsund has delved deeply into the kinds of mental images we make when we read a text. He notes the asynchronic way visual information is received when reading creates a kind of fog at the beginning of the reading experience that requires a series of mental adjustments as the reader progresses through the text.[4] Likewise, the images in our mind from reading a text are provisional and rarely become more vivid as the text progresses, though they can be more nuanced through a deeper understanding the way a character acts. These adjustments can happen too in reading a comic, but from the first there is an unmistakeable visual presence that demands attention. The visual information may not be wholly understood from the first, but it presents something indisputably visible that any understanding of the narrative must contend. Graphic narrative images do not represent words or ideas like hieroglyphs or Chinese writing, as Will Eisner posits,[5] they are themselves irreducible experiences that are parsed and made sensible in visual ways.

With almost no contributions by art historians, the discussion of comics as an art has drifted toward studio art and the making of comics where it is common to talk about the formal visual qualities of an image, some of which are its line, shape, and composition. Most analysis of narrative forms in these comic making guides comes from outside visual art where it is typical to see the way comic narratives are described visually according to neo-classical ideas of narrative (unities), 19th century theatre (the well-made play), cinema (long shot, close up, etc.) and video games (world building). The problem with non-art approaches to talking about comics is that they ultimately limit our understanding. There are many ways comics can communicate narrative that are not possible in literature, cinema, or video games, because narrative art is so much older and more varied than all these other arts.

Notable exceptions to the absence of art historians in comic research has been the David Kunzle, Patricia Mainardi, and Andrei Molotiu who have each made contributions to areas of Art History and Comic Art. Kunzle was an early pioneer in hammering out two large volumes of examples from the early evolution of European satiric print culture. Mainardi has focused on the pivotal period of the 19th century and Molotiu has examined contemporary abstract art through the lens of comic reading. What is largely missing from their work is the kind of visual analysis that has been done in narrative art in other areas of art history but has as of yet not been applied to comics. Vidya Dehejia has undertaken the analysis of narrative forms (modes) in early Buddhist Art in India, Jocelyn Penny Small has similarly analyzed Classical Greek and Roman visual narratives, and Meyer Schapiro has applied these narrative structures to Medieval Art. The analysis of modes in narrative art has made it possible to span these different cultures and speak to common structures that exist in the visual formation of narrative. By applying the idea of modes to modern comics it is possible to see the connection that comic art owes to the narrative art of the past, but also recognize some telling gaps that indicate where comic art has introduced new ideas in communicating narrative with graphic means.

Due to the long and convoluted history that led to modern comics it is important to speak of various forms of narrative art that have come to influence comics but are themselves not comics, or even “proto-comics.” My use of the broader term, graphic narrative, is simply a term that makes it possible to talk about the collective means for visually communicating narrative. It is not an attempt to “legitimate” comics in the world of art, but rather to talk about comics and other forms of narrative art in a historic way, as a innovation of ideas that slowly emerged out of 18th century that has its roots in the ancient practice of telling stories with pictures. The term graphic narrative does not conflate current narrative ideas onto the past, but rather is intended to show the evolution of the visual narrative as a history of ideas that is not bound by a specific medium,[6] or particular printing technology or means of dissemination. Other scholars, such as David Kunzle, Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven have used this term graphic narrative to refer more narrowly to the modern phenomenon of sequential picture stories without being genre specific like the term comics or graphic novel. I use the term more broadly to include any narrative pictorial representation that is fixed on a mostly two dimensional medium. The term does not represent all narrative art, which might also include examples of sculpture, performance art, and video art. Despite these caveats, the idea of graphic narrative is immensely broad, but it does have meaningful contours and boundaries and it has evolved over time as new ideas have passed from culture to culture. It is a history of ideas where sometimes new concepts take hold or not, and sometimes old ideas linger, fade away, or eventually return.

The ways people currently talk of comics and fine art is only driving them further apart and the common aesthetic experiences they share have only been made unintelligible and confused by this separation. By focusing on the visual means for communication, I hope it will be possible to reestablish the vocabulary that describes the way pictures tell stories. These terms and ideas are not literary, or genre specific, they are rather the foundation of how we discern meaning from narrative while looking at an unmoving image.

How to See a Story in a Picture

John Furnival’s Semiotic Folk Poem (1966) is a curious visual puzzle where abstract line art is used to tell a story of a “laddie” and a “lassie” rolling about in the “rye.” Without directly representing the action with any sort of realism, it communicates the movement of the characters through manipulating the symbols and ordering them in panels so that changes in their placement are interspersed with the empty panels in a way that suggests dramatic movement. The action is not rendered frame by frame, as might be seen in a comic, nor are the interspersed spaces representative varying lengths of time. Rather the reader scans and compares the five panels in each of the five lines of panels from top to bottom. Changes to the orientations of the symbols in each set of five frames suggests the characters “flirting” as their actions appear increasingly intimate. The lexical key helps establish the identity of the symbols, but it does not directly communicate the narrative action which is essentially visual.

Furnival’s graphic narrative makes fun of the reductive way semiotics translates everything down to its symbolic essentials. Reading this graphic narrative is not a semiotic exercise, as if the image was just another kind of text, like a rebus, whereby transposing the symbols into meaningful ideas the event becomes clear. The actual reading happens in a non-verbal space, phenomenologically distinct from reading a text or seeing a movie. The reader’s eye scans and compares spaces and symbols to each other and one row below to the row previous. There is no verbalization, or even vocalization, of the action necessary to arrive at an understanding of what is happening.

Furnival has created an original format for this graphic narrative that is really unlike anything else I have ever seen. And yet, with very little guidance from the text or prior experience with some similar kind of comic, it makes sense. His narrative references the real world, other poems, songs, movies and cultural ideas that help a reader understand what is happening, but its own internal logic ultimately communicates the action. While I have written about this comic before, it seems an important to return to it as it provides ample evidence of what makes visual narratives work and it challenges many ideas that are used define and describe comics and other modern graphic narratives. It questions assumptions that understanding a visual narrative is a process similar to a reading text. How do we experience graphic narratives if it is not a text? What visual cues do we use to make sense of what we are seeing? By exploring these questions it is my intention to understand how the visual experience of narrative comes into focus and how those means have changed over time. I will not limit this investigation to one genre or medium, but rather look to the means, or modes, themselves to understand the art of graphic narrative.

To better understand graphic narratives as a visual art it is necessary to focus on more than just the formal qualities of the image, such as line, shape, and texture, but also to understand the distinctive way fixed narrative images are seen and read. A picture can make fleeting experiences appear more tangible and irrefutable because they are seen and generally understood without any special skill or prior knowledge. As evidence, they may require no translation to be recognizable. But despite the clarity that an image presents, understanding a story from an image poses unique challenges. Pictures can describe a situation in great detail but they do not easily encode the narrative action and order. Because we see pictures more or less all at once and only later through some visual devices see relationships between various parts, it may not be clear where the action in the story begins and ends. Written languages by comparison, have a regular and predictable grammar that allow for the swift processing of information to establish hierarchies and sequential order. A very detailed and specific story can be told in a thousand words that, despite the claim of the popular aphorism, would be impossible to match in a single picture.

Pictures reveal more slowly their messages and the rewards for understanding them comes from the unique way meaning arises out of the visual information. The recognition of a visual narrative is predicated on signals that the viewer sees as communicating the potential for narrative. These are not specific things such as panels or the gutters between them, they are aspects in the image itself that signal that something is happening or is likely about to happen. An image may also use framing devices which create visual boundaries within the picture so that the picture has distinct areas, nuclei or loci, that partition the whole picture into various parts. Which areas the reader looks to first may be indicated by reading habit (right to left, for example), or by less conventional means indicated by the image itself. Converging lines or high contrasting values may take focus in the image whereas more muted values may have a less prominent role in the visual hierarchy and help to guide the reader along through the picture.

Narrative is not something that can be found in any kind of image or collection of images. A series of pictures arranged one after the other, like an exhibition of paintings by Jackson Pollock or Agnes Martin, may not have any kind of narrative information that can be read. Not only was no narrative intended when each individual work was made and later arranged, even if the arrangement of each work is chronological, the accumulated meaning that can be derived from these art works essentially refers back to themselves or tangentially to the evolution of the work of the artist. The meaning that accumulates in viewing abstract works does not reflect back on some other experience of a discrete self acting in the world.[7] Not that wholly abstract works are without personal meaning, just that formal aspects of the work (line, shape, color) do not coalesce all by themselves into forms that establish the essential markers of narrative.[8] Those more concrete markers have a more specific relationship to the real world and allow for a double form of viewing where the the relationship of the parts provide a specific narrative path through the image. The subset of images that contain these narrative markers are what defines an essential quality of graphic narrative.

While a picture is not inherently narrative, the human mind is. Angus Fletcher notes that because our neurons fire in a single direction, “we instinctively think in its story sequences, cataloguing the world into mother-leads-to-pleasure and cloud-leads-to-rain and violence-leads-to-pain.”[9] This means there is a very wide range of phenomenon where we might find narrative intent where there is none. This is not dissimilar to pareidolia illusions, that we find images in natural world. We are constantly looking for ways to make sense of things and we parse experiences into narrative components and are especially predisposed to find narrative when we can identify aspects that seem to communicate human intent, experience, and emotion.

Because readers are predisposed to find meaning with very little instruction, understanding graphic narratives is in some ways tied to the sense making mechanisms of the brain, but this is not the whole picture. To say that the processing of visual narrative information is only a neurological function is to put the experience of reading a graphic narrative into a class of mental responses that we are only dimly aware of, instead of as a kind of open-ended aesthetic engagement that requires more deliberate thought. On this point, I agree with Alva Noë, that despite the new tools for examining neural cognition, neurological explanations for understanding art are a reductionist approach that begins from the proposition we are our minds and everything we make sense of in the world is a reflection of how our brain perceives that experience.[10] In neurological studies of how the brain processes images it has become increasingly evident that there is no one clearly defined way that we experience and make sense of what we are seeing. This is especially true with aesthetic experiences where there are very few overlapping regions of the brain where this activity is processed, such that it appears, “Beauty is plural, diverse, embedded in the particulars of its medium.”[11]

The visual back and forth between seeing and reading that is found in graphic narratives is also a defining feature of comic art, though it is not commonly talked about in that manner. Comics are often called a hybrid art because they include both words and pictures. While many comics use both words and pictures, perhaps even a majority do, there are quite a few that do not use any words or often only use words intermittently. The absence or presence of words does not alter the need to read the graphic narrative visually, which requires finding the path through the picture. As Hillary Chute has written, “For me the issue lies less in the presence or absence of literal words than in the linear process of reading, the arrangement of signs in successive order, and the dynamics of motion this entails …”[12] The presence and placement of words in an image needs to fit within the overall visual organization of the narrative. Visually, words must serve..

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