Welcome back to the series!
So let’s talk comics. Specifically, just what are comics?
Comics can be said to be stories told with pictures all the time and words some of the time. As such, the forerunners of comics made their appearance very early and can be found all over the world. It can further be argued that comics are some of the oldest verifiable stories in human history.
Cave paintings found in Africa, India, and Australia tell the story of early people’s hunts. Later on, Egyptian friezes, ancient Greek pottery, and Mayan codices all convey stories of everything from an individual’s life to the end of the world. Tapestry was used to celebrate and perpetuate historical events (e.g., the Bayeaux tapestry depicts the events of the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror). Japan’s Toba-e paintings laid the foundations for today’s Manga as far back as the 12th Century. Closer in time, William Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress” – exhibited at the Soanes Museum in London – is a classic work of art that follows the life and rapid decline of Thomas Rakewell, the titular rake.
While related and influential, these predecessors of modern comic books are more properly examples of something broader than comics, sequential art (defined by Will Eisner as, “an art form that uses images deployed in sequence for graphic storytelling or to convey information.”). (Eisner, 1996, p. 6) These works deployed a variety of media to visually convey their story but those were not some combination of paper, pencil, and ink (as found in modern comic strips, comic books, and manga). More importantly, they were not the products of a printing process with an eye towards mass forms of distribution, purchase, and consumption.
What, you say? Comics are not consumed in a mass manner. They may be mass produced but still each reader has to take the singular item (be it comic book, graphic novel, or manga) and use it on their own.
True, the act of reading itself is generally an individual pursuit. This point ignores obvious instances where it is not, such as author readings and reading of texts in educational settings. It also stops analysis at the instant of initial consumption without placing that consumption in context. Much of the reading of comics is done in anticipation of talking about it with others, a behavior pattern that often starts early as experienced comic fans initiate the new reader (ex: an older brother declares his love of Thor, loans his favorite issues to his younger brother, and asks what his sibling thinks of them).
Comics these days are also big business. They feed into the movie and television industries to the tune of billions of dollars, as well as pushing up sales in bookstores and check-outs in libraries. That they are so widely spread across the landscape of pop culture, it is inevitable that they will be discussed in some manner by many people on a daily basis.
If you haven’t been following this series of articles but are interested in some of the history of why modern comics are paper-based mass commodities, check out the previous installment. Or if you’d prefer to start at the beginning, you can go directly to Part One.
Also, if you would like to talk about comics further, please join us for the Graphic Novel Discussion Group at the Main Library. Our next meeting will take place on Monday, December 14th, at 6:00 PM. The topic will be Webcomics.
Works Cited: Eisner, W. (1996). Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press.
Article by Tony, Main Library