Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Symbolism

I spent much of Sunday traveling, and yesterday I was sick, wavering in and out of consciousness while zoning out on a Planet of the Apes marathon. I opted to go to bed around 8:00, but was up in the bathroom by nine throwing up. Right after getting a couple of those final dry heaves that proves that you've completely emptied your stomach, I thought, "Well, that's what I think of 2007."

Symbolism is used frequently in storytelling because it provides a dramatic shortcut to explaining a more difficult or complex relationship. Pink Floyd's album The Wall for example is all about how Pink erected internal barriers, isolating himself from the outside world on an emotional level. "Another Brick In The Wall" isn't a literal brick in a literal wall, but rather a metaphor for the construction of those emotional barriers.

Symbolism shows up in comics all the time, in part because it's such a strong visual medium. Batman standing on a rooftop, casting his shadow over a burglar. Captain America giving Hitler a whack on the jaw. Superman soaring up in front of a rising sun. Heck, what is the Hulk himself but a symbol of Bruce Banner's pent-up rage?

Curiously, though, a lot MORE symbolism can be found in non-visual storytelling. The campaign speeches of all the current presidential candidates is rife with it. "Vote for me or terrorists will come here to blow us up." "Vote for me or we'll see a repeat of 9/11." The reason it's being used is because it can communicate an immediate visual in a venue that does not have an inherent visual with it. And, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. There was an article in last week's Newsweek which talked about how scientists have proven that verbal imagery provides a greater and more immediate stimulation of our brain's amygdala, which controls our fear, than speech that doesn't use such imagery.

But because comics are an inherently visual medium in the first place, there's less of a need (theoretically) for symbolism. An image of a guy being hit or shot isn't going to be that much more impactful when you try to symbolize what that might feel like. Additionally, the nature of visual mediums tends to veer toward the more literally representative. It becomes harder to identify that differences between literal representations and symbolic ones when it's all jumbled together in one illustration.

But I, for one, would be curious to see more of this sort of thing. As experiments. Dave McKean's done some of it, as has Ben Templesmith. Steve Ditko did, to some degree. But I think it would be interesting to see a larger body of work that really explored the possibilities of symbolism in comics.

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