Analytical & Theoretical Approaches To Comics?

By | Friday, April 11, 2008 6 comments
I was a bit rushed out the door this morning and forgot to grab some reading material for lunch. Fortunately, I'm almost always prepared for such contingencies and keep something in my desk at work at all times. So when I went down to the cafeteria for lunch, I took with me Comics and Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics.

As I was in the checkout line, paying my tab, the person in line behind me read the title aloud and added, "I didn't know there were analytical and theoretical approaches to comics."

I don't know this guy, so I have zero clue how I was supposed to interpret that. Was he still working from the mindset that comics are for kids and unworthy of academic scrutiny? Does he, instead, have the broader misconception that no art form can be studied analytically? Does he even understand the words well enough to know what they mean?

I made a quick comment about how he could read the book to learn more about it, paid for my lunch, and found a seat relatively isolated from anywhere he might choose to sit. Serendipitously, the essay I read today began by talking about how the study of comic books was not often considered a subject worth pursuing. (It should be noted, though, that the essay was written a decade ago -- before Henry Jenkins became Director of MIT's Media Studies program, before Will Brooker became the first person to get a PhD in Batman, before Gen X-ers invaded Hollywood and started making "comic book movies"...)

Reflecting on the incident, I'm still not sure how to interpret the man's comment. Why wouldn't any art form be able to be studied analytically or theoretically? Even if the art implicit in the object of study is merely a function of its use, one can still discuss aesthetics in concrete terms: color, shape, line, etc. How is that any different than talking about the nuances of Lysistrata or King Lear -- both works that were written to entertain the masses in exchange for money paid to the plays' producers.

Indeed, we can take that to an extreme and direct a critical eye to the crayon drawings of five-year-olds.

"Note the exaggerated legs, relative to the torso, suggesting that the artist identifies the Spider-Man character with running and leaping moreso than other physical activities. Interestingly, one can note also that the webbing coming from the web shooters becomes a framing element for the entire page."

Yes, it's something of a silly discussion, but not because that a child drew the artwork, but because that the child who drew the artwork is too young to have developed the vocabulary to understand the critique, and improve his/her craft accordingly. One could also say...

"I like the red you used."

A child could understand that, and take away from it something useful: namely, that Spider-Man's costume is best drawn with the "Red" crayon and not the "Magenta" or "Brick Red" or "Maroon" ones. It's a simple critique, but one that the artist can comprehend and appreciate.

My point here is that the level and depth of study in any piece of art should be relative to those who might be interested in the subject. If my audience here, for example, were drooling fanboys who bought every marvel or DC book published, my reviews and commentary would be written significantly differently than how I'm writing this now. But you are here reading this passage, so I'm writing to a level I think you'd like to see. I could get much more academic in my writing, sure, but this isn't the forum and audience for that type of material. Just like it's not the audience for "Skrulls bad, Bendis good" commentary.

Analytical and theoretical approaches to comics? Absolutely! Provided that it's presented to the right audience in the right format. (Which the book was, I might add!)
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Richard said...

No, Bendis bad.

Also tree good and fire, in a surprise result, good as well.

PenguinFish said...

Wow, Sean. I've been reading this blog for a while and yet when I read "Skrulls bad, Bendis good" it truly hit me in a way I hadn't experienced before. For the first time, I feel as if I truly understand what you are writing!

Ok...FINE...just kidding!!!

I think the problem with attempting to discuss art, be it poetry or prose or photography or drawing, in an analytical sense, is it all still boils down to subjective material. Whatever terms and definitions you uses to make it analytical are artificial constructs.

If you look at an opposite extreme, let's say string theory, or another field of theoretical physics, as crazy as those concepts get, they still boil down to mathematics - the most analytical language of them all. If you don't understand the idea in question, it's because you're either not smart enough to understand the math, or the math hasn't yet been invented to properly describe the idea. But it's still objective.

Because art is subjective, analytic tools like brush stroke, colors, shadow, etc, are only valid for comparison. They can't help you arrive at a "right" answer which is the goal of analytical and objective thinking.

I know what kind of art I like, and I know what I don't like. My opinions are just as valid as an art history student's, because by its subjective nature, art means different things to different people.

But you are absolutely correct about this: Skrulls bad. :-)

Unknown said...

That drawing actually looks like it was done with marker, rather than crayon.

Awesome post.
I read it this morning minutes after I had written the following on the inkstuds board (somehow it all connects in my brain forgive me if it doesn't in yours dear reader):

I have a friend who is a really amazing poet. Anselm Berrigan. He is the son of the late Ted Berrigan. Ted was the last person to interview Kerouac and was really big in the East Village NYC poetry scene. Anselm ran the St. Marks Poetry Project for a long time.

Anyways, Anselm likes comics and we would compare notes on how being a comics artist was like being a poet. It is sort of the lowest of the low on the food chain. "But," Anselm countered "we get cred from the establishment and can get big literary grants and can even claim Dante as our ancestor. But you guys..." and then he laughed.

Izeas GT said...

Maybe you misinterpreted him. Maybe it's a case of "I don't see why there couldn't be any, but I didn't know there actually WERE any; I didn't know anyone had actually worked stuff out."

That is, he might have understood that comics COULD be studied academically, but not known that they WERE.