An abstraction of the comics medium

Note:this is an article that I wrote for the "comment" section of Comics International #63. I am reprinting it here to give people some idea of where my head was at the time. I don't necesarilly agree with every thing i said in this piece but some of it still makes sense.

WHAT is a medium? It can be defined in several ways. A point between two extremes, a person who communicates with the dead (and passes the information to the living), but the most often used definition, outside of maths, is that of a means of diffusing information such as newspapers or television. If we take the latter example as our definition it should be possible to devise a way of gauging the theoretical effectiveness of a medium.

One possible measure would be the degree of abstraction from the original form since this would tell us how ambiguous any medium is.

As an example allow me to compare literature to comics. Since the basic form of books is in words and comics is in pictures then we should attempt to find out which is the most abstract.

Consider a drawing of a pig and the word 'pig'. The picture is an abstract representation of the visual appearance of a pig. It is a single abstraction. In our phonetic alphabet the written word is an abstract representation of sounds. These sounds are an abstract representation of the pig. Words therefore are twice as abstract as pictures. Comics are less abstract than books. Of course comics use words as well, but this is a reflection of thc major shortcoming of comics. They have no sound.

Question: Why are comics given less respect than books or films?

Answer: There are three reasons. The first is that in mainstream culture anyone can reel off a list of "classic" fllms or books that are regarded as particularly effective examples of the genre. Of all the books that have ever been written and of all the films that have ever been made, only a tiny percentage are lauded as classics, and continually available to the public. In any comic shop you can find boxes full of old comics. None of these are classics, but they are on the wall in mylar bags with huge prices attached to them.

The second reason is the exposure. Anybody who reads comics has, at some point, been exposed to a comic that interested them.

The reason that in the past comics readers rarely continued with the hobby into their teenage years and beyond is that there was no material that would appeal to teenagers and adults.

This has changed but you wouldn't know it if you only read newspapers and watch TV.

The third reason is subject matter. Try explaining your favourite comic to someone not aware of comics. If it's a super-hero comic then it isn't credible. If it's science fiction then it isn't credible, If it's the autobiography of some guy in America it isn't relevant.

My own favourite comic is Cerebus. Whether you like it or not(or have even heard of it) it is hard to deny that one guy taking 25 years of his life to complete one story is pretty impressive.

Now try telling this to a non-comics reader. I doubt you'll get beyond "it's about a talking aardvark".

Of course there is a fair amount of implausibility in the mainstream. It's impossible to draw a gun effectively from the hip in the way they do in every cowboy film, and nobody ever had shootouts in the classic way, but this isn't the same as a bloke in tights flying through the air.

This issue suggests another question to me: Why do we all accept this implausible stuff without question?

Answer: Comics are more effective at creating a suspension of disbelief than films and are more visual than books.

If in a film you want to create a gigantic purple spacecraft then you either get somebody to go to the trouble of building a model of it or you get a 3D raytracing package like Lightwave and you make it with that. In both cases the audience is asking, "How did they create such a realistic looking spacecraft?" Or, "How did they make that building explode?".

Stunts and special effects in films create a wow factor because it must have been difficult to stage.

In a comic, an exploding building or a spacecraft is done exactly the same way as say an apple or an unexploded building. In a comic, therefore, there is no wow factor to distract you from what's happening.

If you want to describe a gigantic purple spacecraft in a book then you just write "gigantic purple spacecraft". Which may not seem different to writing "apple" but everyone knows what an apple looks like, which is not the case wilh a spacecraft.

How, after all this, can we get anybody else to realise that comics are good? I think recent efforts to get some comics recognised as high culture are doomed to failure because the people who define high culture consider comics to be the definition of low culture. Just being a comic dooms any story to being considered low brow, no matter how good it is.

My own favoured solution is to try to get a wide variety of comics into the classroom.

That way everyone can find subject matter they like in comics in the same way they do with books or television.

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