how to read comics,
part zero point none:
insults & incoherent ramblings

this post a combination of linguistic affectation and automatic writing. go go go!!

Word balloons, color use, facial expressions, body language, page design, you know your shit don’t you? Yeah, yeah, you think you know all the fancy-pants rules to read comics, unlike those damn plebeians, always reading those books that look the same on every page, and most of whom couldn’t manage to fathom the reading of images even if you actually handed them a map (ba dum pssh). Yeah, you’re graphically literate, aren’t you? Pictorially intelligent? Sure! Artistically aware? But of course, right?

Yeah, no. You know nothing.

Actually, no, that’s just idiot hyperbole. You have to know quite a bit to even be a casual reader of comics. But well, sorry, you’re probably still a relative lightweight when it comes to image analysis if your knowledge of reading pictures originated with comics. Which, for many comics readers, it of course did. The problem with that is that comics uses a massive number of crutches just to visually get by. Chief among these crutches are the word balloon and the panel. Actually, maybe crutches isn't the right word. Wrong connotations. But the word balloon and the panel are the parts of the structure that everyone actually leans on. They’re the load-bearing walls of the medium, if you will.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a tradesman and grew up in a construction family, but the image of a strangely-built house comes to mind...

I grew up in Sonoma and Marin counties in northern California and my father was a general contractor. Since long before I can properly recall I’ve been visiting houses and learning of their essential structures and bodily make-ups. The comics medium occasionally reminds me of some of those houses I’ve worked on out in Marin: idiosyncratic and unique in so many ways, but highly, highly specific and very difficult to fathom from the outside. Coming in to do work on or in a house like that is always a strange experience; attempting to understand the mechanics that brought this fascinating monstrosity into existence, and what the (sometimes) absolutely insane rules holding it up actually are.

There’s a continuous feeling, exploring those jobs during the initial exploratory and demo stages, of: “What the hell happened here, and how are we going to figure it out and work around and fix things?!” Think like the Winchester Mystery House, but slightly more practical.

Really quite an apt metaphor for our strange and terrible little art form.

But the parsing of it, the throwing off of the crutches, the remodeling of the house, the building of a more rewarding reading experience. Just how do we go about this?

I’ve little idea as to the specifics of the evolution of the word balloon and the basic panel, but I’m sure the work has been done, and while I would quite love to know, we don’t really need to go all the way back down the genetic line just in order to learn how to our observe our creature’s behavior today (but if such scholarly work is easily linkable or searchable, please don’t hesitate to comment with the info!).

Most folks (probably not any of the seven or so people who read this blog) who read comics do so in a very casual way. Very quickly, pausing usually only to resolve a moment of confusion or to briefly appreciate an image, then hurrying on. This is how we’re taught to read prose. Move along, move along, sound out, clarify, double check, repeat if you like a turn of phrase, move along, move along. Very casual. Very linear. And not a thing wrong with it. A great many of the comics form’s subspecies and idiomatic approaches are designed mostly to be read this way. Gag strips, 1-4 panelers, a good deal of manga, most mainstream western-direct-market stuff, etc. This is not, however, the only way. You cannot read comics by Brecht Evens or Jim Woodring the way you can those. The lack of words has a lot to do with that, and we’ll return to words and language at large in the reading of comics soon enough, but it’s really more than just that. 

It’s more than just the lack of words, it’s the composition and the coding of the images. As quoted in the Fiffe & the Rule-Set of the City post from Clarke's Fractals - The Colors of Infinity, it’s the visual dictionary, the pictorial grammar, the depth and coherence of the complex fractal-self-similarity.

People compare comics to music and go on and on about the importance of composition and arrangement. Guys like Marcos Martin draw zoom-ins on ears, Matthew Southworth tilts a page 90 degrees, people go crazy for that shit. They need the pop songs, the simple jams. The same old tunes. 
Business as usual. The real music, the real compositional tricks and visual bridges and mood evocations are being done elsewhere, if only you’re willing to bend your brain to perceive them.

There is no right answer in the singular sense, though.

No one correct perspective.

You have to cycle through the permutations. Every perspective is the right perspective if you can only manage to stare through them all at once. Why do you think Morrison and Moore and others are fascinated by the simultaneity of time and by super-position and phase-space and by temporal-lobe warping experiences? That's where the truest sight supposedly resides. And it’s very difficult not to have yourself be dissolved by that endless abyss of perspectives. That’s why forging through it is the final task for the mature magician.

We’ve no need for the ancient out-of-date maps, though.

Come, take my hand, there’s an easier crossing through the acid...

It’s the rare person who feels confident in their relationship to art and to the perception of it. Such a subjective thing, you know? So wide-ranging, it’s difficult to speak to with any real sense of authority. Can there be said to be a universal user interface for the canvas? Just how do we learn to emote in response to imagery? Oh, it’s simple enough with representational imagery, like in most comics and in most art at large. In a comic if it’s a guy throwing a punch or shooting a gun: action, energy, power. If it’s a light-blue-violet-lavender-reddish-yellowish-orange sunset over a slowly darkening valley: nostalgia, warmth, wonder.

But we need to be trained to do this. I know guys to whom I could hand The Love Bunglers and who would feel nothing from the experience. Or I could hand them whatever painting you want, instead. They’ve less-than-zero experience with artistic emotional exploration or personal processing of art at all. The closest these sorts of guys get is … god, video games, I guess? Seriously, these are not art people at all, and folks with any sort of relationship to art at all (myself included; myself especially) often tend to forget just how trained an impulse the whole thing really is.

As with most things in life, it’s all about the practice and the training.

I know all this doesn’t sound very romantic, and that everyone experiences everything differently and everything’s subjective and all that bullshite. But I tend to think a good deal of that has to do with depth of perception and ability to explain personal emotional reactions. Zegas 2 for example can be read at a very surface level, with most of its informational content passing right through the perceptual bowels of the reader, little absorbed at all. Or it can be read deeply, all the informational content it possesses digested. All the nutrients absorbed in every way possible. Eaten with every emotion, perceived in every spatial way possible, seen ontologically, seen hauntologically, approached from every possible method of perception you comfortably possess. All the permutations cycled through.

Every view cataloged and contained, one at a time, faster and faster, until the comic echoes on in your head, a multi-faceted, super-positioned, little living memory.

There are the dominant modes of perception, of course. Those reading systems that have harmonically accreted. Evolved, essentially.

The simplest mode is the one most everyone uses, the one that everyone relies on and that most readers never lean off of. To be fair, most creators don’t really challenge them to do so. But we’re talking about the reading of images here, and the inverse, the creation of images, is a whole other ballgame. Related, sure, but related is the way American Football and Rugby are related: similar, but really completely different things. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a comic with a relatively low amount of very-traditional information per page. Or even a comic with a high amount of very-traditional information per page. It’s not just about the density to me, really, but about the quality and the novelty.

As in the case of reducing color images to value-structures, the reducing of all page-content to simple information changes our whole perspective on the issue by altering the terms by which we perceive it. We need to remove our preconceptions and biases to cross into new knowledge. Removing our attachment to style and to color and to all other attractions and bloodlessly examining everything from the perspective of patterns and information. Then, having boiled everything away, we move slowly back down, recondensing and reconsolidating and remodeling and rebuliding our understandings of things.

We’ll start with the load-bearing walls. With the panel and 
the balloon.

Most folks just jump from one to the next. Reading the balloons, glancing at the the icon system they’re pointing at, then moving on. Very casual, mostly dialogue driven. Is it any wonder Bendis is as popular as he is? Dialogue and language and words drive the dominant comics reading experience. That and the most basic and trite of panel progressions. Visual storytelling and form/content interaction largely take a backseat. Photo-reffed or shadow-shape-based illustrative "quality" moves to the forefront to dominate... 
In this way, the stacked-coffins, storyboard-based, tv pitch-comic comes about.

The dominant mode boiled out all the fun tricks and the inherent graphic (as in pictorial) nature, as creators powered by pan-media bullshit sought to make all their media move and feel the same. The dominant mode is now just like watching a shit tv show. Which of course many direct-market comics-readers do a great deal of, and which is the larger dominant mode of entertainment culture in general.

(Note: This is one of those moments when I want to go back to the bridging concept and Fiffe & the Rule-Set of the City and try to compare it something like horizontal gene transfer or something. Things shift sideways, associations bridging laterally and introducing new things or transforming old ones. It's just that in the case of the dominant mode of the direct market, the gene transfer from the larger media world has been detrimental to our genetic variety, thinning the gene pool. We have been largely homogenized by the bigger entertainment industries and are now being farmed for our variety-within-tight-bounds, super-market-safe (get it? get it?), product. The vast explosion of work in the last decade or so doing nothing so much as proving Sturgeon's Law to be absolutely correct.)

This is why any basic artistic or narrative tricks pulled in the direct market seem like goddamn magic to most readers therein: any deviation from the dominant mode will of course seem like boundless innovation if the dominant mode is all you know.

The dominant mode also fetishizes the surface quality of the art, as well.

Having no critical language or greater artistic experience to hang perceptions on and to there build a unique sense of taste from, the basic emotional reaction and language surrounding that builds up instead. Like a toenail ingrown or a plant shut in the dark, the focus grows toxic and turns inward, with the emotional reactions never incorporating other perspectives than the first, everything confirming the myopic bias of that singular focus, rather than expanding it outwards to ever grow and change and evolve. This is how we get airless statutory (to quote Wait What's Jeff Lester) like Jim Lee and Ivan Ries as the norm. The visceral, uncompromising superficiality of the art playing to the surface appeal, just like popular music.

“No need to overthink it, man. He (it’s always a he) just draws awesome, you know! I mean, that dude (again, always a dude) looks like he could just beat the shit out of you! The way it’s drawn, there’s just so much power, you know?!”

Never just describe your reaction. Invert. Describe the method by which the reaction was brought about. And describe it to the nth degree. Take that self-sense and inward emotional focus and invert. Apply it outward. Stretch yourself.

To expand reading experience beyond the dominant mode is difficult though. There’s a hell of a lot of things involved and teaching old dogs new tricks is always difficult. Especially if they’re happy with the tricks they’ve got, like most. But there is a small percentage of the readership who want to expand their reading experience. Who want to see in new ways, having perhaps had brief glimpses and glimmers without entirely knowing what it was they were really looking at.

For those, there’s this column.

Or future iterations of it, really, because it ain't like I really said anything useful in this one.

part two to feature image rollovers, jackson pollock and the secrets of the universe! 
and will arrive sometime at some future point! maybe!

thanks so much for reading!

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