Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wednesday Theology Condensed: Names and Interpretations

Chapter One of my thesis is entitled "Names and Interpretations." Why? Because what we call the format impacts our perception of the format. But why is this important? At a basic level, it is partially because theology attempts to discuss complex and lofty concepts with the utmost precise language. If we hope to utilize the comic book medium to engage in this discourse, then we should likewise make an attempt for our language about comics to be similarly precise.

If what we call a medium helps determine our perception of it, then how do we, or more generally the populace at large, perceive comic books? Well the word comic would imply content that is funny or humorous in nature. This raises our first problem. Do we normal describe Batman, Superman, or the Punisher as funny? And what about the word "book?" Most comic books are serial or periodical in nature. Do we normally refer to a twenty page monthly issue as a book? As problematic as the term "comic book" is, it suffices to convey what format we are discussing. I wrote, "For the most part, any conversational partner will immediately understand that we are talking about a printed medium that combines words and pictures to tell a story." This already is rather obsolete because it ignores digital comics and non-narrative texts. See? I'm already critiquing myself.

The name itself originates with the very first popular instances of the format. The first comic books were collected reprints of comic strips and newspaper funnies. They were books of comics. Bradford W. Wright, in his book Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, writes, "However inappropriate it might be, the term comic has since referred to the medium of sequential art, regardless of content." To this I add, "The name of the medium refers to its initial content, not what it has evolved into, and certainly not what it holds the potential to become."

Political factors actually helped stymie that potential. The Senate held hearings in the 50s on comic books' supposed connection to juvenile delinquency. This led to the adoption of the Comics Code which relegated the content of comics to the realm of children's fare. For a theological connection, think about how the violence and sexual themes in the Bible would make comic exploration problematic under this Code. Underground comics arose without this censorship and the major publishers eventually instituted imprint publications specifically for mature readers. In recent years the need for the Comics Code waned as publishers implemented their own ratings system. DC and Archie were the last to drop the Code in 2011. But the stigma surrounding comics that the Code nurtured still exists.

But what about the other popular term, "graphic novels?" The graphic novel label basically started as a marketing tactic. Will Eisner popularized it with his work A Contract with God, thinking it made it sound more legitimate than a comic book. However, "novel" is an inexact genre. A Contract with God was actually an anthology of partially related short stories. Likewise, Maus is a memoir of Art Spiegelman's father's experiences in the Holocaust. The two most famous graphic novels are not really novels.Would we label all unillustrated texts as novels?

For some reason, the perception exists that graphic novels are inherently more mature and sophisticated than single issue comic books. This is rather ludicrous because many so-called graphic novels are merely collected editions of storylines spanning several single issue comics.

Graphic literature, I feel, helps encompass a wider breath of textual genres. But it falls short. Graphic can also mean "extreme," "excessive," "obscene," and even "pornographic." My apologies if you came here hoping to read up on pornographic literature. (This is similar to a joke I made in my actual thesis presentation. It was well received).

But what is a comic book? How do we define it? Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics describes it as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." That is quite the unwieldy phrase. If you thought Wednesday Theology was a bad title, imagine if I went with Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer Theology.

However, as much as I want to hammer out an exact and precise name and definition of the medium, convention betrays me. You have probably seen it happen frequently on this site, and in my thesis I admit it. "Sometimes we must concede our current linguistic failings and assume people understand, to a manageable extent, what we are trying to communicate." In casual dialogue I still refer to the format as a comic book. Why? Because it is easier, because it is what most people know it as, and because on Wednesdays I go to my local comic book shop and not my local graphic literature emporium.

So why does this even matter? Again, it comes down to perceptions and prejudices. But, you may ask, as the saying goes, wouldn't a rose by any other name smell just as sweet? Well, yeah, but a lot fewer ladies would receive roses on Valentine's Day if we called them "fart thistles." The current disparities in perceptions between comic books and graphic novels already illustrate this point. Graphic novels are acclaimed and the inspiration for billion dollar grossing cinema blockbusters while comics are for kids and the intellectually subnormal. However, both are the same dang thing!

The appeal of the graphic novel moniker, though, has aided in the growing legitimacy of the format. Maus won a Pulitzer. Watchmen ranked on Time's list of 100 novels of 20th Century. In 2008, Boston University held an academic conference on religion and comics called "Graven Images." Several papers presented at that conference were collected and published as a book that proved to be a vital resource for my thesis. Further, graphic texts are becoming more common in the classroom, not just as a subject to study, but also as an aid in studying other subjects. In undergrad, my class on Japanese history utilized a manga about the Japanese economy as a textbook.

So now we have a better grasp of what this format is and what we call it, or why we call it particular names. In the next chapter we dive into some of the more unique mechanics of the medium and explore how they might be an asset in discourse and conveying information. Exciting, isn't it?!

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