Saturday, February 22, 2014

Wednesday Theology Condensed: Language and Characteristics of the Format

"Part of the problem stems from the fact that language is not static. Language changes, grows, fluctuates, and evolves. Elizabeth Johnson says that 'words about God are cultural creatures.' God may not change, but our ways of speaking of God surely do. Particularly, as Christianity spread through the world its language adapted from Greek to Latin and onward to other languages. Few people, when they proclaim the name of Jesus, take the time to reflect on how nobody used that particular pronunciation of his name to refer to Jesus during the New Testament period. 'As cultures shift, so too does the specificity of God-talk,' says Johnson."

What does all this mean? If we are going to use graphic literature to talk about God, we need to know how the language of graphic literature works.

Now, Elizabeth Johnson wasn't talking about graphic literature. Those quotes are from her book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. But the point she makes applies to this discussion on graphic literature. Feminist, Liberation, and the others in the milieu of thematic theologies are simply talking about God in new ways and new, relevant, languages. The language of graphic literature can also be employed to talk about God in new and unique ways.

Jean-Luc Marion described God as "God without Being." God gives Being, therefore he is not a part of that Being, since he preceded it. Marion chose to symbolize this sentiment by writing "God" with an X over it. He termed this the "crossing of Being." Our words and names for God are insufficient, and this way of depicting a name for God helps acknowledge that insufficiency. However, clearly, this God with an X over it is hard to type on a word processor. Here I can only describe it without actually showing it. Imagine if there was a format where graphic text was routinely utilized to display such textual images!

Jacques Derrida, one of the great minds of textual deconstruction, wrote about the theory of writing, which he termed "grammatology." His idea hinges on the premise that the shape, size, and style of the text affect the meaning of the words as much as the actual words themselves do. This is différance. This intentional misspelling of the French word différence sounds exactly the same, so is only discernible when reading it.

How the word is written affects how we understand the word. The subtleties and minutia of the text convey great importance for the meaning of the text. This is the X that crosses out "God" or the out of place "a" in différance. This is unique to the text and does not easily exist outside of it.

When I researched and wrote my thesis I had not yet read any of Action Philosophers or Comic Book Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. This is rather regrettable for they go over much of the same material I explored, only they made it much easier to understand and included graphic examples.

Action Philosophers #11
I think here we begin to see how size, shape, and style of text influencing the meaning of the text would apply to the comic book medium. But how does this reflect the more theological side of Wednesday Theology? Well, Avid Fan Base, the very Bible on you book shelf is filled with différance!

The specific name for God the Bible gives us is known as the Tetragrammaton, or the unpronounceable YHWH. In English Bibles it is usually translated as Lord. However, it is Lord with a large capital "L" and then smaller, yet still capitalized "ORD." This distinguishes YHWH from the Hebrew word for "lord," adonai, which is translated simply as "Lord" following the normal rules of capitalization. So, if you were reading the Bible aloud, you would say "Lord" for both and to the listener it would be indistinguishable if you meant YHWH or adonai. This mimics how one would read the Bible in Hebrew. Even with YHWH spelled out in the text, you would still (if you were a devout Jew, or at least a respectful reader) pronounce both as adonai. The difference, and significance of that difference, can only be seen when visually reading the text.

Another, simple biblical example of différance is the "red letter Bible." The words of Jesus in the New Testament are printed in red ink to emphasize the words of Christ. You wouldn't realize this extra textual emphasis if you were listening to someone read a red letter Bible. But if you read it yourself, the text immediately alerts you that these words are, at least in some manner, different than all the surrounding text.

Going back to graphic literature, we can easily see how différance is utilized in this medium. I go into depth in my thesis on this matter, providing many examples and exploring significance of meaning. But here, let it be suffice that how the text is displayed helps determine the meaning of the text. Big words are loud. Small words are quiet. Bold words can be important or be representative of the flow of the story throughout the page.

What all of this helps do is create a sense of immediacy. A reader turns the page and can immediately jump into the action, so to speak. Word balloons eliminate the need to descriptively write who said what and even how they said it. How the words are said are already represented in the words themselves. The use of space in the text, in the balloon, in the panel, and even in the page can also affect meaning. Colors and font styles can signify speakers without the use of word balloons pointing to a character. A page can have multiple narration boxes by multiple narrators without once stating in the text who each narration belongs to.

The great Will Eisner, in his book Comics & Sequential Art, mused about how most comic fonts are not your typical Times New Roman. "Attempts to 'provide dignity' to the comic strip are often tried by utilizing set-type instead of the less rigid hand lettering. Typesetting does have a kind of inherent authority but it has a 'mechanical' effect that intrudes on the personality of free-hand art." Some creators, such as Scott McCloud, have commissioned fonts based on their own handwriting, so even though they don't hand letter the text, the lines of the font more closely adhere to the lines of the art.

Page layout can also affect the meaning of the story. The arrangement of the panels on the page create a flow and pacing for the story. Panel arrangement sometimes requires active participation by the reader. The flow of panels may not always be clear, so the reader needs to take a step back, examine the page as a whole, and then proceed to read each panel in order. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware was almost exhausting to read in some places. A page would be filled with dozens of small, nearly identical panels which required great concentration to follow. On the other hand, the first time I flipped through the trade of Jonathan Hickman's Pax Romana I verbally said "I don't know how to read this." Hickman's style was virtually without panels. Pictures flowed together or were overlapping with no clear distinction to them. I don't point this out to say one is better than the other, but to offer two extremes of the spectrum of page layout and panel arrangement.

Comic Book Comics #1
Again, this has all been a brief overview and we still haven't gotten to the gutter. The gutter! Oh, my, the gutter. In terms of comic books, the gutter is that space between panels. Usually it's just a black line or white space between the black lines that border the panels, but it can obviously get more complicated than that. The point of the gutter is that is where all the action happens. The panels show us instances in time, and it is up to us, as the readers, to fill in what happens inbetween these panels; what happens in the gutter.

The gutter demands the reader of graphic literature to be an active participant in telling the story. According to Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, the act of filling the gap, or crossing the void of the gutter to connect two panels, receives the title of "closure." The reader determines what happens in the gutter and how much time progresses during the gutter. The gutter is nothing on the page, yet everything on the story. It takes up no time, but can also take up an eternity.

Douglas Roushkoff wrote a comic series called Testament which told a sci-fi story in the not too distant future that compared and contrasted to biblical stories. At the same time, the gap between the panels of these stories, the gutter, was filled in with a story about gods and goddesses interacting with both the biblical and sci-fi stories.
"For me, the gutter has always been such a powerful yet unrecognized element in the form that I decided to make its function explicit in my own work. For my own Bible-based comic series Testament, I chose to use the space between the panels as a zone for action. While my main human characters lived in the discreet moments of the comic's panels, I placed the gods in the gutters between the panels. Instead of leaving the spaces blank, I turned them into a second universe where gods fought among themselves in a war to dominate the sequential action."
 - Douglas Roushkoff
"Forward: Looking for God in the Gutter"
in Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Could we, perhaps, develop a new way of talking about the timelessness of God by utilizing the gutter or by depicting moments throughout time simultaneously on the same page, connected eternally by the gutter? Does the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and our partaking of the Eucharist occur simultaneously in the gutter? Did I just use the mechanics of comic books to attempt to better understand a sacrament? Yes, yes I did.

Welcome to Wednesday Theology.

It is absolutely fine if you disagree with any of this. I don't contend graphic literature should be a replacement for how we talk about God. I merely suggest we can add it to our arsenal of vocabulary for speaking of the divine. The unique attributes of graphic text, panels, and the gutter provide theologians and religious scholars with an interesting tool for examining, exploring, and discussing language about God. The possible ways to graphically represent text are nearly limitless. More possibilities mean a greater chance that we can discover a better way to efficiently convey what we mean. As Elizabeth Johnson says, "in the end it becomes clear that one way of speaking alone is never adequate."

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