The Comics Classroom: By the Book

Author’s Note

Hey, everyone! It feels like it has been forever since I was last able to touch base with you all and to explore the comic medium. I’d like to say this has been because I have been spending all summer working on some super-awesome projects (well, okay, part of that is why I have been so late in posting content up), but the truth is that I have been adjusting to a new job that has required a great amount of personal attention.

Despite these kinds of thing — that being how life can pop up and waylay us from our desired courses of action for months at a time — I have been fortunate enough to reflect on how we include comics in our lives recently. While I am preparing a seriously huge update to the ‘Age of Bronze’ series of posts and to the column as a whole, this one particular entry should be talked about before I get to the other updates. I hope you find it an eye-opening and illuminating preview of some other things I will be talking over the next few months.


Have you ever heard somebody say you (or, others) need to do things ‘by the book?’

Have you ever been witness to somebody who uses a book (be it a religious, biographical, or technical) to highlight their lives, whether or not that was religious, professional, or personal?

One of the fascinating ideas about some books, especially religious texts, is that, within the religious tradition of which the book is a fixture, some books are considered to be alive. Or, if not being considered to be living themselves, certainly some people view the words in a text as having a meaning that goes beyond being something that is simply read.

Some texts act as primers for life, not as prose which sits dead on a page to be acknowledged casually. Some view words on a page as being illuminating, this meaning that the act of reading certain words actually changes the reader. A profound poem or a particular piece of scripture can actually reach into a person and change. Words begin as an external factor which then changes to become an internal agent for changing how we think, believe, or engage with others. In a sense, words behave much like a multi-modal virus.

Watchmen-ManhattanOne person, let us call him AUTHOR A, has an idea that he writes down on paper. Let us say this idea is ‘I THINK CATS ARE AWESOME.’ AUTHOR A then passes around his feline-friendly manifesto to a group of people. Some people dismiss this as a silly idea (obviously, these people are dog-friendly folks) while others get inspired and make blogs about their cats, or they give particular attention to their cats when they return to their homes.

Out of all these people, some might tell a story to their loved-one (“Yea, AUTHOR A showed me this article he wrote about how awesome cats are!”). Others might ask for a copy of the cat-manifesto to share, and others might re-tell the content of AUTHOR A’s work by changing it up (suddenly, now AUTHOR A not only likes cats, he thinks cats should run the country and he has a 10-page plan about how to do it!). The point is, AUTHOR A’s content has taken on a life of its own, one independent of the creator himself.

Should we extrapolate from this that AUTHOR A is now meaningless in discussing is work? No, absolutely not. AUTHOR A’s existence is still pivotal to understanding how this imaginary work of feline-fiction came to be, but we should understand how important the Transmission System of Writing & Reading (here to just be shortened to TSW&R) operates.

Some of you might already know where I am going with this. Others might just be confused. Don’t worry, it will all tie in with comics in a minute, I promise.

We live amid a nexus of ideas: some still active (but dormant) within the petri dish of books, some currently evolving right now on the internet, and some which are archives right in your memory (albeit a little degraded). Comics are some of the most outlandish texts ever created. While the medium of prose texts — be it fictional, fantastical, or factual — has a certain quality to it, comics have bridged the landscape of ‘prose’ with the forceful power of visual art.

watchmen-04-01It is perhaps one thing to disagree with a fact you glanced over in a tome or on a webpage, but to see something you might disagree with coupled with art makes the sensation so much more disagreeable (for myself, this is Alan Moore’s Neonomicon comes to mind) while the opposite is also true. Reading a beautiful series of sentenced which are coupled with inspired art makes both facets of the comic shine more beautifully than if either piece had been taken separately (All-Star Superman comes to mind in this regard).

Comics can become a medium that transmits the most amazing of concepts and messages, even concepts and messages which are made more powerful by their being paired up with text or art as an accompanying companion. One example of the relationship between art and words comes from Watchmen (I might disagree with Mr. Moore on why a text like Neonomicon exists, but I can certainly sing the praises of Watchmen as many comic fans have before me).

In one famous page, the reader sees Dr. Manhattan on Mars holding a photo. He muses upon the picture and comments how — in regards to the being he is now — the man in the picture (himself, before the accident which turned him into Dr. Manhattan) is still him, yet he is also not the man he was. He exists as both at once, yet he is seemingly incapable of going backwards in time and re-living the life he wishes he still could. Moore profoundly ends this series of pictures with Dr. Manhattan saying “All we ever see of the stars are their old photographs.”

If a reader were to remove all the words and speech balloons from the panels, the art alone would tell a story: Manhattan sits alone on Mars, glances upon the images within the picture, a picture which he then discards it as he walks off, alone. The art itself tells the sadness of Dr. Manhattan’s existence.

However, Moore’s prose illuminates philosophical perspectives that reach into us beyond the surface art alone. Moore’s words are not just meant to be heard as Dr. Manhattan’s words, they are timeless words. They are Moore’s philosophy on life, or that is to say, one facet of his philosophy of life at the time Watchmen was published.

In a strange moment, typing this out while reading the words of a comic published almost 28 years ago, I find Moore’s words even more haunting as his comic has become a kind of ‘old photograph’ for a different period of time, both for comics, the USA, and the world as a whole.

Moore’s text paired with Dave Gibbons’ stellar art (which was itself paired up with the coloring genius of John Higgins) created a work of art which now exists within time as a classic piece of comic literature. It’s also outside of time as every reader from this point on will never truly be able to read Watchmen with the same mind-set as a person who grew up during the height of the Cold War, the comic’s ultimate subtext.

Watchmen will always be a brilliant star of a comic, a flash of fire and beauty. When looked back via reviews, re-tellings, re-makes, revised additions, and nostalgia, it will always be something other than what Alan Moore set out to create. Is this an improper way to explore Watchmen? I don’t think so, whether or not my analysis of the ‘old photograph’ that is Watchmen is entirely how you see it.

And that gets us to the important part: how do people live by books when we have so many different ways to interpret them? If no man is — to use the old phrase — an island, how are we to account for the global way a text is understood? How do we weigh this against the personal way we read a book?

tumblr_ml0vnjm4ER1qkqdj9o1_500I believe that comics are wonderful because they, in many cases, defy expectations and interpretation. Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly interpret comics (I hope to make a lifestyle out of doing just that one day!). However, comics are so rich and multi-layered with meaning that you can, rightfully, apply countless meanings to books and have many, many correct meanings. Some meanings will play nice with other meanings while some still conflict and contradict others. Comics are a wonderful textual medium which, like a petri dish of imagination, cultivates endless forms of meaning.

So, going back to the ideas I brought up when I talked about TSW&R?

I’d like, if I may, to encourage a little experiment with you, both as a way to complete the intended idea(s) for this particular column and to challenge you as a reader of this column. Think of the last comic you read. Any comic, it does not matter. Either via my Twitter (@ComixClassroom) or in the comments section of this webpage/article, tell us about your favorite panel from that comic. Just any page of panel that really spoke to you. You can go into as much detail as you like or you can leave the details as brief as you like.

The point is, I want you to really share what you enjoyed about that comic. Then, if the feeling moves you, I’d love for you to tell anybody and everybody about some comic that means a lot to you, either in some BIG or SMALL way. Share your passion for comics. The way you share this passion is not the point (Facebook, Twitter, leaving a comment, etc…). I hope that your passion for life, through comics, comes flowing out into the real world.

In a way, I view comics as worthy pieces of art and literature on par with religious texts. One of the inspiring aspects of religious and spiritual texts is that they challenge the reader to become an active part in changing their world. I believe many artists and authors of comics impart their passion and concerns for our world into their pages.

Allow me to give you one example that I recently read, both to illuminate how comic authors and artists can broadcast wonderful messages from their lives via the TSW&R system.

I recently picked up the book Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis. In this amazing text is a Foreword by Joe Quesada. In this Foreword, Quesada recalls an experience from his youth where he was given words of wisdom by famed illustrator Marshall Arisman. Mr. Arisman imparted a factual observation to Mr. Quesada’s art class, one which stuck with the young Quesada all his life. This knowledge, passed down from Mr. Arisman, then to Mr. Quesada, reached me while I was reading Words for Pictures.

Does the impact of Mr. Arisman’s words mean less for me because I was not in Mr.Quesada’s class to hear it? I do not believe so. Through TSW&R, the idea commented upon by Mr. Arisman reached Mr. Quesada. Thus it was able to be written down in Words and Pictures and has now been picked up by myself.

I decided to re-arrange my schedule in a way that will allow me to be more productive so I too can measure up to the lesson that Mr. Arisman gave all those years ago. If you’ll notice, I have not said what those words are. I believe the book Words and Pictures is fascinating and should be bought by anybody who passionately loves comics and by anybody who wants to work in the arts. If you, dear reader, go out and pick up Words and Pictures, and then you read the words of Mr. Arisman himself, you will be participating on a journey of discovery that might seem like a bunch of bunk, but it is a journey that I hope will be repeatable through your whole life:

1. You hear about something.

2. You decide to investigate.

3. You decide to accept the information you have received.

4. You either forget about it or you contribute, in some way, to transmitting the story or knowledge yourself.

Through this four-part process you grow and you refine yourself more and more into the person you wish to become, a person who can and will change the world.

WRDS-4-PIX_5.1I happen to believe comics are among the best medium for transmitting new and world-changing ideas. Go out. Read more comics. Talk about these comics and transit their ideas about ethics, morality, humanity, art, sexuality, gender, compassion, and hope to everyone you can.

Couple these ideas with philosophy, with religion, with your own voice and your own experiences. Couple the stories and ideas in these comics with things said to you by your teachers and your private ages. Comics by themselves are a kind of old photograph, a snapshot of the part frozen, copied, and re-distributed. These artistic images, these snapshots of the artistic brilliance, these shining stars of art, do not generate physical heat on their own. Comics, like any text, remain inactive until they are read … and then their magic comes alive.

Within you, the reader, these stars shine brilliantly once more, even if just for a moment. You then have a choice: keep the story/stories going, thus keeping that artistic fire alive, or you can close the book and extinguish that fire, assuming that fire even reached you at all. You have a powerful set of choices. You have but to reach out to the whole world to inspire the fire in others. Words and Pictures, along with Multiversity by Grant Morrison, have lit a fire in me. I hope I have shared some of this passion and light with you, dear reader(s).

Live by the (comic) book and change the world.


Related posts