A.B. Sina on Comics
[From the desk of A.B. Sina]
The first comic book I ever read was Tintin’s The Black Island in a Farsi (or Persian) translation. I remember the cover perfectly – a boy and his dog on a small motorboat heading out across the choppy waters towards a dark castle in the distance with blackbirds circling ominously overhead. Everything about it said ‘Adventure’ and I could easily imagine myself as that boy, all eager and determined. My dog was pretty smart too, though his name was Igor. When I looked at the cover again recently to confirm my memory, I realized that castle from afar looks very much like the citadel in the Prince of Persia graphic novel (rendered perfectly by LeUyen and Alex), except instead of a body of water, our citadel is set apart by a desert, a body of sand. This was not deliberate at all. It had something to do with memory, of course, but I also suspect Adventure has its own structures, its own visual forms and traditions.
All of Tintin’s adventures had been translated into Farsi, but thanks to a number of comic book stores and westernized outlets we also had access to a pretty wide range of comics in English. Two of our favourites were Asterix and Lucky Luke, which happened to be French but which we read in English translations. I also remember reading the American comics, everything from Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich the Poor Little Rich Boy to The Green Lantern and Captain America. Aside from the characters, I remember two things very distinctly about those Marvel and DC Comics books. First, the smell. They had that mulchy smell of new paper, unsullied still by the sweat and scent of human hands, but thanks to the cover they also smelled like plastic. They smelled the way they looked: glossy. The second thing I remember was the repetition of those odd ads inside every cover. The little strip of the scrawny boy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face and then, thanks to the Charles Atlas body building manual, taking his revenge on the bully and walking off with the bikini-clad girls. It was the storyline of all the superhero comics in a nutshell; it also summarized the motives of the audience, perhaps a little too well. Then there were those mail order sea horses. Drop some dry stuff into water and you get real live sea horses in your own bowl. Those Americans could do anything. But what I could never forget were the Twinkies, the cream-filled lusciousness of those Hostess cakes. I’d go to bed dreaming of twinkies and their creamy insides. Imagine the disappointment when, on a visit to the US, I first unwrapped the artificial and ignobly uncreamy bars.
So I had my little comics collection, but it paled before the stacks my cousin had accumulated. His budget was clearly more generous. Whenever I went over, I was sure to find two new, knee-high stacks of comic books in his bathroom. I’d go in for Number Two and emerge three hours later having travelled to Egypt, outer space, suburban America and back, the small matter of Number Two long forgotten. That was where I got my real potty training. Or rather, that potty was where I got my real training – where for uninterrupted hours, my imagination learned how to take flight and just go elsewhere.
‘Elsewhere’ is a pretty good place to head for if you are going to write anything, but especially if you’re going to write graphic novels, because their horizon of possibilities is so limitless. What I didn’t realize until much later, was that while I was reading all those foreign comics with all their obvious elsewheres in foreign lands, I was also being exposed to another source, an older source, of inspiration. I was lucky enough to be exposed to a small family collection of old books which included lots of manuscripts with miniature paintings. Iranian miniatures may be considered some of the earliest versions of the form we have come to call the graphic novel. They were originally drawn in order to illustrate episodes in epic or narrative poems. That is, they were made for books, for the art of the book, hence their size and their attendant label. To be totally accurate, the first miniatures were drawn in the 9th and 10th centuries to illustrate scientific books, books on plants and mechanical instruments. Depicting people was still deemed too idolatrous. For about 4 centuries after the Muslim armies swiftly defeated the Iranian dynasties and began to administer the land, images were pretty much banned. As with the Jews, the Muslims took their ban against graven images quite seriously. Slowly, things loosened up. The first things to be ‘imaged’ were, as I said, plants and tools, pretty harmless stuff that did not give God or the prophet much competition. Eventually a few human figures were smuggled in, standing next to plants or rotating as a piece of some mechanical calendar. The next step inevitably was a hero with a sword from an old poem but made more or less in the image of the current ruler. By the end of it, from the 14th century on, you had elaborate networks of workshops and employees – perhaps not unlike Marvel, say – full of masters and apprentices churning out book after book, inlaying the throne with gold leaf and smearing the sky with crushed lapis. These medieval graphic novels were for private consumption, usually made for members of the court, commissioned by a prince or a governor. It is not clear how exactly the books were ‘enjoyed’ or circulated. Were they read quietly before bed time? Did they get passed around with the opium pipe? Were they used to seduce the new harem girl? Were they stacked up in the bathroom like my cousin’s comics?
Like all hardcore imperial cultures, Iranians like to claim to be the best or the biggest or the first at something, even everything. I’m not really trying to claim anything like that – I’m not saying we did it first, way before Macmillan. In fact, a whole bunch of people did it before the Iranians. Miniatures were really a form that developed out of east asian painting. After the ban of images, there was no real indigenous tradition of figurative art. So most of it came from China – check out the clouds for example - and some of it from India. If you look at old Chinese and Japanese scrolls that unfold, or rather unroll, into a narrative, you are looking at even earlier versions of graphic novels. And one could go back little by little all the way to Egyptian hieroglyphics which were the first narrative illustrations, the perfect union of text and image, or of language and image. Each representation, being itself an image, was performative and figurative at the same time. A speech bubble would make no sense, which is why the joke – Egyptians with hieroglyphic speech bubbles – in Asterix and Cleopatra works so well. Or we could go even further back, before text, and consider the Lascaux cave paintings as the first illustrated stories. Mom and Pop Neanderthal telling Junior a good story on the cave wall.
All I’m trying to do, really, is to think of the development of my own imagination relative to the form (graphic novel) and then, more importantly, to think about the form itself, think about some of the elements of this form through a kind of genealogy, as maddeningly arbitrary or uselessly expansive as it may be. I think the most interesting art is always art that kicks formal butt. Good stories are everywhere, stories well told are hard to come by. For it to be well told, it has to consider the technology of its telling. So by ‘formal’ I don’t mean just good craft, but something that considers the essence of the craft, of its medium and context, and then breaks or innovates or maximizes or echoes or ironizes. Every art has frames, structures, traditions, and a particular technology or medium which allow it to be good or efficient in only a couple of important ways. For example, one could say pigment is a medium of painting, as time is a medium of video, the cut is a medium of film. I think the page is the medium of the graphic novel. No other form has the page as its essential medium. This is not news to graphic novelists of course. But thinking about it genealogically, makes me think of the page differently.
What constitutes a page? One could start thinking about the evolution of the ‘page’ for example, from cave walls to Internet Explorer, via the story of Jesus on the walls going around the church. But our concept of the page is also influenced by our experience and memories of what a page is. ‘Reading’ the life-sized panels of Jesus’ story as a believer in the setting of the church is a very different experience than reading it on a page on your lap. Ditto for Iranian manuscripts with their minute attention to detail and the single, rather than sequential, image. Yet, I can’t help but think of these as also ‘pages’ and ‘panels’ that bear a relationship to graphic novels, that can be incorporated, to use Church terminology.
Similarly, one could also ask: are the Charles Atlas ads or twinkies ads, which were definitely a big part of the experience for me, a part of the medium itself? I myself thought a lot about the breaking up of the page as I wrote Prince of Persia. At what point, for instance, did we develop a tradition of breaking up pages and what does that allow us to do? Iranian miniatures as well as early European religious paintings contained different time-frames within one spatial frame, thus substituting space for time. So, for example, the whole history of St John would be contained in one frame, but he was young and fishing near a river on the left while he was getting beheaded down on the right at the bottom of the hill. In other words, the frame – the space – remained unitary. In fact, the sanctity of space was often emphasised by a heavy frame that contained it, that prevented it from breaking. Iranian miniaturists paid a ton of attention to the frame – to designing, decorating and gilding it – even though it was part of a book and not designed to hang on a wall. But some very good Iranian miniaturists would occasionally get heretical and break it open, letting a tree or a rock or even a person or horse to step over the frame, to reveal (and thereby also emphasize) the very conceit of ‘a page’, of unitary, framed space. In the comics I grew up on, unitary space did not exist. It was panel after panel, each panel containing its own time and what mattered was the arrangement on the page.
It was through thinking about these kinds of issues that I got interested in including some of the ideas into the graphic novel – by referencing the book itself, by bringing miniatures in as an integral part of the form (again, the illustrators Alex and LeUyen did an outstanding job of this), by playing with space and time on the page as well as in the story, even by having a prince spend hours sitting on the ‘throne’ – by doing all this I wanted to incorporate (and hopefully expand) the full range of formal possibilities, the full range of memories and experiences that made up my sense of a graphic novel. I just couldn’t fit in a Twinkies ad.
[UP NEXT WEEK: TRANSLATOR ALEXIS SIEGEL]