« December 2007 | Main | February 2008 »

4 posts from January 2008

January 28, 2008

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.


January 21, 2008

Form of Meaning

from the drawing board of Leland Purvis


What is the relation of form to meaning?

What is the shape of feeling?

Any statement about the world, or a piece of it, is a mis-statement. As soon as you focus on a thing, or an idea, you take it out of its context, out of the place where it belongs and where it was made. So, to talk about a thing we’re really putting up a cardboard cutout of it and talking about that. This is both the beauty and the tragedy of language and expression. Everything is a damned metaphor. But metaphors are the currency of artists and poets. So, we’re in luck.

All images in comics are metaphors, lines on paper standing in for the real thing. They allow us to talk about the world in a more precise way than by language alone. And on the page we create the context in which these pictures may be perceived as vibrant with life, evoke emotion and command attention.

Dead images yield a flat response. I’m not saying an artist should be looking for the money shot, nor that s/he should serve up drawings that ever take the reader out of the story by overwhelming the content. I’m talking about being aware as an artist of the emotional impact of the images themselves, controlling the responses elicited from the readers. How do you, as an artist, delineate the forms of feeling?

What are the shapes which will impart what you mean? It’s the markmaking, the energy in the lines, the fluency of the artist’s transition from intention to ink. There is something translated to the reader that speaks of the artist’s urgency, something that reassures that there is something specific and new being said and that they are struggling for just the right way to say it. A comics artist’s job is to do more than contrive a visual armature to hang the story on. It’s about sculpting an emotional landscape, the context within which the reader will take in the narrative.

If form is as Ben Shahn wrote, “…only the manifestation, the shape of content,” then maybe what I’m searching for is more content. To somehow allow the form of the work to operate on more levels than it appears at first, to inflect the imagery with the juice of reaction. While this could complicate our job, it could add whole new facets to a work, strata of meaning that might only be revealed on a second or third reading.

Comics are already complicated. So much effort goes into making the work clear and understandable that we often forget the power of the images themselves to affect people. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the concerns of storytelling, page composition, design, acting, draftsmanship, lighting, timing, pacing. But we can’t lose sight of the primary focus, to design the delivery of a story to best meet people where they are.

A drawing on a comics page is an answer, a response to the question of how you want the reader to feel. At a certain point, when the duties of clarity have been addressed, we need to remember the calling.  The artists need to be less worried about how they want the image to look, and more concerned with the vision they want the readers to have once they've seen the work.

Artists need to impose this vision on their process, rather than the other way around. Too often lesser works have allowed reference-material to highjack the page, leaving key elements as emotionally flat as the paper they're printed on. The precious prism of the artists' interpretation too often gets burned at the stake of the photographic lens.

The interpretation, the delivery of the context needs to come across viscerally. These are aliven-ing images, vivid descriptions, form as meaning through understanding translated to the printed page. Not that it needs to be an accurate, categorical, or even an objective understanding. It might well be a 'mis'-understanding, as long as it's an authentic one.

And the authenticity comes from the truth of the feeling for the shapes of things. Otherwise the reader is going to feel lied to, and taken-in. Or at the very least that you don’t believe yourself what you’re telling them. And people will believe a thing if it sounds true, even if it’s simply because it only rhymes with something they already know.

Clarity is fundamental. It’s often very hard to simply be clear. But beyond storytelling clarity, what can the imagery in comics provide? A context for tension, foreboding, relief, energy, fear, movement, stillness, release. Drawings can be evocative, disturbing, validating, liberating, oppressive. When artists neglect to capitalize on this power, they do a disservice to both the reader and the work.

But then it could be I have mis-spoken, created misunderstanding, focussed too closely on a thing that ought not to be spoken of, but only shown it pictures.


January 14, 2008

Draw Like a Ralph

from the drawing board of Brian Ralph



January 08, 2008

My Wandering Aesthetic -- The Challenge of Establishing Style

[From the drawing board of Lark Pien]


i am constantly weaving about because i cannot see straight on. things vanish as soon as they come into center view. you may notice the odd head bob, the sidelong glance and think me strange; but i have been doing it for some time now, and this sidewinding motion is familiar like a fair old friend. it is the way in which i have come to see many things.

i would like to say that i perform this habit out of necessity, but this would not be entirely true. beyond the practical nomenclature there lies the real source of desire: i am driven by the fear of 'not knowing'. that centered hole in my vision is a needlepoint prick, tiny and precise in its measure to oblivion. it is necessary to weave, because i cannot escape it, because i would to like to see something other than that hole.


{aside: on seeing myself - a near impossible task! i cannot be the subject and the object at the same time. there is not enough distance between the two to make a proper survey.}


so though i am the continuous tether for my observations, the course that i take is somewhat haphazard in its direction. there is no particular order in which i come to know things around me. for it to make some sense i have become a collector-investigator of sorts, compiling field notes in hopes of generating an accurate semblance of the 'things' around me.



if each encounter were all the same, i could draw the same character, tell the same story, and paint with the same palette each and every time. however, my exposure to things that are constant*, or akin, or of a unified '_(bigger thing?)_' is somewhat lacking, and my grasp of these concepts is weak. we seem to exist collectively in individual chaos, with individuals bearing the weight of entropic gravity. the emergence of individuality among us is what elicits the continual change in my style. i can't just use one because it would be, well, dismissive.

*{aside: i am finally beginning to contemplate the meaning of shared culture, family, legacy, groups, mobs, clubs, so on and so forth. these challenge the isolationistic view i've been assuming so far. i can't quite address these concepts, since i don't fully understand them yet, but i do want to acknowledge life isn't entirely about being alone.}


experimenting with different media and acquiring new techniques is fun and rewarding, but i want to see straight ahead. i envy those who can and do. it is as if their heart and the place outside are tied together by a through line. if i run the floss from my heart, through the hole in my vision, will it emerge bound the world outside? as silly as this may seem, i desire this romantic notion. i think this would be nice.

now that i have presented a fair share of my hopes and fears on this blog, i'll forge on ahead and render its relevance. i am lucky to be working with 1st Second Books. in practical terms, it is a concrete establishment with goals, focus and identity; it steers straight while providing me with direct and deliberate outlets that engage the public. and even though the company does not always pander to my cartooning sensibilities, it is accepting of my need for exploration. i am happy to be in a place where i can create a story based on the matters of individuality rather than the conforming clichés of today. finally, 1st Second's editorial director Mark Siegel has shown genuine interest in the things i've collected, and is unconcerned that these things may not all look the same. he accepts my varied realities and encourages me to find their specific potentials.

recognizing all that has been laid out before me, i can no longer go back and wither in the hurly burly of my brain. with all that hoopla for collaboration and pushing for change, i will be forced to contend with my blind spot soon. i anticipate the stretch of a fathomless fall and bristling arms raised, finally on the cusp of a new intelligence.



My Other Accounts

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 05/2005