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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.



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