Drawing Meaning from Life
Comics are nothing new. For at least 8,000 years, we’ve been using pictures to tell stories and communicate new ideas. Today, graphic novels have a lot to say. And so do the creators behind them.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world.
I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode: “Drawing Meaning from Life.” Comics are nothing new. For at least 8,000 years, we’ve been using pictures to tell stories and communicate new ideas. Today, graphic novels have a lot to say and so do the creators behind them. And if anyone thinks that these are pretty pictures to compensate for shaky narratives, well, think again.
Scott McCloud: When you’re explaining something visually, acquiring sufficient understanding for yourself, that’s 80% of the work. The actual execution is the easy part.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
From the Sunday Funnies to sci-fi superheroes, comics are, for many, a childhood rite of passage. But there’s nothing childish about graphic novels.
Gene Yang: I think comics can be much more intimate than the video or the movies, than any other visual narrative storytelling medium.
Lauren Weinstein: To really figure out how to use pictures and words at the same time to tell a story, it’s incredibly difficult, and people that are really good at it just, it’s almost instinctual, there’s almost a magic that happens.
Josh O’Neill: They’re a medium that gets mistaken for a genre. When people hear “comic book,” they imagine superheroes or fantasy, they imagine a certain kind of narrow range of things, science fiction, but what they are is just sequential images that tell a story. There’s no story that can’t be told in comic form.
In the past few decades, comics have stretched far beyond the boundaries of witty observation and the hero driven epics. Take, for example, Nate Powell’s, Eisner-winning graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, which explores adolescence in all its glory and misery. Powell’s story of two stepbrothers wading through the tides of mental illness, familial clashes, and heartbreak was drawn from his own experience and a growing understanding of his own brother’s trials.
Nate Powell: We got along, it wasn’t until I was, like, almost out of high school, that I realized—that I started to become aware—of how relatively different my family structure was, in terms of, like, adherence to certain kinds of routine, certain kinds of norms, the kinds of interactions, you know, my brother and I would have, or we would have with our parents. And a lot of this, you know, it just had to do with my parents basically being in the dark in the 1980s and trying to find, not just what’s going on with their son, but also finding the best means by which to allow him to have the most fulfilling life possible.
Powell’s use of comics to make sense of his brother’s world is extraordinarily personal and touching. Yet according to the award-winning publisher and comic writer, Josh O’Neill, this intimacy is far from unique.
Josh O’Neill: What I love, I think, the most about comics is, I think, they’re maybe the cleanest window into someone else’s worldview. Because when you’re reading the work of a great cartoonist, they’re not just telling you a story, you’re actually seeing the way that they perceive the world, because the stories processed through their imagination, the art is processed through their hands, so every element of it is crafted by that person. As a cartoonist, you can’t not be yourself, because it’s always—because your line is your line, that’s what it looks like. So I feel like it’s a very intimate way of communication between an artist and an audience.
Intimate and intuitive, yet for many, also mystifying. That’s why comic theorist and cartoonist Scott McCloud made it his mission to explain why the joining of words and images in graphic novel form can be so profoundly powerful. The result was a trio of seminal works narrated by a cartoon version of McCloud himself, Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics.
Scott McCloud: The advantage to comics is that we trade in static images. And we trade in static images in our own minds when we remember, we remember symbolically. In fact, people who make it their work to compete in memory competitions actually create static images just for the purpose of memory. They will associate a list of random numbers or cards in the deck with outrageous static images, just so that they can remember it. So this is our natural language. So, that’s why, when you’re in an airplane when you reach in the seat pocket in front of you, you’re going to be looking at comics. Because they know that if you’re given a series of symbols, something still, that that’s closer to the texture of memory. That’s one of the advantages of comics, is we’re able to give you time, allow you to take as much time as you need on each and every moment, and attach an image to each of those moments, to ensure that there’s an anchor, there’s something that you can keep in your memory.
Because our brains are wired to recognize and retain images, comics can be a powerful, but, as yet, under-utilized classroom tool. Graphic novelist and MacArthur “Genius” Laureate, Gene Yang is a strong believer in the power of comics to not merely entertain, but also, to educate. Before making comics full-time, Yang spent 17 years as a substitute high school math and computer science teacher in Oakland, California, but it was only as he transitioned out of the classroom that he thought to bring comics in. After the runaway success of his 2006 National Book Award-nominated work, American Born Chinese, Yang was overwhelmed with book tours and new opportunities from the likes of Marvel. The school absences began to rack up.
Yang: I remember my very last year teaching, I was only teaching one class. So, I was just hanging on by my fingernails. And even for that one class, I would end up missing two or three periods every month. To make up for it, I started drawing my lectures as comics. And that, much to my surprise, was a huge hit. My students would actually ask me to do those for them even when I could be there in person. You know, it was like they liked me better as a cartoon. That’s what it felt like. Yeah.
AJC: You are a huge advocate for the idea of cartoons being a great tool for education.
AJC: And that’s now starting to gain some traction.
Yang: It is, it is, I’m so happy about that. I don’t want every subject to be taught through comics.
AJC: Why not?
Yang: Right. I shouldn’t say every subject—every topic, I don’t want every topic to be taught through comics. I just think comics ought to be included in every educator’s toolkit. There’s certain things that are best taught using a sequence of still images, and I would just like teachers to recognize that.
McCloud: It’s a great introductory medium. Comics may not always be the best way to give you the next ten problems on your algebra test, but they can be a terrific way to introduce you to the subject as a whole. There was a time when I bought into the idea that comics were good for some tasks and bad for others. I bought into the idea that comics could be used to explain certain types of subjects and couldn’t be used for others, and I bought into the idea that comics could be used to tell certain types of stories and not others. But every time I thought I had come up with an example of a kind of story or a kind of subject that couldn’t be told or explained in comics, somebody would go and do it, somebody would prove me wrong. So, now it’s an article of faith that it’s at least worth trying. So even subjects like, you know, particle physics or, you know, quantum theory, that I assume are gonna be virtually impossible to do in comics like that, I don’t assume that anymore, I try not to assume that.
AJC: But, surely, for any time that you’re going to explain something complicated through comics, you need two things to be happening. You need somebody with a phenomenal understanding of the topic, to begin with.
AJC: And then with the—am I being rude if I say draftsman skills? The artistic skills.
McCloud: Yeah, well, the artistic skills may not be quite as important, actually, as the understanding. When you’re explaining something visually, acquiring sufficient understanding for yourself, that’s 80% of the work. The actual execution is the easy part. Making the comic is the easy part. And draftsmanship isn’t even all that important. You could be a pretty clumsy draftsman and still do a terrific visual explanation. In fact, there are some, I don’t want to name names because that’d be a left-handed compliment, but I can think of specific artists who are terrific at visual explanation, but are actually fairly rudimentary draftsmen.
But while extensive talents are not required for successful cartoonists, there are some very fine artists in their midst. Lauren Weinstein, for example, is an exceptional painter and draftsperson who, to date, has published comics about motherhood, adolescents, and the extinction of frogs. But even while painting was her public-facing medium, comics were her private form of expression, a kind of therapy even.
Weinstein: My first comic was of me going to Red Lobster and being super depressed, and meeting lobster and a shrimp, and they were all breaded. And they’re like, “yeah, what’s your issue? At least you’re not breaded and at Red Lobster.” So, that was it, and I didn’t think, it took me years to think that that was art or anything that was important.
AJC: And at what point did you realize it was a language? And how far are you now, can you order in a restaurant and ask for directions? Where are you in the learning of this language?
Weinstein: I feel like it’s a lifelong process, but I feel like I know a little bit more about how to stop the viewer. And that’s your only goal as a cartoonist, I think. It’s figuring out how to make that viewer stand at attention when you need them to, and then make them suffer, or make them ecstatic. If you can, I feel like I know a little bit more about that now.
Still, even the most skilled artists can never fully overcome the essential problem at the heart of comics. After spending years mastering the craft, Scott McCloud admits that the very thing which makes comics so enticing—the way they enlist both the reader’s left and right brain—is also what might be their most fateful flaw.
McCloud: It’s an intrusive medium. You know, it’s easier, with a motion picture, for example, it’s easier to entirely forget that you’re experiencing the medium and to lose yourself in the story. Comics has a way of intruding repeatedly on the experience. If you want a transparent experience, if you want a transportive experience in comics, it’s a harder slog.
AJC: And it takes longer, right?
McCloud: It takes a very long time. But that’s a practical limitation.
AJC: And is the push and pull between brevity versus complexity then?
McCloud: To me, that’s the joy of it. The decision-making of, like, slicing up time, that’s fascinating to me, that’s fun. That’s the fun of comics, but then you hit the edge of the page or the lines start to be lines again. There’s so much to take you out of the experience in comics, there’s so much to remind you of the artifice of the form. And so that’s what worries me. There’s a seamlessness of the written word. If you’re reading a novel, right? The delivery device is just mono-textual, right? Once you’ve read the first 100 words, you forget you’re reading words at all, it’s just the content. And likewise, the persistence of vision.
AJC: But you’re also creating the film like you are creating the images in your own head…
McCloud: Yeah, you’re creating it, right. But in comics, it’s more of a call and response, right? The artist keeps intruding on the experience, the artist keeps reminding you, yes, this was drawn by a human hand, yes, this is a thing, this is an object, this is a drawn thing. And that’s partially because of the inconsistency of it, and the fact that when you go from artist to artist, it’s always a whole different rendering of the world. It yanks you out of it. People who are reading serial comics, like superhero comics, when a new artist comes in, they’ll often be upset, and it’s not because they were getting used to one artist drawing their characters, now another artist is drawing their favorite characters. The reason they’re upset is because all of their favorite characters have been replaced by drawings of their favorite characters. Because with the change of an artist, they become aware of the artifice all over again. There are all these ways that we’re pulled out of the experience.
Another aspect of comics that tends to yank readers out of the moment are the panels themselves. Text creates a sense of continuity because it flows seamlessly across the page, there’s no border to interrupt the reader’s thoughts. On the other hand, creative formatting in comics is opening up a world of storytelling possibilities, like playing with time in the gutter, that empty space between panel borders.
AJC: So, some people have talked about, like, the importance of the gutter. The gutter is where everything’s happening.
AJC: That’s where the story that you’re not telling is happening. Is that like music and silence? It’s like, it’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you leave out. What’s the role of the gutter for you?
Weinstein: For me, I don’t always use panel borders. Sometimes I just use areas. So, I do feel like the gutter has kind of a musical, like, you’re stopping something short, or you’re trying to get quickly to the next. I mean, you could have, you know, a slow-motion kiss or something like that with, like, 12 million little panels. You could do another view of something. You could do a flashback, or, you know, a gutter can do a ton of things. Or you can have an inset panel over a long… you know, something that’s taking a long time, you could have a couple of little inset panels on top of something. But I feel like I have a much more fluid approach to it. Sometimes I use gutters, sometimes I use panel borders, and sometimes I just like to use big areas and hopefully direct the viewer’s eye through drawings to the next thing. And I also feel like it’s important for people that are not comics junkies to be able to read a comic. So, if your grandmother is going to go back and read it, you know, that way, when it should go that way, just because people that know comics grammar know that it’s left to right, up to down. But if, you know, your grandma doesn’t know that, so don’t just put the speech bubble in a place that she’s not going to read it.
These days, comics come in myriad styles, shapes, and sizes, and from the elevated graphic novel to the ephemeral webcomic, to the classic single chapter printings or trades. At their core, all comics follow a fundamental form: a story told visually.
Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.
And as Josh O’Neill explains, because we’ve been telling stories visually since time immemorial, we are hard-wired to receive information this way.
O’Neill: The cave paintings at Lascaux are comic strips in a lot of ways. There’s one particular painting that’s an image of a bull and it’s moving across the wall, but it’s actually moving through time. You see the animal aging sequentially. It’s probably the world’s first comic strip.
And comics have continually shown up across the world, and throughout history.
On 5,000-year-old walls inside Egyptian tombs.
On the 230-foot-long embroidered cloth, The Bayeux tapestry, detailing the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century.
The pre-Columbian codex, a paneled visual manuscript, outlining the Aztecs’ history and culture.
And though style and symbolism change depending on the culture and time, McCloud points out that many of these storytelling techniques are remarkably similar, which may point to an innate visual lexicon among humans.
McCloud: People who have studied early childhood art have found that kids from different backgrounds just spontaneously go through certain stages where, you know, they’ll start with, you know, like they’ll arrive at the closed curve, and then they’ll arrive at the line through the closed curve, and they’ll start to draw people first as these heads with the arms and the legs radiating out of them, these mandalas. These are universal, they happen again, and again, and again. We’re also finding in paleolithic art that there are certain common symbols. Where, just as that notion of deep grammar may explain language acquisition, I think there’s also a deep visual vocabulary.
With comics so deeply ingrained in human history, it may seem odd that they would ever have been considered frivolous, and indeed, this digression happened relatively recently. Spearheaded in the United States by a short-lived 1950s self-censorship code to protect children. It discouraged any references to crime, sex, the supernatural, or the profane, and insisted that good should always triumph over evil.
O’Neill: In the 40s and early 50s, there were a lot more sophisticated and adult comics coming out in America. And adult in both senses, there was a lot of stuff that was very graphic and violent and exploitative, and a lot of stuff that was very sophisticated and thoughtful, but comics were still sort of seen as a thing for kids. So, at some point, there was a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, who wrote this screed against books, because he saw a lot of these comics that had these very adult themes, and he was afraid kids were gonna be reading them. So, there were these hearings about whether comics were appropriate, whether they were corrupting children. And what that ended up with was something called the Comics Code Authority, which was basically something that all the big comic companies agreed to, about what kind of content they were allowed to put into comics. So, the less realistic, and real-world related you made those things, the more you could get away with.
AJC: And less likely you were to offend.
O’Neill: Right, comics got more and more fantastical in the 50s and 60s and into the 70s. So, I think that, and a lot of amazing cartoonists were working at that time. So, they took these restrictions and made these incredibly amazing superhero comics. So they became, sort of, these modern myths and they just became this gigantic sensation that caught on. And, so, after a while, that became synonymous with comics, like that’s how comics were saved, by these amazing superhero comics by guys like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. And, so, that became what comics were about. And I think, you know, still, I just think comics haven’t quite recovered from being so thoroughly branded with that thing. And superheroes are so uniquely powerful, they’re such, sort of, like, Greek gods for our times, and they have such appeal to kids, and then enduring appeal into people’s adult lives, that they became these, like, giant corporate properties that people could exploit. And, so, they just became the center of what this whole medium was built around. It’s very strange to have this massive capacious medium of art that is so thoroughly dominated. It’s like if 95% of movies were westerns or something like that. And then there was this little, this other section where you tell every other kind of story. So, in America, we have this sort of weird industry, but there’s a constantly growing backlash against that, I think, and there’s more and more comics coming out that tell more and more different kinds of stories, and are telling different people’s stories and are doing a lot more to sell the idea of this medium as an important and powerful thing.
The superhero’s influence on comics is bigger than anyone would have imagined at the beginning. Not only shaping the form, but also those who grew up reading them.
Powell: Oh, well, I mean, as a 12-year-old, I think it was a mix of the X-Men of the 1970s and 80s with, like, thrash metal and punk, which sort of gave me a sense of a social conscience, period. Particularly, the X-Men provided a window through which, or lens through which to view the world around me as it was getting more complex rapidly, but a means by which to see power dynamics and injustices—racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism—a lot of these evils were presented in very plain relief in the pages of X-Men and a number of Marvel books, frankly. But, I don’t know, it was really, it was important ammunition, especially, like, somebody growing up reading superhero comics, and being a child of the 80s, being used to these sort of, like, overwrought, you know, power adventures. Seeing those filtered through a lens of justice and injustice and particularly through very human, very flawed characters who I could relate to, even as a 12-year-old. You know, that was revolutionary to me.
Recent years have seen far more variety in the subjects that comics take on. In addition to his 2006 nomination for American Born Chinese, Gene Yang was also shortlisted for a National Book Award for his pair of books, Boxers and Saints, set during the turn of the 20th-century nationalist uprising that saw many non-desirables violently expelled from China. Lauren Weinstein’s webcomic about being an artist and a mother won the Slate Cartooning Prize in 2018. Josh O’Neill curated more than 100 works by as many artists to create Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, a tribute to the seminal early 20th-century newspaper cartoonist, Winsor McCay. And in 2016, Nate Powell became the first cartoonist ever to win a National Book Award for the last volume of March, a three-part biography of the late US civil rights leader and congressman, John Lewis.
Today, comics have shredded their reputation as mere vehicles for fantasy and science fiction. Indeed, much of their work in this area is now the remit of Hollywood blockbusters and their endless sequels. Once again, comics present a far wider and more diverse scope of subjects and ideas, rereadings of history, and the exploration of specific areas of human knowledge, emotion, experience, and wisdom. Cartoons, comics, graphic novels have reclaimed their proper role as a uniquely potent and accessible medium, and art form—ancient and ever-evolving.