Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Art and Comics

Okay. I've made an introduction, then given a light overview of comics as a whole from my view. Now it's time to get in depth. I've been told by more than one person that I don't ramble here as much as I worry about, so shame is going out the window and this is going to dive straight into it.

It's time for me to hit on a point that, to me, has been one of the largest barriers against comics: The art world. It should be said that, for those that don't know, I graduated from Flagler College's Fine Art program back in 2009, and along with the making of art (and the varying levels of success that comes with when you still haven't figured out what you want to DO with your art) I also spent a lot of time studying History and Art History. I love it. I eat that stuff up. But as I found myself drifting to the world of comics, I ran into a very large problem. In that world, comics are 'low art' at best, and completely ignored at worst.

So what I want to get into here is what I wish I'd had time to get into back then. This is a long diatribe that I firmly believe every single art student and teacher and working artist should hear and absorb, whether they like it or not. Because, as I've touched on before, comics matter. Comics are more than just superheroes and spandex and those terrible sound effects most people think of thanks to the old Adam West Batman show. In fact, those things aren't really comics at all, especially not today.

In that vein, the first thing to do before continuing to read all of this mess is understanding what I mean when I say 'comics'. A good replacement for that is 'sequential art', a term from the wonderful Wil Eisner, but you can go even simpler than that. Not all comics are a sequence of panels to tell a story. Some are just in one panel. A story in a single image. In many ways, that is the same thing that a comic is. Visual storytelling. Cave paintings used multiple images to do this, and many of the painters we think of when we think of so-called 'High Art' only needed the one image. But the best always tell a story, except when they don't, but that's getting into an area of art this isn't concerned with.

We'll start by looking at one my favorite paintings, and a prime example of storytelling in a single 'panel'. This is The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault, and you should really click the image to see it larger. I'm not going to get into a strong analysis of the painting itself, as that has been handled by actual scholars much better than I ever could. But for my purpose, here's what's important: We have a single image that tells a complete story even if you don't know the even it is depicting. A group of men are on a poorly constructed raft, clearly suffering and some dying, while some wave to a tiny spec of a ship in the distance in hopes of rescue. That is a huge over simplification of the actual subject matter, but it's what one sees in front of them without anything else to assist. Looking further, a story can be seen. Some disaster can be easily inferred, considering that usually we don't sail the seas in those numbers on such a craft, as can many other small details. The important point here is this, though: It tells a story. In one image, there is an entire story for the viewer to find.

For this, I'm going to use something that might be surprising as a comparison. No, I'm not pulling out a beautiful Jack Kirby page or something else that might be expected. Instead, I'm going to use something much, much more modern. This is from S.H.I.E.L.D., the very first issue, that came out back in 2010, and just like above, you need to click this image to appreciate it. Unlike the above painting, this is a modern comic (clearly), and thus not just one artist is credited. The lineart that form the base of the image are by Dustin Weaver and the color is by Christina Strain.

So, why this image? For the purposes of this article, this page from S.H.I.E.L.D. is very similar to The Raft of the Medusa. Rather than use a comic page of multiple panels, I chose to compare a single image to another, both of which can tell a compelling story on their own. Though, obviously, this comic page has some story leading into it, it is ultimately not all that necessary to the point I'm trying to make. And the point is, finally, this:

What is so different between these two works of art?

Beyond the obvious differences such as the artist, material, and when it was made, shockingly little. So why does this page not count as art in the same way? Is it the giant, purple man in the distance or the glowing guy flying over 1580s Rome? Is it truly the material? Are oil paints just better and more 'artistic', in the end? Is it simply a case of attributing greatness to something that is old just because of it's age?

In some ways, all of those are at least partially accurate, but also reveal a striking double standard that we apply to the word 'art' and what counts as 'low' and 'high' art.

NO, the presence of a giant, purple and blue-clad man and a flying, glowing humanoid are not enough to discount this as art or worthy of praise. Many paintings and sculptures of divine beings and Classical Gods are just as ridiculous from an academic standpoint. Even the strange machine in the foreground is not enough to damn this piece on content alone.

Despite what many older artistic traditions would teach us, oil paints are not inherently superior. They are difficult to work with, have amazing possibilities once learned, and some of the greatest works of art of all time use them, but that does not make art that uses them better. To claim the material is better than a pencil or a computer or anything else used today would be like claiming that an older piece of literature is stronger than newer stories or books simply due to being handwritten.

How about age? Is that the true factor here? Do we only love many older pieces of work because they are older? In some cases? Probably. As a species, we have a habit of attributing the past with being better than the now, in almost every aspect of our society. This idea is patently ridiculous, and a moment's thought from anyone can prove this. Some people in the art world look down on comics due to multiple artists (pencilers, inkers, colorists) working on them, ignoring the fact that many of the old masters had entire studios assisting in their great paintings that were revere today.

But no, in this case, it is unfair to say that it's age is why The Raft of the Medusa is considered a great work of art. It simply is. There are a thousand reasons why, some insanely technical in regards to art theory and others as simple as how well the paint is handled and the emotion portrayed on the faces of the men on the raft itself. But this page of art from S.H.I.E.L.D. is not lacking in great technical skill, either. Rome of the 1500s is detailed beautifully, with an excellent use of perspective and scale. The detail is in the scope of the page, and it truly is a beautiful page that can be stared at for as long as any painting just finding new things to enjoy.

Just as with The Raft of the Medusa, this page presents a story we are only partially allowed to see. We can infer just as much and speculate in as many wild directions as we wish, and yet this is just a single double-page spread from the comic. But here is something where the comic page suddenly has a clear advantage. It is just a page.

For The Raft of the Medusa, we have but one image in one moment in the story that is being shown. With only the image, we can only speculate as to what could have happened to force those men onto that raft. Are they about to be rescued? We can't know. All we can know is they see something on the horizon, and clearly hope they will be. To learn more, that a shipwreck forced these men onto a hastily constructed raft and only 15 of the 147 men that crewed the ship survived, we must turn to a history book or some other source. In its time, this would have been common knowledge, yet still one would have to turn to another source. The image tells us none of this.

But for this comic page? Now we have the point where comics clearly find an advantage over so-called 'High Art'. This page is has pages before and after it. In page immediately before, we see that this is Rome in 1582, in the workshop of Galileo. This strange machine we see in the foreground was constructed by him, and upon turning the page, we learn why he built such a thing. Clearly, this machine has been built by Galileo to fight back this giant man that. I purposefully used a version of this page without text, as to more easily directly compare the two images, but this is another bit of information where we learn more of what will happen after without another source. Though there is no second page after this, the story moves on, Galileo narrates and tells us that this encounter with the giant is not, as he puts it " the world ends."

So why, then, is a comic page with such strong artistic aspects not good enough for most of the art world? It's a very simple thing: Elitism. The one great theme in Art History is the rejection of what is different to the so-called 'Art World'. Time and time again, critics and artists alike have declared what is and isn't art, and always history rolls over them and proves them wrong. In many ways, this is happening now with sequential art. There is a slow acceptance occurring in some sections of the art world, but it is still very small.

As I experienced first hand, even those my age see a comic and roll their eyes, expecting what they consider 'bad art' or something not worthy of their attention, all the while putting together pieces of art that are far more ridiculous. There are many that teach art that share this same problem, and that's why I do this.

I rant and I ramble and I continue on in circles over and over to say to those teachers: Comics are art. Comics are good art. And whether you believe it or not, you already accept many piece of art that are just single-panel comics.

Any good artist knows that art happens everywhere, you just have to look. So here I am, starting my crusade to make it easier for those that wouldn't look so hard. Because like I just said and will continue to say for the course of this blog, and likely the rest of my life...

Comics are art.