Anyway. In the last couple of posts I have been using quite a few musical analogies, and it's time I addressed that issue head-on. I think I first brought up (in writing, at least) the musical parallel in a post on the old TCJ Message Board (Comics Medium, "New Abstract Comics" thread, p. 2, June 12, 2004, 10:53 PM; yes, I realize that thread died along with that entire board, which I think is a huge shame. This was one of the couple of threads from it I saved, and I wish now I had saved a lot more.) In response to a comic that our own Mike Getsiv had posted, I wrote:
Mike--your new comic made me laugh... It's also interesting how this one works almost exclusively as a sequence, while your previous one was more ambiguous between sequence and single image. This really proves, to me at least, that there are real possibilities for "abstract" comics out there, possibilities that have been only very little explored so far.
Thinking of these possibilities, I feel like someone who has been raised in a country where only songs are played on the radio, and all classical music consists exclusively of opera, who all of a sudden begins thinking, "this is nice, but sometimes the melodies are so beautiful that the words just get in the way. What would it be like if, for once, we had music without words being sung over it, so it's not about anything at all, it's just, you know, music? Not to replace songs and operas, mind you--but to see what else can be done."
Now, though recently I have been writing mostly on comics, I am officially a scholar of eighteenth-century art (and have the book on Amazon to prove it!), and I'm pretty sure that I was thinking here of the eighteenth-century situation I described in my earlier Ditko post: the critical emphasis during that period on vocal music as the most, or only, legitimate musical form, and the related critical dismissal of purely instrumental music.
The locus classicus of this discourse (ugh! this sentence has the academic cooties!) can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writing on music, particularly in his Discourse on the Origin of Language and in his Dictionnaire de musique of 1767--and, to pinpoint it even further, in the article "sonata" in said dictionary. Here is the article in its entirety. After the illustration, I give the translation of the most relevant part (the last paragraph). Keep in mind that during that time, distinctions between forms were much less rigid than they are now, so that Rousseau defines the sonata as a "piece of instrumental music made up of three or four movements of different characters... usually made for a solo instrument accompanied by a basso continuo," defines the sinfonia (written in Italian) as a trio sonata, the concerto as a sonata with more than three parts, and uses the term "symphony" to mean instrumental music in general. (Much of this, by the way, is correct inasmuch as what we call these days symphonies and concertos are still written in sonata form, no matter how many instruments they employ.)
"Nowadays, when instruments have become the most important part of music, sonatas are extremely fashionable, as is any kind of symphony; the vocals are but their accessory, and the song accompanies the accompaniment. We owe this bad taste to those who, wanting to introduce the manners of Italian music into a language that does not lend itself to them, have forced us to try and do with instruments that which it is impossible to do with our voices. I dare predict that such an unnatural taste will not last long. Purely harmonic music is a paltry thing; in order to constantly please, and to stave off boredom, it must elevate itself to the ranks of the arts of imitation. But its imitation is not always immediate, as in poetry or painting; words are the means thorough which music most often determines the object the image of which it offers us, and it is through the touching sounds of the human voice that this image awakens in the depths of the heart the feeling it must produce. Who doesn't feel how far pure symphony, which has as its only goal to make the instrument shine, is from this energy? Will I find all the extravagances of Mr. Mondonville's violin as moving as two sounds of Mademoiselle Le Maure's voice? Symphony animates song, and it adds to its expressive effect, but it cannot make up for its lack [elle n'y supplée pas]. In order to know what that entire hodgepodge of sonatas being heaped upon us are supposed to mean, one should imitate that crude painter who had to write underneath his figures, "this is a tree, this is a man, this is a horse." I'll never forget the quip of the famous Fontenelle who, finding himself overwhelmed by these countless symphonies, shouted out loud in a fit of annoyance: "Sonata, what do you want from me?"
I think I felt particularly close (in a negative way, though one that was still deeply affectionate toward old Jean-Jacques) to this quote, inasmuch as my abstract comics at the time seemed to elicit among most comics fans the same reaction: "Abstract comic, what do you want from me?" That is to say, Fontenelle (who, by the way, never wrote that sentence down and is only known to have said it based on Rousseau's testimony) not only was annoyed at the popularity of sonatas, but did not know how they mean, did not understand how he is supposed to take them. In a primarily narrative medium, people felt the same way toward abstract comics.
If this were an academic article, I'd close-read the hell out of that sucker, but I think the meaning is clear. Instrumental music is "fashionable" (read "superficial, frivolous," because deep down it's "peu de chose," "not much," "a paltry thing" as I translated), liking it is in "bad taste"; the natural order of things has been reversed ("accompanies the accompaniment"); for music to be effective, it must be imitative (in this context, it's very clear that "purely harmonic" comes very close to meaning "abstract"); otherwise it cannot move you like the voice, using words, can, etc. (I should add, for those with incurable cases of the academic cooties, that this is all of a piece with the Rousseau texts--chief among which is precisely the Discourse on the Origin of Language--that Derrida analyzed for his discussion of logocentrism in Of Grammatology. Song versus instrumental music closely parallels speech versus writing, etc. Not to mention there is even the use of "suppléer," plugging this passage into the famous logic of the supplement.)
Now, this is exactly the logic of illustration--which is a form of logocentrism--that I was discussing in the previous posts. And here we can expand the discussion beyond abstract comics, which occupy only the extreme position (like "purely harmonic music") in a wider range of art that exceeds narrative demands. (Yes, folks, taken to its logical conclusion, this line of reasoning will end up defending--or at least critiquing the criticism of--the Image guys in the early '90s. Sorry!)
Let me be clear. It's not a matter simply of words versus art. Rather--well, here's how Joe Matt (in the example I illustrated in the Ditko post) puts it: "I've gotta draw minimally to serve the storytelling! The writing always comes before the art!" It's the storytelling that's important. Think of it as script plus art in its minimal, purely representative mode. But the art must not exceed that mode. It cannot take over. Fear of the supplement--of the subservient mode that asserts itself, gets uppity, and threatens to replace the "properly" dominant element instead of staying in its assigned place--is clearly at work here too, as in Rousseau.
Ed Brubaker (again, see example illustrated in Ditko post) agrees with Matt. He is mad mad mad because people writing in to Lowlife over-emphasize the art, reversing the appropriate hierarchy of things: "The thing that really bothers me now is that all this put so much emphasis on my drawing that I lost sight of something... I've always felt that the writing was far more important than the artwork... As long as the art supports the story..." Jason Miles' remark on Ditko, from which my response on ROM started, similarly enforces the correct hierarchy: "And just about every page of this comic book is equally stunning with innovative and exciting techniques, all respectfully appropriate for the story."
I hope my friend Charles will forgive me if I use a quote from his comments on the Ditko post to show the continued hold this logic has on us: "I'd say that the art in a great comic never 'transcends' its subject matter but rather transforms and invigorates it. Like it or not, Ditko's contribution to the above example is working dialogically with Mantlo's, and the art is self-effacing to the extent that it is subsumed to a narrative purpose (Mantlo's)." As long as I'm quoting Charles, it's only fair that I also quote myself. The following is from the instructions for the final assignment I give to my Art History A 280, "The Art of Comics," class: "Analyze a comic of your choice... from a thematic and formal perspective.... The body of your paper should be devoted to analyzing the way in which the comic’s formal devices convey, express or amplify its themes."
"To serve the storytelling;" "the writing always comes before the art;" "the writing was far more important than the artwork;" "as long as the art supports the story;" "the art is self-effacing to the extent that it is subsumed to a narrative purpose;" "the comic’s formal devices convey, express or amplify its themes"... The logic of illustration in a nutshell. And even though, clearly, I don't embrace this logic as a given; even though Charles himself has discussed in the comments to the Frank Miller post his appreciation of art elements that go beyond a simple, meaningful expressivity; and even though Jason's own art often transcends and decimates the mode of illustration, this logic is so dominant that we often can't help but fall into it.
In a comment on the Frank Miller post, Scott Bukatman wrote:
the notion that "form" serves "content" is entirely inadequate to explain... well, to explain anything. It ignores, for one thing, the ways in which story serves form -- you know: Kirby does AWESOME cosmic shit, so let's write a Psychoman story! Ditko does that funky abstract thing, so let's send Dr. Strange to another dimension!
To take a film example, you don't decide to film Krakatoa East of Java in Cinemascope because the story demands it; you make Krakatoa East of Java because it lets you show off Cinemascope. Avatar: same thing.
Scott’s argument is, basically, that what I have called the logic of illustration is not a problem, and therefore not much of an issue. On one hand, of course, I want to agree, it would make life much easier—but on the other, I think you can see, from the examples I’ve given, that it still is a perspective that has a very strong hold on the way we think about comics and perhaps about art (or at least narrative art) in general. After all, Joe Matt, in the quote I gave, repeats a discourse you hear repeatedly, in appreciations of Carl Barks’ artistry or in the distinction Chris Ware draws between cartooning and drawing as if they were two utterly different animals (I have been known to call this position in the past “cartoonism,” by analogy with “rockism”). More than that, didactically, when I (or maybe Charles too or perhaps even Scott, who I understand will teach his first course on comics this spring semester) discuss a work in class, the humanistic demand for an organically unified work, one with a clear theme and every formal element supporting and amplifying that theme, seems to slip in, uninvited perhaps but utterly insistant: after all, when you want to convince your students of the greatness of a work, you want to show that it has a certain weight, it is about something—and you don’t want to just be standing there showing layout compositions and saying, “Look at this! How cool is that?”
That is to say, by sheer reason of its being centered on meaning, the logic of illustration is eminently communicable; when you veer away from it, communication is often harder to establish, as perhaps is value…
Anyway, this has gotten me thinking of a variety of other issues, such as Gary Panter and how his work, which is largely unexplainable through the strictures of Chris-Ware-ish "cartoonism," goes beyond the logic of illustration (or maybe I'm just saying that as an excuse for having such a hard time teaching Jimbo in class, while Eisner, Kurtzman, or Ware himself are so much easier to teach); or how a perspective such as Rousseau's might have made sense, or not, of Don Giovanni (hint: I'd guess they would have agreed with Emperor Joseph II's reported saying that it has "too many notes"); and so on. But this note is too long already.