Sunday, January 31, 2010

Instrumental music, abstract comics, and the logic of illustration

(Part III of a multi-part series. Mild warning: this is a pretty academic post, primarily of interest to some of the people who have commented on my earlier Miller and Ditko posts. Feel free to skip it if you're not into that kind of talk. The next installment--the next two, come to think of it, there's no way I can do it in one--will be on Ditko's "Spider-Man." You may want to come back for those ones...)

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?"

(my translation)

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.


  1. that's intense. feels like I'm in school again - not a bad thing at all. reminds me of the luxury of having ideas/ information thrown at you as opposed to having to generate everything on your own, one's, own my own. thanks professor :)

  2. Thanks, and you're welcome! The original post I wrote was longer by almost a half, I ended up deciding to cut it down so as not to abuse you folks' patience...

  3. Read and appreciated, no thing to add sorry!

  4. Fascinating post, as always, Andrei. Isn’t “the logic of illustration” simply Rhetorical Move #1 in assimilating comics to conventional critical discourse? Of course you asked your students in the comics class to demonstrate the ways that the art can “convey, amplify” etc. the story, since that’s the most basic way to get students to move beyond the “common sense” starting point of regarding the form as simply a transparent window onto a created world. Then a senior seminar on comics can teach Move #2 and ask them to demonstrate how the art “disrupts, questions, or undermines” the themes. After that, the graduate students will get to “challenge our very notions” about the “art/story” binary itself.

    I also think that the “art serves the story” dogma is doing slightly different, but related, ideological work when deployed by the cartoonists, by generalist comics critics, and by academic comics scholars. This may not be the place to unpack those differences, though.

  5. Rusty--you're probably right as to Rhetorical Moves #1, #2, etc. (isn't that what the Cat in the Hat brought in?)--and maybe I'm just expressing my frustration at never having taught a graduate, or for that matter, a senior seminar on comics... But, overall, the logic of illustration has had important effects on the reception of comics (by both academics, general critics, and the public)--witness, for example, the over-inflation of the term "graphic novel," the fact that (and the way in which) comics tend to be reviewed primarily in literary supplements, such as the NY Times Book Review, the rise of the superstar writer such as Moore or Morrison or Gaiman, whose followers basically see the art as a convenient vehicle, but nothing more. A lot of this may have been done in the process of attempting to gain legitimacy for comics as an art, and the (collective?) decision to do that as "literature" first, rather than as visual art. Or maybe the logic of illustration already was at the basis of that decision.

    Admittedly, it's only one discourse (that of, say, Neil Adams fans or of the Liefeld-mania of the early '90s was different), but it's a dominant one--especially dominant in those moments when comics attempts to go beyond the confines of a fan subculture. And, I should add, it is very active in academia too--witness the easier acceptance of comics as objects of study in literature classes or--shifting to the student population--the reports I have heard of students not wanting to take my class because it's about "comics" and they only read "graphic novels." (Maybe that distinction is a bit different, but maybe it's also related somehow; as if the old opprobrium cast upon books with pictures, when you're, say, eight, continues--and when you grow up you still have to find a way to fool yourself into thinking that the reason you're reading GNs is NOT because they're "books with pictures.")

    These are my thoughts for now, quickly jotted down--maybe I'll come to revise them later.

  6. Actually, I think I’d say that one of the first attempts to “gain legitimacy for comics as an art” in the US focused on the connections between comics and _film_. There were a handful of such articles that began to make the case for comics in the late 1960s and 1970s, although that movement never got particularly far into critical culture. I’d also point to the emergence of semiotics and its successors as the necessary precondition for the academic study of comics. So the entrée of comics into the status of an art form via literary/narrative-centered approaches wasn’t so much a “choice” among several alternatives as it was taking the only avenue open. When David Kunzle opened the doors of perception for me, I thought I’d then see all kinds of work on comics from the art/art history side of the house, but it certainly hasn’t turned out that way.

    I’ve got an interminable rant about that “graphic novels, not comics” business that sooner rather than later degenerates into a string of bitter anecdotes and random aspersions. So let me just say now—I hear you.

  7. I agree that the emergence of semiotics, etc., was a precondition for the rise of the academic study of comics, but I'm not sure it was an absolutely "necessary" one--as we can see from Kunzle, it could have taken a different tack (it just happens that it didn't, due to a variety of complex historical conditions). Again, Gombrich's work on comics could have opened the field in art history--but, again, didn't. (I have my own theory as to why art history has been more resistant to comics studies than other fields, but maybe I'll write you in an email about it).

    The whole GN thing, I would argue, cannot be separated from the long historical context in which it arose--for example, it goes back at least to the '40s criticism of comics as destroying literacy. Related to logocentrism, but in a much cruder way, this has a lot to do with the suspicion and repression of the image by educators (and others) who place only the written word at the pinnacle of communication. It's interesting that at the forefront of the movement in the '40s were librarians (who, again, thought that the kind of spatialized, image-related reading of comics could only make children unable to read "real" books), while more recently, it has also been librarians who, having embraced "graphic novels," now make them into some kind of lure, or gateway drive, for "real reading." (I'm sorry I haven't kept records of it, but I have heard and read this kind of rhetoric repeatedly).

    Oh, and by the way, the Derridean "logic of the supplement" is *all over* the literacy-based criticism of comics in the '40s. (Given the relationship Wertham draws between comics and "unhealthy" sexuality, I wouldn't be surprised if it were also all over SOTI, but I haven't read it in a long long time.)

    Ultimately, the GN-not-comics "attitude" arose as a response to the public criticism of comics in the '40s and '50s, and to the underlying assumption (which became a self-fulfilling prophecy, for a while at least), that comics are for kids only. Comics are for kids only, kids read picture books, when you grow up you give up picture books in favor of "real" writing, you give up comics and only read them if you can call them something else than comics, "Watchmen" and "Sandman" are great because Moore and Gaiman are not just comic-book writers, they're "real writers," etc etc. "GNs not comics" is ultimately a total chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, and it reverberates all the way back to Wertham and his librarian allies.

    Oh yeah, as far as anecdotes go: after a guest lecture I gave at a different university (lecture on 18th c. stuff, but in the introduction it was mentioned that I write on comics), a student came up to me and asked: "so do you teach comics... or graphic novels?" Honestly, she seemed clueless that they are the same thing!

  8. Andrei, thank-you for this post (and of course, the conversation that follows it). I noted your tendency to use music as an analytical lens for comics, abstract or otherwise, in several other posts. I was fascinated by it, and I suspected it was not accidental. Your thinking here and your, um "illustration" with Rousseau is really helpful.

    It struck me as important that you were willing to bring in another art form to tease apart the curdled aesthetic elements of comics as popularly conceived (i.e. narrative plus visual art in sequence). That is, music and music as metaphor (or analogy, if you prefer) allowed you an apparatus for discussing comics that didn't necessarily default to subservience to the story, narrative, referential meaning, etc. (in other words, the prevalent logic of illustration.)

    So, leaving aside the sonata for a moment, one would not think it strange to read the music of an opera in isolation. That is, not to ask how this or that musical choice is serving the libretto, but simply to attend to the score and the choices of the composer. What several of your recent posts have been doing (I think) is reading the art regardless of what's happening in the script of a comic. In other words, if it is so acceptable to do so with opera (sometimes to the point of creating "new" works that are libretto-free arrangements of the music), why on earth not do so with comics?

    And not just for the fun of it (although it is fun!), but also for the sake of continuing to create space for comics that do something different -- that (for the problematic sake of simplicity) free the art from the script, or more importantly from the logic of illustration. Not all music requires a libretto; why should all comics require a story/script/clarity of referential "meaning"?

    But so this begs a question for me: Is part of the problem here that you call this blog and the work it represents "abstract comics"? Isn't that a little like calling a symphony an opera without a libretto or even "abstract opera"? If the new musical form in the Rousseau example led to new musical names for the forms (with admitted resistance from some...okay, probably many), does this not imply that the kind of shift in thinking about comics you are positing also suggests rethinking why we call these works "comics" in the first place?

    Don't get me wrong. I am not seriously suggesting a name change here. And the irony that I would (appear to) reduce what you are talking about to a matter semantics is not lost on me. I mean no reduction at all. But your post here has me wondering if "comics" isn't becoming a bit of an albatross around the neck of the "abstract comics" project. (Even though I can already imagine both pragmatic and theoretically sound reasons for continuing to wear that bird!)

    Anyway, as always, you got me thinking. And of course, your arguments about the prevalence of the "illustration logic" in comics (and narrative art) are more than persuasive. That you are able to productively link those tensions to 18th Century arguments about musical form is, well, clearly the work of a maestro!

  9. Man, you need to discover the beauty of inter-blog linking. I want to read the other posts in this series, but you don't link to them! I guess I'll try google....


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