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The Art of Compression: Comic Conversations

Excerpt from Yoshihiro Tatsumi's 2009 book A Drifting Life © Yoshihiro Tatsumi Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly

Towards the end of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s mammoth comics autobiography A Drifting Life, his artist hero experiences an epiphany: “There are still expressive methods left for gekiga [dramatic pictures] to explore.”

Such “dramatic pictures” go by various names—comics, graphic novels, graphic narratives—but the point remains. Like all media, comics enjoy a perpetual state of self-discovery and reconsideration: even as scholarship and critical theory continues to amass, contemporary artists continue to fracture established conventions. Bruce Grenville, co-curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 2008 “KRAZY!” exhibition, says that comics is a medium that is by no means exhausted, and indeed “does not seem to lend itself to stability.”

Indeed, comics have perhaps never been as diverse, vibrant and exciting as now—for they are no longer possible to pigeonhole. Comics publisher Chris Oliveros, founder of the Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly, says “the work today is so diverse—everyone has a unique vision.” Insofar as comics can be considered a literary medium, there seems to be no category they’ve neglected, whether memoir (A Drifting Life), journalism (Joe Sacco’s Palestine) or fictional biography (Seth’s George Sprott). Chester Brown wanted to do Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography because, well, who else was doing history as comics? And besides, he explains, “comics’ visual dimension makes a story more engaging, and keeps history from being dull.”

But are comics simply a matter of providing pictures for the reader intimidated by text? According to Grenville, “the language of comics is neither that of prose or the visual. There are aspects of both, but one doesn’t read comics in the same way as either. Comics are a unique form of visual communication.” As Seth points out, one absorbs visual information completely differently from text; hence, says Jillian Tamaki, artist of the Governor General’s Award–nominated Skim, “people still need to learn how to ‘read’ comics.”

How unique are comics? Opinions vary among friends and fellows. “It’s a given,” says Seth, “that a medium always does something that others don’t.” On the other hand, argues Brown, “I think it’s more that comics are simply able to do certain things well.”

A definitive aspect of comics, according to Seth, it’s that it’s a narrative art form. This consequently determines its characteristics in numerous ways. For one thing, it means the image cannot be divorced from its narrative context—every panel has to be well composed, but can’t necessarily be isolated. “If the image is gorgeous but doesn’t communicate the story, it’s not good comic art,” declares Tamaki.

Furthermore, Seth continues, excessive visual detail distracts in a narrative context; the best comic art reduces the images on the page to a minimalist essence (although there remains an aesthetic beauty to the overall page design). It’s the reductive choices an artist makes, he says, that define the artist’s style.

At a deeper level, the very form of comics is suited to particular narrative techniques. Seth favours presentation of disparate elements, letting viewers make connections as they will. His recent George Sprott is a perfect example: the titular character’s life is related in episodic, fractured fashion through the memories of various characters. Carefully planted within the juxtaposed words and pictures are recurring motifs—such as a painting of an Inuit girl—that initially seem inconsequential but acquire later significance. As celebrated Watchmen writer Alan Moore has repeatedly pointed out (as in a 1988 interview from Strange Things Are Happening) the reader can flip between pages to unpack at his or her own pace the dense information contained in both image and text. Comics, says Seth, are about compression.

This characteristic makes comics a highly individual reading experience. “They really can’t be shared,” Seth declares. “You could say that about a novel, but even novels lend themselves to readings before an audience.” For the same reason, Tamaki “feels funny” about situating comics in a gallery.

If comics are intimate for the reader, Seth and Brown do agree upon this: comics are also extremely conducive to personal expression. “Comic artists spend a lot of time working alone,” Seth confides. “And isolation is conducive to introspection and interior reverie. For me, comics and self-expression go hand in glove.” How interesting, he continues, when one considers that comic characters have in fact been mostly extroverted throughout history—most prominently in the superhero genre.

That one story comes from a single artist means one can tell stories of a more personal nature, declares Brown: “For artists who want to tell such stories, comics are perfect.” As per Seth, D&Q has the most clear-cut catalogue of the former approach. His own work in Palookaville exemplifies this, as does that of Brown (I Never Liked You), Lynda Barry (What It Is) and Adrian Tomine (Shortcomings).

Yet, according to Seth, the younger generation of artists hasn’t always embraced these aims; what’s coming back is more visually oriented work. The D&Q catalogue is becoming increasingly characterized by such work as well: examples include titles from the Petit Livres imprint, such as Montreal-based artist Matthew Forsythe’s Ojingogo, nominated twice for an Eisner Award and winner of a 2009 Doug Wright Award for Best Experimental Comic. An almost completely wordless picture narrative, Ojingogo also dispenses with other established conventions, such as panels. Likewise, “The Tapemines,” included in Tamaki’s first book Gilded Lilies, is an 80-page textless comic that often resembles a picture scroll.

“Comics are really just sequential art,” says Tamaki. “They don’t even have to be panels on a page.”

So words aren’t necessarily so important. For that matter, are comics even really all about the narrative? Take the “Gustun” comic included in London, Ontario-born artist Marc Bell’s Hot Potatoe. Bell sees it as falling somewhere between comics and stand-alone drawing—a “quasi” or “open” narrative that nonetheless more resembles a diagram. For that matter, he says even his “ahtwerks” sometimes contain extremely loose narrative threads (albeit highly esoteric and perhaps impenetrable ones). Such play on form is reminiscent of the cubists’ visual “games,” in which the line between two- and three-dimensional was straddled as much as possible.

But what is Bell’s angle, exactly? He says his M.O. is to deconstruct and make novel use of “comics language” for his drawings, collages and mixed media works. Whether it’s the drawing style, the inclusion of text or use of grid forms, the influence of comics is fundamental and pervasive. “I see comics and drawing as all the same thing, anyway,” Bell says. Yet he insists he’s no Warhol or Lichtenstein: “I’m a cartoonist creating art, not the other way around.”

What all this means, according to Oliveros, is this: “The whole medium is growing. There’s more experimentation now—many artists don’t seem to feel as constrained.” As a trained illustrator and designer, Tamaki remains unconditioned to thinking that comics necessitate a certain style; for that matter, she cites non-comic influences like impressionism and expressionism in addition to Japanese manga. After all, Tamaki argues, comics aren’t a style, they’re a medium—and for that matter, a medium in transition. “I’m still figuring out my own approach to comics,” she concludes.

Perhaps the last word belongs to Seth: “There’s a lot of changes that are taking place in the comics medium that no one could have anticipated. And this will probably continue to be the case.”

Kenton Smith is a freelance writer and comics enthusiast living in Winnipeg. Noting a vacuum in comics writing in Canada, he has also written on the subject for the Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, the Winnipeg Free Press, and SEE Weekly in Edmonton. He is the regular movie critic for Uptown magazine in Winnipeg, and has also written on books, theatre and the visual arts. He holds a BA in history and art history from the University of Winnipeg.

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