I’ve spent part of the past week reading the book Blink by Malcom Gladwell. The book is about the snap judgements we make constantly throughout life and why they can often be more correct than those decisions made consciously, over a lengthy period of time.
The book talks not only about how distrustful we can be about our immediate, subconcious reactions, but also how difficult it can be for many of us to articulate the thinking process behind them. A renowned tennis expert, for example, can predict when a player will double-fault before he hits the ball almost every single time, but he can’t tell you why he knows he’s going to do so. He can’t explain why he’s always right.
Bear with me, I’m actually going somewhere with this (I think).
Here’s another example. Think for a moment about strawberry jam. You automatically know when you’re tasting a good jam, without having to explain why. And if I gave you two jams to try and asked you to pick which one you liked better, you’d be able to do so in seconds. If I asked you to explain in words, however, perhaps by writing it down, which jam you preferred and why, you’d be hard-pressed to put your preference into words. You might even change your answer.
I don’t want to get into all the reasons why this is so (it has to do with the different parts of your brain). My point is that articulating your jam preferences can be an extremely difficult task.
Unless of course, you happen to be a professional food taster. In that case, you’ve learned and developed a particular language to describe the taste of something. In the book (I’m not pulling this jam suff just out of my ass you know), Gladwell talks to two professional tasters, people who’ve spent years honing their palate and training themselves to look beyond the subconscious influences of packaging and setting and accurately pinpoint what makes a particular food work or not.
Which, finally, brings me to comics. Like a lot of art, we respond to comics work on an intuitive and subjective level. Often when we read a book, we have an immediate reaction to it. And though our first impressions can often be wrong or misguided, we can, just as often, know on an instinctual level whether a book affects us or not, though it can be difficult to say why.
But, of course, comics are also a learned language. If we don’t learn how to read them at an early age, it can be difficult for us later on in life to learn how to read them. I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of trying to get a friend/relative/loved one to read a favorite comic of yours only to have them hand it back to you and say it was indecipherable. I once had a girlfriend who told me time and again she was incapable of folllowing any of the graphic novels I thrust upon her (it was a good lesson in the dangers of trying to force your hobbies onto others). When I talked to Ed Brubaker last year about Criminal, I found it interesting that he and Sean Phillips deliberately decided upon a straightforward, simple layout as opposed to Sleeper, in order to attract as many readers as possible. We frequently talk about how comics are a wonderful education tool and easy to read and they can be, but they can also be a stumbling block for the uninitiated.
Which maybe part of the reason why, for casual readers as well as critics, it can be difficult to try to articulate what makes a comic successful or not. We can snatch words and phrases from art history or film criticism, but that in itself can be tough if we don’t have the proper background to use the vocabulary property. Which may be why many reviewers focus on the plot and dialogue instead of the art work.
Sometimes it’s easy to say talk about a book’s structure or composition. Sometimes it stares us right in the face. Josh Simmons House, for example, starts out with large, white panels that slowly become darker and smaller as the book progresses. Simple, effective, and easy to discuss in a review.
It’s when the work is more subtle that you run into problems. When talking about Tom Neely’s The Blot you can cite cartoony art work and his obvious debt to Floyd Gottfredson, but how significant to the story is his panel arrangement, the fact that he frequently relies upon six-panel grid structure or the use of all-black pages to interrupt the story? It’s obviously very signficant but explaining why can be tough.
Scott McCloud has made a career out of attempting to articulate why and how comics work (and developed a number of counter-arguements from critics as well), but it seems to me that we have yet come up with a language that allows us to easily articulate what makes a comic worth reading and why. To an extent that may be an unrealistic goal, since a) you can’t force these things and b) so many terms from other artistic idioms seem so well suited for comics. But for those that want to write about this subject matter, whether on a blog or in an academic journal, the need nevertheless seems real.
Otherwise we’re just going to be constantly in danger of focusing on the minute of the work, and not seeing it as a whole.