An Open Letter to Comic Artists, Comic Readers, and Comic Apologists, To Mothers and Fathers
It was my great pleasure to discuss comics and beauty with Julian Peters on Episodes 16 and Episode 17 of Bright Wings: Children’s Books to Make the Heart Soar. Truly, I am humbled by his kindness to me. His willingness to encounter my ignorance regarding the comic genre demonstrates his magnanimity. It was prejudiced of me to shun a whole genre of literature-art but he treated me with the openness and benignity of a friend speaking to an authentically curious friend. I forthrightly admit that Mr. Peters’ work in his poetic anthology Poems To See By shattered these prejudices.
However, I still have questions and hesitations about comics. Perhaps these difficulties don’t have answers, but I would like to propose them nevertheless to the broader comic community in the hope that you might help me to see more. I am still generally unacquainted with comics (by contrast to my acquaintance with picture books and middle grade fiction), particularly as comics is its own galaxy by now. So, my critique is general and philosophical--but above all, this critique is a giant question mark.
Selfishly, because I love insightful literature, I hope you’ll help me find more good books! I would like to find more comic work like Mr. Peters'—works that I can love and promote to children and to mothers and fathers. I hope the good Julian Peters will not be insulted that I find his book to be so exceptional to comics that it helps me identify what I think is typically missing from his native genre. And, I hope that my not-unkindly-meant critique of comics will help you look more philosophically at your own genre.
My overarching question is this: Are comics structurally contrary to deep reading and to the encounter with beauty? Because comics are a unity of word and image, of writing and picture, they must show forth excellence in both. Very tricky, to be sure, and demanding.
This main question branches into several supporting questions. I begin with the ones that pertain to image and beauty. What is the depth of encounter that is elicited by comics? What kind of relationship are images meant to establish between themselves and the viewer? If comics as a genre cannot answer the question, perhaps each artist must consider this question.
I continue to be concerned about the “depth” of encounter the comic genre facilitates. Because it is a visually-dominated medium of communication, comics move the eye quickly across the page. If an image is there to be seen the eye wants to see it more eagerly than it wants to read the words. Our eyes are so eager, so quick to see; eyes are kind of inherently thirsty for drinking in what is visual.
I understand from Mr. Peters that comics differ from illustrations in that “...images and words are part of the same mental processes and ideally you don’t notice the separation between the two.” He says this is meant to facilitate an “immersive experience.” I wonder if the immersive experience to which he refers, an experience at which he believes is the aim of comics, is one of “deep reading.”
Sometimes, I find myself impatient at the words that accompany comics—either because they are slowing down my eye. Sometimes, the impatience is due to the language is too banal or scanty for images which deserve richer accompaniment. Typically, I find that the pairings of word and image are both lacking depth, and to make up for it I consume the literature simply “faster.” When there is depth and thoughtfulness to both image and word--as in Poems To See By--the density of nutrition, so to speak, slows down digestion to a pace that is deeply pleasurable.
A great painting slows down the eye—and not just the eye, but the mind. You begin to wonder “What is the meaning of this?” You begin to participate in a question. Along with the mind, the heart and soul are opened to participating in the very selfsame personal vision of the artist. An experience of a beautiful work of art becomes an experience of communion. A great work of art—say, Caravaggio or Bruegel—can only be seen in the context of an encounter. You participate in the perspective, the seeing, of the artist. After all, all the elements of art are employed to this end--to move your eye and mind to see what the mind or soul of the artist envisioned. A great painting can only be seen if one takes time. By way of example, Erika Rasmussen argues that Instagram creates a speed-and-surface disposition to Beauty within the follower, incapacitating the soul for beauty in the actual world.
I would say a picture book can be similar in its proposal regarding beauty, that beauty requires time for encounter. That is why you can see your pre-reading child (particularly this age, but not exclusively) pouring over great illustrations.
Perhaps the depth of encounter has to do with what is called “speed” or “pacing”? Concretely, the comic genre has so many images per page: My daughters who are 13 and 10 years old—the elder has an astronomically high reading level and the younger used to be a reluctant reader—use the following phrases to describe their experience of reading comics: “rushed,” “overwhelmed,” “confused [as to] where to look,” and “feeling like I’m on the surface of the story.” I appreciate their feedback, because as readers the two girls are very, very different. I would’ve guessed that my less-eager reader would’ve been quick to take to comics, as she seems a very visual girl, oriented to movement and action. Rather, she is the most disinclined of the two children, finding comics more overwhelming than her sister.
Illustrations seem to propose a relationship of communion or companionship, between themselves and the reader. A young child can contemplate an illustration, in all its beautiful detail such as Lloyd Bloom’s art for Yonder, the way an adult can spend time with a work of Monet. Clearly, comics establish a much different relationship! Comics seem to facilitate a relationship of appetite or consumption, by the quantity of images and the pacing of their presentation.
In comics, do images substitute for thinking? Too much visual content is a substitute for thought, the great and difficult-to-cultivate activity in anyone, of any age.
In the typical experience of (unillustrated) reading, we have a word that enters the imagination of the reader. The reader must draw on experience and previous knowledge to give flesh to the word. In this cooperative relationship the word becomes enfleshed by the imagination. Good writing both gives and requires the reader to use their own knowledge and experience to generate an image. This generation, this cooperative act, requires a kind of work: mental, emotional, moral, psychological work.
Some picture book illustrations are real art in that they require a long gaze: they invite sustained reflection; they communicate more of the story in a way that is receivable by a child than the same child could receive through words alone. Great picture book illustrations offer nuance to the storyline. Great illustrations ask our children to enter into the meaning of the story.
It seems that comics, too often, tell us what is important. They dictate what the meaning is without enough room for the cooperative presence of the reader. The comic reader doesn’t have to engage “enough;” She does not need to engage her own capacities to unite word to experience and image. All the images are provided. The meaning is “right there.” The thinking is done. The meaning is digested.
Because of this lopsided asymmetry with the reader I find comics to be rather forceful in their self-communication. And this “violence” has more to do with this strong asymmetry than whether it is A Letter to Jo or Anne of Green Gables or Magic Treehouse The Graphic Novel: Dinosaurs Before Dark.
Beauty isn’t useful.
Comics can’t be justified on the basis of whether they tn turn the reader toward the original text—in the case of comic adaptations. Certainly, comic works should be worth reading as they are. If they additionally turn the reader to the original text--well, that is a further end.
I will use the work of Gareth Hinds as an example since his work is so highly esteemed. I wonder if Hinds’ work is beautiful enough. For example, in his Odyssey, I don’t find Circe’s beauty enchanting enough. Circe has the physical “facts” of beauty---large eyes, tiny waist, large bosom, the revealing clothing...or none. But these facts of beauty speak of no mystery. She’s stale erotic power. Beauty always has a quality of mystery. Circe’s beauty in Hind’s depiction is merely exterior; how Hinds depicts her doesn’t help us understand Odysseus’ infidelity to Penelope and to home, the ebb and flow of our own adherence to the good, or our ideals. That artistic lapse is rather inexcusable if we’re to understand The Odyssey in a basic way. Hind’s images of Circe oversimplify the moral tensions.
Even the violence of Odysseus’ cleansing of his home lacks something. Homer and his audience sympathized deeply with Odysseus’ slaughter of his wife’s “suitors” and those who cooperated with them. Hinds gives us the violence. He does not give us the subtlety of sympathy with Odysseus’ action. There is great potential beauty in the self-reflection a nuanced depiction would have given. The lack of nuance is a crushing omission.
The images in Poems To See By, in contrast, are suggestive and nuanced: His images are necessarily symbolic, as they must be to represent the mysterious depth of the poetic word. Mr. Peters images are suggestions, or interpretations, rather than dictations because his images offer one way to imagine the words of the poems. In the sobering depictions of “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay Peters imagines all those who cooperate with war to be already siding with death, depicting them as skeletons.
He draws on familiar images from global conflicts and violence from Cuba, to the KKK, to US and Marxist propaganda posters. But in the middle of the poem, like the gravedigger in Shakepeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Peters gives a moment of almost comic relief. Talk about pacing! The poems words demonstrate a person unwilling to cooperate with death. Mr. Peters images take that commitment to its logical conclusion---he gives us images of a woman capable and willing to suffering death out of fidelity to peace. He shows us the possibility of seeing how the poem can be true in every era--though the hats and insignia of uniforms change, the pressure exerted by violence and power will never overcome the one who is like the inexorable narrator. The images of each poem justify themselves--they enlarge and satisfy our seeing. They are beautiful even as they show us the mortal consequences of fidelity and courage.
Is literacy enough?
The United States and Canada literacy rate is 99%. Literacy worldwide is 86%. Notably, literacy for women is 83% worldwide, which I think is a better overall indicator. My larger concern for children is the development of thoughtfulness. Sure. Most of us, rich or poor, can read. My concern for us is depth.
How many of us are capable of the deep reading experience for which classic literature was written? Are we capacitating our children to be deep readers and reflectors? This deep reading experience goes beyond having the kind of kid that can focus or pay attention, though it needs that personal power. I am struck by the potential of comics to facilitate the erosion of “deep literacy.”
Adam Garfinkle explains this human capacity: “Deep literacy is what happens when a reader engages with an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author's direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows in a dialectical process with the text. The result, with any luck, is a fusion of writer and reader, with the potential to bear original insight. ...Deep literacy has wondrous effects, nurturing our capacity for abstract thought, enabling us to pose and answer difficult questions, empowering our creativity and imagination, and refining our capacity for empathy. It is also generative of successive new insight, as the brain's circuitry for reading recursively builds itself forward. It is and does all these things in part because it touches off a "revolution in the brain," meaning that it has distinctive and describable neurophysiological consequences. Understanding deep literacy as a revolution in the brain has potential payoffs for understanding aspects of history and contemporary politics alike.”
A long-time friend who teaches 9th grade English in rural Wisconsin told me she tries to get some of her best students to read classic works of literature. (Let me tell you, she is not a stuffy person; she was our Homecoming queen. You cannot image a better classic literature sales rep.) Too often they tell her, “Oh, I already read it.” “Really?!” she responds with excitement. “Yeah, I read the comic version.” And they are just not interested in the full story, the original text. Of course, to be smug is one of the marks of immaturity and we are all susceptible to it. But we have to ask, “Do comics unfit our children for deep thinking? Do they unfit our children for this ‘fusion of writer and reader, [that has the] potential to bear original insight?” I wonder. Garfinkle explains that “if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention---what Wolf calls ‘cognitive patience’---on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it.” (emphasis mine).
Let me clarify that I don’t expect all children’s books to be serious, though comics is full of highly serious content. I don’t expect all children’s books to be highly meaningful—although I do find silliness to be highly important. Children need literature that is both silly and serious. My hesitancy regarding comics is not that I think comics are too silly (comical) or too serious.
I do expect beauty. I expect beauty in both silly works and serious works for children. With the exception of a bit of twaddle, Beauty is a requirement for all books which take up long-term residence in our home. Along with a community friends, we have a criteria for identifying the Beautiful in our books. And as much as I love silly (ask anyone!), I don’t love ugly. We don’t read ugly, silly books, such as the Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus series. I don’t understand the cult of ugliness going on in art and in children’s literature.
I am genuinely seeking understanding. Perhaps I am asking comics to be a genre that it simply isn’t? Perhaps I am asking comics to have a relationship with the reader that is not possible in the comic structure? Perhaps asking comics to be beautiful is...silly?
I appreciate you, Reader, making it to the end of this long, clumsy and hopeful question.
For Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,