ABOUT ART AND ARTIFICE
I began this site because I had written an essay on Alex Toth & Robert Kanigher's 1972 comic book story White Devil, Yellow Devil and I wanted a place to put it. This site has grown up around that essay. My intention has become an attempt to analyze (firstly) the artwork of certain stories and (secondly) the written story itself. I then try to draw cogent conclusions about both. Of course this exercise is personal opinion based upon my looking at those funny, squiggly ink splots we call drawings.
I chose the name art and artifice because that best describes, to me, the comic book medium. While comic books are certainly an industry, it is also an artform. This is something which has begun to be recognized as a legitimate medium for self-expression, and this rise is probably best charted by the progress of the term "artcomic" which did not exist until – I think – the 1980s. In the Americas, Europe, Japan, the Philippines, and the Middle East - - and certainly even further - - are artists publishing a variety of forms all of which utilize the same essential tools, like a jazz quartet in New York City usually looks the same in complement as another quartet in Paris, Tokyo, or Johannesburg.
The comic book artist generally is not creating a "pure" visual piece (like, for instance, a painting). The comic book artist instead is part artist, journalist, and inventor all at the same time, not to mention cinematographer and graphic designer. The artist can greatly emphasize any one of these parts over the other parts, without regard to any sense of 'balance,' of elements, and still have a very legitimate comic book story. The comic book is flexible in a way other art forms cannot be while still distilling a story in an understandable way. This is particularly true of the surreal - - which comic books (and comic strips) handle and project easily with complete comfort for the reader. It is also an element of the inherited "understanding" which a comic book (or strip) brings generation to generation, a short-hand of symbols that are easy to assimilate for the new reader (which incidentally does not necessarily require the use of language at all. "Pantomime" achieved through line drawings requires no special setting or makeup.) Possibly only the animated motion picture has the same level of easy, cross-border assimilating ability.
THE PICTURE AS MOTION IN THE MIND
The comic book artist doesn't have a single visual scene to place his characters in (for example, Rembrandt's Night Watch), rather a whole mélange of places and scenes that the characters must move around in a (hopefully) convincing manner such that as the reader parses the pictures and the text together, the reader entering into that trance-like state of pure reading. I know this can be done, because I certainly have experienced it. It is not a derivative of motion pictures, which I think is the principal claim (or accusation) about comic books in general, i.e., it is a 'bastard art form' that capitalized on the popularity of the the 20th century's most popular artform (only the latter part of that is true). Instead comics are a derivative, and combination of, writing (or narration) first and pictures second. Comics, in primitive form, vastly predate motion pictures. It would be easy to claim that "cave paintings" are somehow comic books, for they tell a story in pictures. But the story they "tell" is a bare snippet, and a comic book must at least establish some narration of an episode of emotion, not unlike a very short short story or poem. However brief, there must be the rudiments of a story glimpsed: beginning, middle and end, even if two of the three is only inferred. In this way it is obvious how comic books, visually, are related to single images (like Rembrandt's Night Watch, which indeed tells the moment of a whole story, implying the rest of the tale, and is also a "hero pin-up" if you are familiar with the very real people being depicted).
But there is more to the comic book than the visualization of what would otherwise be just a literary effort. It is not an "illustrated" text (like, for example, an N.C. Wyeth picture from Treasure Island) but is a series of sequential images combined with text that create a single narrative story in the readers mind. The mind "sees" what happens in between the panels on a page. The reader accustomed to the comic book form quickly grasps any number of implied "pictures" and sequences of both image and narration. Unlike a text-based story, which must use many words to describe a physical sense of character proximity, or scene environment, physical mood of a place or anything actually important concerning the physical world, the comic book just "shows it," as quickly and as simply as a diagram, and typically more clearly and more pointedly than a photograph. And that the comic book can do this without breaking the "tone" of a tale, or by some clumsy form of footnote or insertion of an outside editorial "note" to the reader, speaks all the more to the immediate power of the comic book as a story telling medium.
HOW FAR CAN A PICTURE GO?
But this is also the weakness of the comic book, and probably why so much comic book work is genre-based. How does a reader enter into a knowledge (and better still, an intimate awareness of) the emotional state of a character, or characters in a comic book story? This is something literature does as a matter of course, i.e., "reader involvement," without which there is boredom and disinterest, whereas the comic book must maintain the information as emotionally important to the reader and convince them to "feel" it, not just peruse it coolly like a blueprint. The actual story itself, words, pictures and all need to impact the reader. The comic book artist/writer must describe an emotional state through not only a picture of an emotion upon a drawn face, but also through giving a context, and (hopefully) a meaning within a story. Pace (as like a movie, or theatre play), success of depiction (pure visual drawing skill), wording (as a literary function), all play a part for a typical story.
The great static, visual power of the comic book comes across particularly easily with superhero figures and surreal figures. Perhaps this explains the easy success of the superhero and the surreal in the comic book medium. The genre of autobiographic comics, history comics, and education "how to" comics must labor toward a certain distinct kind of realism that establishes some bone fides of "reality" to the reader. But this is only a hurdle requiring effort and skill. A physically intensive medium to produce, comic books are still using paper, pens and ink in a fashion that existed centuries ago.
Technology has eased much of the production requirements for a comic book, but it has not changed that a hand must be upon the page, drawing a figure that projects the emotion and movement of a story. Making the story a good one, and telling it well, is still the same challenge shared in other mediums. But it is the comic books unique combination of wordplay and visual image that stands it apart, making it both a passive reading experience, but also an interactive moment of reader-controlled investigation. The aesthetic qualities built in to the comic book medium are never trumped, no matter how crudely drawn, by the writing, for without the visual the writing is simply another written story. Likewise, without the story, even if shown sans words, the drawings cannot function as a story without the presence of the story being extolled panel to panel in an understood fashion as narrative.