Drawing Meaning from Life

Comics are nothing new. For at least 8,000 years, we’ve been using pictures to tell stories and communicate new ideas. Today, graphic novels have a lot to say. And so do the creators behind them.

AIRED: January 01, 2021 | 0:26:45

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(soft music)

- Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores

how really creative people understand the world.

(upbeat music)

- I'm Jim Cotter, and on this episode,

Drawing Meaning from Life.

Comics are nothing new.

For at least 8,000 years,

we've been using pictures to tell stories

and communicate new ideas.

Today graphic novels have a lot to say

and so do the creators behind them.

And if anyone thinks that these are pretty pictures

to compensate for shaky narratives,

no, think again.

- When you're explaining something visually,

acquiring sufficient understanding for yourself,

that's 80% of the work.

The actual execution is the easy part.

- [Jim] That's all coming up on Articulate.

(upbeat music)

From the Sunday funnies to Sify superheroes,

comics are for many, a childhood rite of passage.

But there's nothing childish about graphic novels.

- I think comics can be much more intimate

than the video or the movies,

than any other visual narrative storytelling medium.

- To really figure out how to use pictures

and words at the same time to tell a story,

it's incredibly difficult,

and people that are really good at it just,

it's almost instinctual,

there's almost a magic that happens.

- They're a medium that gets mistaken for a genre.

When people hear a comic book,

they imagine superheroes or fantasy,

or they imagine a certain kind of narrow range of things,

science fiction, but what they are is just sequential images

that tell a story.

There's no story that can't be told in comic form.

- [Jim] In the past few decades,

comics have stretched far beyond the boundaries

of witty observation and the hero driven epics.

Take for example, Nate Powell's,

Eisner winning graphic novel, "Swallow Me Whole",

which explores adolescence in all its glory and misery.

Powell's story of two stepbroths

waiting through the tides of mental illness,

familial clashes on heartbreak

was drawn from his own experience

and growing understanding of his own brothers trials.

- We got along, it wasn't until I was like

almost out of high school that I realized

that I started to become aware

of how relatively different my family structure was,

in terms of like adherence to certain kinds of routine,

certain kinds of norms, the kinds of interactions, you know,

my brother and I would have,

or we would have with our parents.

And a lot of this, you know, it just had to do

with my parents basically being in the dark and the 1980s

and trying to find, not just what's going on with their son,

but also finding the best means by which

to allow him to have the most fulfilling life possible.

- [Jim] Powell's use of comics to make sense

of his brother's world

is extraordinarily personal and touching.

He had, according to the award winning publisher

and comic writer, Josh O'Neill,

this intimacy is far from unique.

- What I love, I think the most about comics is I think,

they're maybe the cleanest window

into someone else's worldview.

Because when you're reading the work of a great cartoonist,

they're not just telling you a story, you're actually seeing

the way that they perceive the world,

because the stories processed through their imagination,

the art is processed through their hands,

so every element of it is crafted by that person.

As a cartoonist, you can't not be yourself,

because it's always, because your, your line is your line,

that's what it looks like.

So I feel like it's a very intimate way

of communication between an artist and an audience.

- [Jim] Intimate and intuitive yet for many also mystifying.

That's why comic theorist and cartoonist Scott McCloud

made it his mission to explain why the joining of words

and images in graphic novel form

can be so profoundly powerful.

The result was a trio of seminal works

narrated by a cartoon version of McCloud himself,

"Understanding Comics," "Reinventing Comics"

and "Making Comics."

- The advantage to comics is that we trade in static images.

And we trade in static images in our own minds

when we remember, we remember symbolically.

In fact, people who make it their work

to compete in memory competitions

actually create static images

just for the purpose of memory.

They will associate a list of random numbers

or cards in deck with outrageous static images,

just so that they can remember it.

So this is our natural language.

So that's why when you're in an airplane,

when you reach in the seat pocket in front of you,

you're going to be looking at comics, because they know

that if you're given a series of symbols,

something still, that that's closer

to the texture of memory.

That's one of the advantages of comics.

Is we're able to give you time,

allow you to take as much time as you need

on each and every moment, and attach an image

to each of those moments, to ensure that there's an anchor,

there's something that you can keep in your memory.

- [Jim] Because our brains are wired to recognize

and retain images, comics can be a powerful

but as yet under utilized classroom tool.

Graphic novelist under MacArthur genius laureate Gene g

is a strong believer in the power of comics

to not merely entertain, but also to educate.

Before making comics full-time, Yang spent 17 years

as a substitute high school math

and computer science teacher in Oakland, California,

but it was only as he transitioned out of the classroom

that he thought to bring comics in.

After the runaway success of his 2006 National Book Award

nominated work, "American Born Chinese,"

Yang was overwhelmed with book tours

and new opportunities from the likes of Marvel.

The school absences began to rack up.

- I remember my very last year teaching.

I was only teaching one class.

So I was just hanging on by my fingernails.

And even for that one class,

I would end up missing two or three periods every month.

To make up for it, I started drawing my lecturers as comics.

And that, much to my surprise was a huge hit.

My students would actually ask me to do those for them

even when I could be there in-person.

You know, it was like they liked me better as a cartoon.

That's what it felt like.

Yeah. (Jim laughing)

- You are a huge advocate for the idea of cartoons

being a great tool for education.

- Yeah.

- And that's not starting to gain some traction.

- It is, it is, I'm so happy about that.

I don't want every subject to be taught through comics.

- Why not. - Right.

I shouldn't say every subject, every topic,

I don't want every topic to be taught through comics.

I just think comics ought to be included

in every educator's toolkit.

There's certain things that are best taught

using a sequence of still images,

and I would just like teachers to recognize that.

- It's a great introductory medium.

Comics may not always be the best way

to give you the next 10 problems on your algebra test,

but they can be a terrific way

to introduce you to the subject as a whole.

There was a time when I bought into the idea

that comics were good for some tasks and bad for others.

I bought into the idea that comics could be used

to explain certain types of subjects

and couldn't be used for others,

and I bought into the idea that comics

could be used to tell certain types of stories

and not others, but every time I thought I had come up

with an example of a kind of story or a kind of subject

that couldn't be told or explained in comics,

somebody would go and do it,

somebody would prove me wrong.

So now it's an article of faith

that it's at least worth trying.

So even subjects like, you know, particle physics

or, you know, quantum theory, that I assume

are gonna be virtually impossible to do in comics like that,

I don't assume that anymore, I try not to assume that.

- But surely for any time that you're going

to explain something complicated through comics,

you need two things to be happening.

You need somebody with a phenomenal understanding

of the topic to begin with.

- Yeah.

- And then with the, am I being rude

if I say draftsman skills,

the artistic skills. (interviewee laughing)

- Yeah, well, the artistic skills may not be quite

as important actually as the understanding.

When you're explaining something visually,

acquiring sufficient understanding for yourself

that's 80% of the work.

The actual execution is the easy part,

making the comic is the easy part.

And draftsmanship isn't even all that important.

You could be a pretty clumsy draftsman

and still do a terrific visual explanation.

In fact, there are some, I don't want to name names

because that'd be a left-handed compliment,

but I can think of specific artists

who are terrific at visual explanation,

but are actually fairly rudimentary draftsman.

- [Jim] But while extensive talents

are not required for successful cartoonist,

there are some very fine artists in their midst.

Lauren Weinstein, for example, is an exceptional painter

and drafts person who to date has published comics

about motherhood, adolescents and the extinction of frogs.

But even while painting was her public facing medium,

comics were her private form of expression,

a kind of therapy even.

- My first comic was of me going to red lobster

and being super depressed, and meeting lobster

and the shrimp, and they were all breaded.

And they're like, yeah, what's your issue,

at least you're not breaded, and that red lobster.

(lady laughing)

So that was it, and I didn't think, it took me years

to think that that was art or anything that was important.

- And the whole point did you realize it was a language?

And how far are you now, and can you order in restaurants

and ask for directions? (lady laughing)

Where are you in the learning of this language?

- I feel like it's a lifelong process,

but I feel like I know a little bit more

how to stop the viewer.

And that's your only goal as a cartoonist, I think.

It's figuring out how to make that viewer stand at attention

when you need them to, and then make them suffer

or make them ecstatic.

If you can, I feel like I know

a little bit more about that now.

- [Jim] Still even the most skilled artists

can never fully overcome the essential problem

at the heart of comics.

After spending years mastering the craft,

Scott McCloud admits that the very thing

which makes comics so enticing the way they enlist

both the reader's left and right brain

is also what might be their most fateful floor.

- It's an intrusive medium.

You know, it's easier with a motion picture for example.

It's easier to entirely forget

that you're experiencing the medium

and to lose yourself in the story.

Comics has a way of intruding repeatedly on the experience.

If you want a transparent experience,

if you want a transport of experience in comics,

it's a harder slog.

- And it take longer, right?

- It takes a very long time.

But that's a practical limitation.

- And is the push and pull

between brevity versus complexity then?

- To me, that's the joy of it.

That's the, decision-making of like slicing up time,

that's fascinating to me, that's fun.

That's the fun of comics,

but then you hit the edge of the page

or the lines start to be lines again.

There's so much to take you out of the experience in comics,

there's so much to remind you of the artifice of the form.

And so that's what worries,

there's a seamlessness of the written word.

If you're reading a novel, right?

The delivery device is just manotextural, right?

Once you've read the first 100 words,

you forget you're reading words at all,

it's just the content.

And likewise, the persistence of vision.

- But you're also creating the film,

like you are creating the images.

- Yeah, you're creating it, right.

But in comics it's more of a call and response, right?

The artist keeps intruding on the experience,

the artist keeps reminding you,

yes, this was drawn by a human hand,

yes, this is a thing, this is an object,

this is a drawn thing.

And that's partially because of the inconsistency of it,

and the fact that when you go from artists to artists,

it's always a whole different rendering of the world.

It yanks you out of it.

People who are reading serial comics, like superhero comics,

when a new artist comes in, they'll often be upset,

and it's not because they were getting used

to one are artist drawing their characters,

now another artist is drawing their favorite characters.

The reason they're upset is because

all of their favorite characters have been replaced

by drawings of their favorite characters.

Because with the change of an artist,

they become aware of the artifice all over again.

There are all these ways

that we're pulled out of the experience.

Another aspect of comics that tends

to yank readers out of the moment are the panels themselves.

Texts creates a sense of continuity

because it flows seamlessly across the page,

there's no border to interrupt the reader's thoughts.

On the other hand, creative formatting and comics

is opening up a world of storytelling possibilities,

like playing with time in the gutter,

that empty space between panel borders.

So some people have talked about

like the importance of the gutter.

The gutter is where everything's happening.

- Yeah. - That's where

the story that you're not telling is happening.

Is that like music and on silence.

It's like, it's not the notes you play,

it's the notes you leave out.

What's the role of the guttering for you?

- For me, I don't always use panel borders.

(lady laughs)

Sometimes I just use areas.

So I do feel like the gutter has kind of a musical,

like you're stuffing something short,

or you're trying to get quickly to the next.

I mean, you could have, you know a slow motion kiss

or something like that with like 12 million little panels.

You could do another view of something.

You could do a flashback, or, you know, the,

a gutter can do a ton of things

or you can have an inset panel over a long.

So, you know, something that's taking a long time,

you could have a couple of little inset panels

on top of something.

But I feel like I have a much more fluid approach to it.

Sometimes I use gutters, sometimes they use panel borders,

and sometimes they just like to use big areas

and hopefully direct the viewer's eye

through drawings to the next thing.

And I also feel like it's important for people

that are not comics junkies to be able to read a comic.

So if your grandmother is going to go back and read it,

you know, that way, when it should go that way,

just because people that know comics grammar

know that it's left to right, up to down.

But if, you know, your grandma doesn't know that,

so don't just put the speech bubble on a place

that she's not going to read it.

(soft music)

- [Jim] These days, comics come in myriad styles,

shapes and sizes, and from the elevated graphic novel

to the ephemeral web comic,

to the constant single chapter printings or trades.

At their core, all comics follow a fundamental form,

a story told visually.

- [Narrator] Juxtaposed, pictorial and other images

in deliberate sequence intended to convey information

and or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.

- [Jim] And as Josh O'Neill explains,

because we've been telling stories visually

since time immemorial,

we are hard wired to receive information this way.

- The Cave Paintings at Lascaux

are comic strips in a lot of ways.

There's one particular painting that's an image of a bull

and it's moving across the wall,

but it's actually moving through time.

You see the animal aging sequentially,

it's probably the world's first comic strip.

- [Jim] And comics have comics have shown up

across the world and throughout history.

On 5,000 year old walls inside Egyptian tombs,

on the 230 foot long embroidered cloth,

the Bayou tapestry detailing

the Norman conquest of England and the 11th century.

The pre-Colombian codex,

a panel visual manuscript

outlining the Aztecs history and culture.

And those style and symbolism and change

depending on the culture and time,

at a point said that many of these storytelling techniques

are remarkably similar, which may point

to an innate visual lexicon among humans.

- People who have studied early childhood art

have found that that kids from different backgrounds

just spontaneously go through certain stages where,

you know, they'll start with, you know,

like they'll arrive at the closed curve,

and then they'll arrive at the line through the close curve,

and they'll start to draw people first as these heads

with the arms and the legs radiating out of them,

these Mondelez, these are universal,

they happen again and again, and again.

We're also finding in paleolithic art

that there are certain common symbols.

Where just as that, that notion of deep grammar

may explain language acquisition.

I think there's also a deep visual vocabulary.

- [Jim] With comics, so deeply ingrained in human history,

it may seem odd that they would ever

have been considered frivolous.

And indeed this digression happened relatively recently,

spearheaded in the United States

by a short-lived 1950s self-censorship code

to protect children.

It discouraged any references to crime, sex,

the supernatural or the profane, and insisted

that good should always triumph over evil.

- In 40s and early 50s,

there were a lot more sophisticated

and adult comics coming out in America.

And adults in both senses, there was a lot of stuff

that was very graphic and violent and exploitative,

and a lot of stuff that was

very sophisticated and thoughtful,

but comics were still sort of seen as this

as a thing for kids.

So at some point there was a psychiatrist

named Frederic Wertham who wrote the screed

against books, because he saw a lot of these comics

that had these very adult themes,

and he was afraid kids were gonna be reading them.

So there were these hearings about whether comics

were appropriate, whether they were corrupting children.

And what that ended up with was something

called the Comics Code Authority,

which was basically something that

all the big comic companies agreed to about

what kind of content they were allowed to put into comics.

So the less realistic and real world related

you made those things, the more you could get away with.

- And less likely you were to offend.

- Right, comics got more and more fantastical

in the 50s and 60s and into the 70s.

So I think that,

and a lot of amazing cartoonists were working at that time.

So they took like this, these restrictions

and made these incredibly amazing superhero comics.

So they became sort of these modern myths

and they just became this gigantic sensation

that caught on.

And so after a while that became synonymous with comics,

like that's how comics were saved

by these amazing superhero comics by guys

like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

And so that became what comics were about.

And I think, you know, still I just think comics

haven't quite recovered from being

so thoroughly branded with that thing.

And superheroes are so uniquely powerful,

they're such sort of like Greek gods for our times,

and they have such appeal to kids,

and then enduring appeal into people's adult lives

that they became these like giant corporate properties

that people could exploit.

And so they just became the center

of what this whole medium was built around.

It's very strange to have

this massive capacious medium of art

that is so thoroughly dominated.

It's like if 95% of movies were westerns

or something like that.

And then there's this little, this other section

where you tell every other kind of story.

So in America we have this sort of weird industry,

but there's, there's a constantly growing backlash

against that, I think, and there's more and more

and more comics coming out

that tell more and more different kinds of stories,

and are telling different people's stories

and are doing a lot more to sell the idea of this medium

as an important and powerful thing.

- [Jim] The superheros influence on comics is bigger

than anyone would have imagined at the beginning,

not only shaping the form,

but also those who grew up reading them.

- Oh, well, I mean, as a 12-year-old,

I think it was a mix of, yeah,

the "X-Men" of the 1970s and 80s

with like thrash metal and punk,

which sort of gave me a sense of a social conscience period,

particularly the "X-Men" provided a window through which,

or lens through which to view the world around me

as it was getting more complex rapidly,

but a means by which to see power dynamics and injustices,

racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism,

a lot of these evils were presented in very plain relief

in the pages of "X-Men"

and a number of Marvel books, frankly.

But I don't know that it was really,

it was important to any nation,

especially like somebody growing up

reading superhero comics, and being a child of the 80s,

being used to these sort of like overwrought,

you know, power adventures, seeing those filtered

through a lens of justice and injustice

and particularly through very human, very flawed characters

who I could relate to even as a 12-year-old.

You know, that that was revolutionary to me.

- [Jim] Recent years have seen far more variety

in the subjects that comics take on.

In addition to his 2006 nomination

for "American Born Chinese," Gene Yang was also shortlisted

for a national book award for his pair of books,

"Boxers and Saints" set during the turn

of the 20th century National Step Rising

that so many non desirables violently expelled from China.

Lauren Weinstein's web comic about being an artist

and a mother won the Slate Cartoonist Prize in 2018.

Josh O'Neill curated more than 100 works

by as many artists

to create "LittleNemo, Dream Another Dream,"

a tribute to the seminal early 20th century newspaper

cartoonist Winsor McCay.

And in 2016, Nate Powell became the first cartoonist ever

to win a National Book Award for the last volume of March,

a three-part biography of the late US civil rights leader

and congressman, John Lewis.

- We marched today for jobs and freedom,

but we have nothing to be proud of,

of hundred and thousand allowed brothers who are not here.

For they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.

While we stand here, there are sharecroppers

in the Delta of Mississippi

who are out in the fields working

for less than three dollars per day, 12 hours a day.

- [Jim] Today, comics have shredded their reputation

as mere vehicles for fantasy and science fiction.

Indeed, much of their work in this area

is now the remit of Hollywood blockbusters

and their endless sequels.

Once again, comics present a far wider

and more diverse scope of subjects and ideas,

rereadings of history and the expiration

of specific areas of human knowledge,

emotion, experience, and wisdom.

Cartoons, comics, graphic novels

have reclaimed their proper role

as a uniquely potent and accessible medium

and art form, ancient and ever evolving.

(soft music)

For more Articulate, find us on social media

or on our website,

On the next Articulate, Leif Ove Andsnes,

has awesome musical powers, yet in-person,

he is quiet and contemplative,

because he says the piano is his true voice.

Royce Vavrek doesn't court controversy,

but it seems to follow him nonetheless.

The celebrated opera librettist to nurses says

if his work provokes,

it's not to advance any personal agenda.

I'm Jim Cotter, join us for the next Articulate

(upbeat music)

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(upbeat music)


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