Tuesday, February 24, 2009

To Laugh Or Cry: A Comic about the 2008 Tigers

How did I miss this comic over at Roar of the Tigers? As a comics scholar, I'm fascinated. As a Tigers' fan, not so much. Much woe is right. Just look at how sad Paws is here.

But it's spring and hope reigns. As I write this post, it's the eve of the Tigers first pre-season game. Right now Dontrelle WIllis is a stud pitcher again, Gerald Laird is going to steal a dozen bases, and Rick Porcello is the second coming of Mark Fidrych.

Read the comic I must, if only to get last year out of my system. Maybe next year's comic will be a little happier. The Spazzosaurus just needs to stay well clear of the pitching staff.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Riddle Me This: What Graphic Novel Would You Recommend to Someone Who Doesn't Read Graphic Novels?

In conjunction with Jeff Lemire's visit to the University of Windsor on March 30 (more soon), we're trying to promote the graphic novel collection at Leddy Library. Of course, the people who read comics make very good use of the collection and for those people, all you have to do is point them in the right direction. But what about the person who has never read comics or hasn't read comics since childhood? How do you get that person to sit down with a graphic novel? How do you encourage non-comics readers to explore what's out there?

So, the question is, what graphic novel would you recommend for a non-comics reader and why? Drop a line in the comments section with the title, writer/artist, and one or two sentences that explains your reasoning.

For the Graphic Novels Seminar, the students are creating Annotated Comics Pages that will show/theorize how to read a comics page. What I would like to do is take some of your suggestions and include them in this library display that is being created for the end of the semester (to coincide with the Lemire visit). My hope is that all of it will come together to help create even more interest in the excellent collection of graphic novels that is housed at Leddy Library.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Graphic Novels Seminar: Supplementary Readings

As promised to the students in the Graphic Novels Seminar and for anyone else who is interested, here are links to some supplemental readings for the last half of the course. In addition to these four books, we have The Other Side (Aaron and Stewart) and Ghost Stories (Lemire) left to read.

City of Glass (Karasik and Mazzucchelli)
The Poetics of the Page: City of Glass, the graphic novel (Kuhlman)
"Paul Auster's City of Glass: The Graphic Novel" (Coughlan) - MFS Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006, pp. 832-854 (Available through Leddy Library through Literature Online)

The Tale of One Bad Rat
Panel Borders Interview with Bryan Talbot

"An Interview with Alison Bechdel" (Chute) - MFS Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006, pp. 1004-1013 (Available through Leddy Library through Literature Online)

The Fate of the Artist
Tom Spurgeon Interview with Eddie Campbell
Gutter Geek Review of The Fate of the Artist

Comics Autobiography
"Autographics: The Seeing 'I' of Comics" (Whitlock) - MFS Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006, pp. 965-79 (Available through Leddy Library through Literature Online)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

More On Lettering in Comics

At Blambot, Nick Piekos has a very informative piece on the conventions of comic book lettering called "Comics Grammar & Tradition." Like the Comics Lettering Tutorial in the previous post, this comes from a working letterer and so it really gets into conventions and theory behind the storytelling choices. For example, Piekos explains that the balloons to the left are called burst balloons:

Burst Balloons are used when someone is screaming their dialogue. They tend to be more irregular and chaotic than the radio balloon, perhaps with a heavier stroke. Burst balloons typically aren't italicized, but are often bold with certain words enlarged or underlined for even more emphasis. A less punchy variation on the burst balloon is a regular balloon with a small burst where the tail meets the balloon.

Along with all of the tips for comics creators and letterers, there's a lot of extremely useful material for those of us who want to think about how comics work as a medium. It's definitely worth a look.

Lettering: Visualizing Sound in Comics

Last week I finally had a chance to read Gene Kannenberg Jr.'s essay "Graphic Text, Graphic Context: Interpreting Custom Fonts and Hands in Contemporary Comics" in a collection entitled Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation. It's a fascinating piece that makes a good argument for why we need to focus on the visuality of lettering rather than simply seeing it as a transparent vehicle for the linguistic element of the text. In other words, where the text is placed and how the text is lettered is as important as the words themselves and can help the reader to make meaning of the text within the context of the story being told. Kannenberg describes these as narrative and metanarrative qualities of lettering that help to shape textual meaning; in addition, Kannenberg argues that comics lettering also displays extranarrative qualities that may identify the work as by a particular creator, part of a specific title, or of a particular genre. In other words, lettering is of crucial importance in comics and comics scholars and teachers need to pay more attention to it.

As I have thought and continue to think about the way comics make meaning in multimodal ways (linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial) through the combination of all of these elements, I keep coming back to the notion of the audio. After all, comics in their traditional forms (without taking into account recent attempts at motion comics) are a silent medium. Yet when we read them, we vividly imagine the sounds in our heads (even more than we do when reading linguistic texts) because we are given cues as to how we are supposed to hear them. As Kannenberg puts it, "The sound of characters' voices in radio, film, or television contributes greatly to audience interpretation; comics, developing this century along with these other media, uses visual emphasis as a metanarrative device in order to replicate this additional characterization tool in its own, mute medium" (174). In other words, from a multimodal perspective lettering does triple duty as it works as a visual element within the text (a point Will Eisner always emphasizes in both his theory (Comics and Sequential Art) and in the practice of his art (especially, I think, in The Spirit)), as a crucial stand-in for the audio element, and as a complex, non-transparent mediator for linguistic element. Comics may be mute, but we see, and thus hear, the words in ways that have an enormous impact on how we interpret them.

Just take a look at the complexities of the lettering (different fonts, bolding, changing font colours, balloon shapes, balloon colours, captions) in this Calvin and Hobbes strip by Bill Watterson (click on the strip to see it in a larger size). Now try to imagine the cartoon if all of the linguistic elements were printed inside uniform word balloons and caption boxes in a black font such as Times or Helvetica. How does the meaning change? Is it still funny? How do we interpret the words? The images? The gestures and facial expressions? The spatial layout? All of the choices that Watterson has made in lettering this strip are crucial for the narrative and the joke; without the lettering it falls flat.

I'll have more to say about lettering later this week in relation to Unstable Molecules. For now, let me leave you with more on lettering from a creator's perspective.

Comics Lettering Theory Part 1 by ~themightyfro on deviantART

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Another New Narrative?: Academic Comics Conference in Association with TCAF

I just got word that there will once again be an interdisciplinary conference held in conjunction with the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF). Here is the call for papers:

Another New Narrative?
Comics in Literature, Film, and Art (again)
An interdisciplinary conference at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival
and affiliated with the University of Toronto
9-10 May 2009

The answer to last year’s question—“The New Narrative?”—is “Not new, but certainly exciting and enlivening.” In conjunction with the bi-annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and in keeping with the spirit of sequels, we are again soliciting papers on a wide range of graphic novels and comic art.

Comics, whether in the form of novelistic illustrations, newspaper serials, animated films, film adaptations, graphic novels, or sequential art narratives, have been with us since the rise of literature itself, yet until recently such media have never been considered “serious”—or at least, serious enough to be considered novels that might be on university syllabi. But are illustrated novels and live action films really about the pictures and not the narrative? How can the history of the form be reconciled with consumer culture and the ill-defined categories of “high” and “low” culture?

Papers which examine and interpret these narratives in interdisciplinary forms are most welcome. Essays on novelistic illustrations, newspaper serials, animated films, film adaptations, graphic novels, or sequential art narratives may consider the following (incomplete) list:

graphic novels and auto/biography
illustrated and multi-media works
geopolitics/war and the graphic novel
film adaptations of comics series
engravings and caricatures
the Comics Code Authority
the “invention” of manga
other inventors and influences
bande desinée & European comix
early comics & comic history
illustrations in (literary) novels
woodcut and “silent” artists

Proposals should be 400-500 words and must clearly indicate significance, the line of argument, principal texts considered, and relation to existing scholarship (or originality). One email copy of the proposal, and a 50 word bio note must be included, as an attachment in MS Word.

Deadline for proposals is 15 March 2009 (responses by 31 March 2009).

For more information, contact
Dr Andrew Lesk, Assistant Professor
Department of English, University of Toronto
E-mail: andrew.lesk@utoronto.ca

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Unstable Molecules: Interview with James Sturm

Next Monday in the Graphic Novels Seminar, we will be discussing Unstable Molecules by James Sturm and Guy Davis. As background reading, I wanted to point out an interview with James Sturm done by Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Journal. Here's a snip of Sturm's comments:
The Fantastic Four was about this family who were superheroes. But they were a family first, right? That's what made the book tick. That's what I was trying to get at, this dysfunctional family that love/hate relationship they all have with each other. I think that's what Lee and Kirby were trying to do, right?
Throughout the book, there are lots of visual and verbal references back to the Lee and Kirby version of the Fantastic Four. In fact, like It's a Bird, Unstable Molecules depends on an intertextual relationship with previous material that is enacted in different ways through each reader's engagement with the text. The interview begins to get at some of those links as Sturm sees them (which are not, of course, the only links that readers can/will make, nor will these links be confined to the intertexts of the Fantastic Four).

Speaking of intertextual references, within the narrative of the Fantastic Four, the concept of unstable molecules is what allowed the fabric of the teams' costumes to both conform to their bodies and not be affected by their powers. It's a fascinating title for a book about family.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Theory and Practice: It's a Bird

We had a very interesting discussion in today's Graphic Novels Seminar about It's a Bird by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen. It's a "semi-autobiograpical" piece that weaves the Superman mythology with the story of a writer who is both dealing with the existence of Huntington's Disease in his family and with the offer to write Superman. It's a story that works because of the intertextual relationships created by the story (in Genette's terms, Superman is the hypo text, while It's a Bird is the hypertext that comments on and extends it, while at the same time deriving much of its meaning from the relationship it has to the original text). In an interview with UGO, Seagle said that
The story is semi-autobiographical because it has elements from my family's story. I wanted to look at why Superman is resilient because I think he still has importance in the world today. I know there is a lot of bashing when it comes to Superman such as people say he is outdated but he's not. If he was outdated he would cease to exist. I thought the right way to do that was to compare him to an average Joe or in my case an average Steve.
That, to me, sounds a lot like Ndalianis's idea that Superman is "a mythology that is both already said and which is in the process of being said" (see previous post).

As we read It's a Bird, then, we extend the mythology of Superman as we participate in its ongoing process of creation (the hypotext can be seen as the entire Superman mythology and the hypertext is any text that extends it by acting as a kind of intertext to the overall mythology). Or, in terms of Design, we make meaning during the reading process by bringing to bear our Available Resources for Design. The intertextual resonances created by the book depend on the Available Resources each person brings to the text, or the extent to which each person has been involved in the process of articulating the mythology of Superman through his or her own reading/viewing experiences. The results of our reading It's a Bird -- the meanings we make -- then loop back into the process and are made available for our next readings. The next time we pick up a Superman comic or see a reference to the Man of Steel, our experience of reading It's a Bird forms part of the context for making meaning. As readers, then, we are part of the fabric of the Superman mythology, a point Ndalianis explicitly makes as she complicates Eco's ideas.

Why do I mention all of these theoretical ideas? Because they can act as lenses through which we can think about how meaning is created within and between the multiple stories that are woven together in It's a Bird. As well, they can help us to think about how and why Superman "still has importance in the world today" and how we as readers are part of the ongoing process of the Myth of Superman.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

ICAF 2009 Call for Proposals

The call for proposals is out for the 2009 International Comic Arts Forum, to be held in Chicago from October 15-17. Proposals are due by March 20, 2009. This year's conference will be the 14th meeting of ICAF, one of the main academic conferences in the field of comics studies. From the cfp:
ICAF welcomes original proposals from diverse disciplines and theoretical perspectives on any aspect of comics or cartooning, including comic strips, comic books, albums, graphic novels, manga, webcomics, political cartoons, gag cartoons, and caricature. Studies of aesthetics, production, distribution, reception, and social, ideological, and historical significance are all equally welcome, as are studies that address larger theoretical issues linked to comics or cartooning, for example in image/text studies or new media theory. In keeping with its mission, ICAF is particularly interested in studies that reflect an international perspective.
So, consider submitting a proposal or just attending this fine conference. For those of you in the Graphic Novels Seminar, ICAF would be an ideal venue for possible presentation of your final papers.

Superman, Hypertime, Design, and Continuity

In the Graphic Novels Seminar this week, we're reading Angela Ndalianis's excellent essay "Enter the Aleph: Superhero Worlds and Hypertime Realities" from her edited collection The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (a useful collection that Routledge has, for some reason, only released as an incredibly expensive hardback). In the essay, Ndalianis usefully complicates Eco's ideas about Superman as a mythic figure who must remain static despite the serial nature of the comic book form (see "The Myth of Superman," anthologized in Arguing Comics). That is, in order to be mythic, Superman must remain essentially unchanged and "unconsumable" so that whatever happens to him, his essential characteristics remain intact. That's what accounts for so many dream or "Elseworlds" stories and, though Eco didn't foresee it in 1972, the whole concept of parallel worlds that DC has been both spinning out and trying to control over the years.

In trying to contend with these parallel worlds, DC writers have often had to retroactively change the continuity (or retcon, to use the current term) in order to rationalize the characters and their relationships to each other (which also keeps the essential quality of a character like Superman intact). However, as Ndalianis asks, "how can entire fictional histories and the characters who participated in them be wiped from the memories of readers who had experienced them? (280). The answer: they can't. Superman did die. Superman did marry Lois Lane. The rocket carrying the baby who would become Superman did land in Russia.

Ndalianis addresses this notion of the role of the reader in narrative continuity through reference to Grant Morrison's idea of Hypertime in which "within the diegetic universe, multiple versions of a superhero work together to create the version that eventually becomes the legend" (281). Every character within the serial form of comics is thus always in process in complex ways that are dependent on the experiences of the actual readers (as we discussed last week in class with All-Star Superman). In contrast to what Eco writes, then, for Superman, what is created is "a mythology that is both already said and which is in the process of being said" (Ndalianis 284).

I bring up these ideas to complicate our thinking about Eco, but also to begin to explore this idea of Hypertime in relation to the concept of Design (which also complicates Eco's ideas). Design, as formulated by the New London Group, is a dynamic and recursive process that involves three elements: Available Design, Designing, and the Redesigned. Available Designs are the resources that each of us has for Design. Available Design acts as the array of resources we bring to any text, but they do not determine exactly how we will make meaning from that text; individual agency is also important because each of us makes individual decisions about how to use those resources.

When each of us use our Available Designs we engage in the process of Designing or making meaning (whether through writing or reading). Designing is an active process, both for creators and readers of multimodal texts; when we engage in the process of Designing, we use the resources of Available Designs based on own social situatedness, history, life experiences, and interests and we do so within and as a result of our past experience. Such experiences are part of the ongoing process of Design. These new meanings created in Designing become the Redesigned, new resources, part of our newly configured Available Designs. For example, whenever we read a story about Superman, that experience and those meanings become part of our Available Designs and cannot help but influence our future readings.

There are definite parallels between Hypertime and Design that I want to explore further in the future, especially in relation to the notion of continuity. For now, I think it's enough to point out the way that these two theoretical ideas nicely complicate Eco's ideas about Superman.

Finally, reading Ndalianis provides an interesting perspective on It's a Bird, the text for tomorrow's seminar. It should be a fascinating discussion.