The Art of Comic Books


Photo © Yale University Press

With the current crop of movies based on comic books practically owning the box office, and the wild popularity of comic conventions around the world, there has perhaps never been a better time to produce a book that looks at the growth, style, history and impact of comic books as an art form.

Comics Art (Yale University Press, 2014) is a bit of a mixed bag that takes a somewhat academic approach to understanding the growth of comics, by examining the medium through scholarly approaches such as sociocultural, ideological formalist, and so on. It may sound a bit heavy, but comic book guru Paul Gravett — director of the Comica international comic book festival in London, and author of several books on forms ranging from Japanese manga to graphic novels — makes an effort to keep it all light and entertaining.

Running through the book is Gravett’s thesis that comics are not simply “sub-literature, kitsch, or Pop art . . . but an autonomous art with particular system(s) and culture(s).” Peppered throughout Comics Art are tidbits of comic trivia that not only illustrate that thesis, but also may surprise many readers. The graphic novel, for example, is often thought of as a fresh new medium with which to tell a story, but Gravett points out that the idea dates as far back as 1894. Gravett also mentions Picasso’s fondness for the comic, and his admission that his only regret in life was “not having made comics.”

For lovers of comics and the stories they tell, Comics Art provides another reason to draw a line between speech bubbles and serious literature when it comes to an attempt to understand significant historical events. Readers of Marvel’s X-Men will not have failed to notice the theme of minority persecution that runs through many of the storylines. Gravett traverses the planet for examples of how comics have challenged the conventional perception that they are simply a storytelling medium for children by showing how the authors of comics have taken on hefty subjects. One notable example is Belgian artist J.P. Stassen’s comic Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda (2000), which chronicles the life of a young boy who is taught the differences between Hutu and Tutsi in school, then follows the boy’s path as those differences lead to violence and tragedy.

On a more technical note, Comics Art also looks at the nuts and bolts of how comics are crafted, analyzing the various levels of success of silent comics — i.e., stories told in pictures only, with no speech bubbles or captions. The book also looks at how panels are constructed to work together in a narrative, how long or short periods of time can pass between panels, and how readers can be engaged or turned off by how panels are organized on a page.

One curiosity is the apparent omission of Gustave Doré as an early practitioner of the medium — and the artist many consider the first to have authored comics in newspapers. Gravett instead cites the birth of the comic taking place in 1896: a date that was agreed upon by a quorum of experts at the Lucca Comics Festival in Italy in 1989. Of course, the definition of what constitutes a comic, whether it has been agreed upon by experts or not, is always debatable. For this start date, the experts in Italy agreed that what was key to defining a comic was the employment of speech bubbles, rather than the practice of text running under or alongside an image, as used by Doré.

Regardless, the book is an excellent treasure trove of ideas, history and analysis that anyone interested in the comic should find entertaining.

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