Joe Alterio's blog on illustration, comix, design, animation, and other bouts of total awesomeness.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Form Is Content

I've been thinking a lot lately about semiotics, more specifically in my chosen field of practice, that is, the effort to tell a story with pictures. Without getting too Scott McCloud on you, I find some interesting cultural revelations that come out of the nearly nascent connections that make between form, inferred meaning, and underlying content. Much to the programmers delight, this is one instance where form really is function. Which is why I guess I like it so much.

Comics is a language of symbols, perhaps more so than any other visual art form. While traditional painting may have it's expressionist cues, kabuki may have it's grotesque masks, and while William Safire continues to mercilessly pound all the fun out of language every week, comics is like no other. At once overty symbolic and simplistic,

...and at the same time wonderfully, mysteriously open to interpretation, as intriguing as any subtle performance of the silver screen, comics has less to rely than other forms, and thus has more symbols at it's behest. Taking for granted the fact that I believe that comics actually solidified the "Z" as a shorthand for sleep in our culture ( Doozex, thanks Mort Walker), the joke here by Schulz is twofold: the 'surface' joke of Schroeder hammering Snoopy's sleep to bits, but also the underlying joke that you can get away with something like that comics it's the visual gag of seeing something obviously ridiculous used to portary an emotion that's tough to write. Another example:

It's funny because Linus is over the moon, and it's also funny because not only is Linus is floating, but that we actually KNOW what that means, and we can chuckle in an expert way. Symbology of this level makes us all insiders, and thus makes such art even more personal.

Comics is filled with such inside jokes: the lightbulbs, the speed lines, and clouds of smoke that inform our collective knowledge. As usual, McCloud has some brilliant points about the cultural disconnect when one culture doesn't understand another's symbology, and I won't rehash that.

I will say, however, that this is all the tip of the iceberg. I'm constantly surprised that comics, and for a time, silent films, are the only art form to consistently use such intimate semiotics to make a connection with the audience. Is it the lack of multiple panels ( "canvases") that make other artists less willing to use valuable real estate on something as prosaic as symbols? Shunning of common language for the desire to create something wholly unique? Or just that such symbology is often called "comic" symbology, and still viewed a bit huffily? There are a few artists that have delved into this realm, to great affect, I think. I can't wait for some more to come out of the woodwork.


DdK said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DdK said...

Good point. And, very well executed I must say(no Z's here).

Kevin O said...

I think that symbolism is more readily available to comics, as a visual but also narrative form.

Since most comic artists aren't striving for absolute realism, there's a level of representation already built in - and the limitations of the form make it almost necessary to develop a vocabulary of symbols - motion lines and thought bubbles being some of the most basic.

And once we're in this symbolic space already, once we've accepted that set of rules, it's easy to take your audience further along that road - not as jarring or messy as in film or fiction.

You should buy the book "The Discomfort Zone" by Jonathan Franzen - there's a long personal essay in there about his childhood relationship with "Peanuts" that's pretty great. I'm a big fan.

Anonymous said...

Whole-hearted agree. One of comics' subcatagories is caricature, the very act of exaggerating certain attributes. Comics *is* symbolism.

-Dan Cole