mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Words and pictures and inspiration

However if I can't brag about my presents I can certainly blog about them.

So deepfryerfire and stanking gave me Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. Tragicomic because Bechdal is a... err, mangaka (I shall never be able to use the word 'cartoonist' again) who draws the famous Dykes to Watch Out For strip. I opened it at random and read two chapters, thinking as I always do 'Man western comics are wordy', before putting it back down to get on with my Christmas morning present opening.

Having read it now, I must reconsider. Not that it isn't wordy: but in different ways from yer normal western comic. There are two quite distinct text-texts in this work: Bechdal's personal narrative up at the top of the frame (because this is a memoir) and the text in the balloons of the action. The personal narrative is both subtle and surprisingly dense; but it feels less dense than it is because it works in tandem with the pictures, that give you a pictorial reference (not always a concrete illustration) of the idea being expressed.

I'm finding this an almost perfect marriage of words and pictures. My trouble with western graphic novels is that generally speaking there's too many words in them. The characters talk more than is natural, more than the frames of the picture can stand, a lowering black cloud of text that swamps the pictorial action for purposes of (often) badly constructed exposition. But here the text blocks are emotionally separate from the pictorial action, and even physically discrete. The narrator talks and the pictures show what she's talking about. Both are still part of the frame; they belong together; but there's no forcing them to be integrated, so they never get in each other's way.

Conversely, the pictures provide space- air to breathe- for what would be a dense read if it was only text. A fr'instance: one way Bechdel makes sense of her parents' lives is by connecting the events to the books they were reading at the time, noting how themes from Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Proust are echoed in their lives. Her father becomes besotted with Scott Fitzgerald and his daughter says that his own letters to his fiancee changed as he began to write like a Fitzgerald character. An all-text book would have quoted his letters: Bechdel gives us a picture of them in his spiky handwriting (mis-spellings and all.) The letters are part of the /visual/ story we're seeing below; Bechdel's comments on how her father changed persona belong to the distanced narrative we are hearing up at the top of the picture.

I haven't read House of Leaves and I tend to get a bit annoyed at people who get clever with the text of text works. But this is quite different; it's giving text equally billing *and* its own separate space in what reflex insists is a primarily visual medium. I gather some people disapprove: they want the words to be imbedded in the story, and the story to be told primarily in pictures. But I like it, this co-operative play between two different modes of narrative.

The more so because one holiday project this year was to reread most of Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins has pictures, of course, and it made me realize how much I've missed illustrated books. This western text-picture apartheid of ours begins to bug me. All-text is what a novel should be. Stories with pictures are for children. And of course graphic novels have been fighting the concept of 'only for kids' since forever. Maybe that's why there's so much text in them? to give them the weight of novels? The trouble, in the examples I've seen, is that the text and the words are either badly integrated, within those many lead balloons, or that the narrative text is simply not up to the art work. Great pictures- bloody awful prose style.

Bechdel gets the proportions and the relationship just right. If anything, her narrative is stronger than her visual, which I think is what makes the balance equal in this default-visual mode. Of course, one point she also makes in the course of her narration is that the emotionally frozen atmosphere of her childhood allows her a cool distanced view of the events of that childhood. That distance is perfectly expressed by the separation between her narrative and the pictured events. So the content is complicit with the style in this case. Still, I wonder if other people do the same thing elsewhere?

Because I was just thinking, apropos of fannish events this last week- my story, rasetsunyo's drawing- that it feels good for that part of my life to be active again, the responsive creative fannish one. When I'm not writing that part of me gets expressed only by private stories in my head and a feeling of non-accomplishment. 'It's like being an original writer,' I thought, and then wondered why I thought so. Because there's nobody in your head but your own characters, which seems sad to me. Sad certainly because there's no one to talk to about them: the onus is entirely on you to provide everything required. Too solipsistic. But sad largely because there are no pictures of these people to refer to. (Unless you can draw yourself, which most authors can't. It still stuns me that most mangaka write their own stories. Those are *two separate arts*, people, and over here don't usually occur in the same person. See above comments about wretched prose styles in graphic novels.) The visual to me is somehow a necessity to a thing's full existence. That's why I'm so utterly delighted when someone gives one of my own characters a pictorial (or as it may be, rag doll ^_^) expression. It makes them real to me.

Bref: what's absent from text is the visual component. There's nothing to look at. Books exist in a curtailed reality where style must take the place of visuals. And if the style is indifferent, there's nothing left to build on.

Most of fandom runs off visual sources. We look at the thing first, because sight is primary; that's what kickstarts me, at least, into writing about them. That's why my fannish stories are stuff I see happening in my head. Right after is, sometimes, the sound of a human voice talking, which is a given of live-action fandom and the useful part of anime ones (because otherwise anime is usually a watered down version of the much better manga.) I think that's why novel fandoms come a poor third after all the visual media, and why they're a totally different proposition to write. Novel fandoms, as I've said before, pretty much have to be pastiche to work. If you don't have the author's style, or at least their style of dialogue, nothing will make this reader believe that the characters are themselves. Whereas I can write a manga character in a totally dialogueless story using my own style and still have them be them, because of what they do and think, or because my style conjures up the manga pictures.

Not sure what the moral of this is. 'Pictures good', maybe. More time for pictures. And of course, thanks hugely, deepfryerfire and stanking.
Tags: art, fandom, reading, reading_06, writing, xmas

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