Saturday, September 03, 2005

What Makes a Good Comic Book?

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman wrote an essay about comics ("New Yorker," June 22, 2002) in which he praised Bernard Krigstein's Master Race as "an accomplishment of the highest orderĂ‚—a masterpiece." Thrilled by this possibility, I sought out a reproduction (online version). After reading it, I felt compelled to write Mr. Spriegelman the following letter. Alas, he never responded. Note: the link to his essay (above) doesn't include the illustrations which originally accompanied it in the "New Yorker." If anyone has a scan of the Kriegstein/Bradbury frame I mention in my letter, I would be grateful for a copy. Thanks!

Dear Mr. Spiegelman,

As a child I devoured comics, but in my late teens I felt I had outgrown them. I wasn't trying to cast off childhood by escaping from something childish. In fact, I'm sure I would have continued to read comics if the stories had continued to interest me. But I got tired of the repetition and cliches. Style became important to me, and I could now see that much of the writing was trite -- and even more of it was terrible.

But I've always retained an interest in the comic form. I'm aware that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, I'm convinced that comics have great potential, that the form could include masterpieces, and that a comic masterpiece would be totally distinct from a written masterpiece or a filmed masterpiece. But I haven't started reading comics again, because I need a guide to help me sort through all the drek and locate the pearls.

So I was excited to read your rave about Krigstein's Master Race in the July 22nd New Yorker. After reading your article, I searched for -- and eventually found -- a reprint of the comic and read it, hoping for the best. Alas, I can't agree with you that it's a masterpiece. I do understand why you love the illustrations and the layout, and I'm sure that the comic is historically important and influential. Certainly Krigstein had a deep understanding of the form's visual potential, and I think his observation about the import of "what happens between the frames" is key. But the work fails as a masterpiece, because the relationship between illustrations and text is uncomfortable and unilluminating.

In your article, you don't spend much time discussing the relationship of words to pictures, but surely this a key relationship in the comic form (exceptions are those rare stories by artists who "speak" only in pictures). For a comic to be a masterpiece, both text and images must contribute something unique to each frame. Remove the text, and you should be left with only half the story; remove the images, and you should be left with the other half. And there are all sorts of ways that image and text can play off of each other: one can hold back while the other explodes, one can take in the-big-picture while the other zooms in on a detail, one can act as an ironic commentary on the other, etc.

But the text should never simply describe the illustration. And the illustration should never simply depict the text. Which is what happens throughout Master Race (at least until the final sequence). As an example, take the panel reproduced in on the first page of your article. The text reads, "Look, Carl! Look at the face of this man sitting across from you in this now deserted subway car." And we see a picture of this very man's face. The text continues, "Remember the guards that gleefully carried out the sadistic orders of the master race... whipping... kicking... beating!... The guards that eagerly dragged the women and children to the waiting, smoking ovens!" And we see these very guards pushing these same women and children towards these same ovens." The pictures add nothing to the words.

Compare this to the two panels you include from Krigstein's Bradbury story. In the second panel, the text reads, "the executioner whirled his silver ax..." but we don't see the ax. Instead, we see frightened birds (not mentioned in the text) fleeing from the tree branches they had been perched on. Our minds are left to associate the sound of the ax with the terror of the birds. And we're also left to imagine the severed head rolling on the ground. To me, these two panels are much more of a masterpiece than then entire Master Race story.

Of course, I realize that Krigstein labored under a huge number of restraints, mostly economic and editorial, and that he didn't create the text. And I fear that many people would respond to this letter by suggesting that I have to understand the context or, even more likely, by throwing up their hands and shouting, "it's just a comic book for Christ's sake!" But we owe it to this unique form to judge it as an equal to literature, film, painting and music, and we should hold it to the same standards. Only then will excellence emerge.

No comments: