Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Comics as Art and Literature

The Drawn Book As Art And Literature
(Originally composed for an academic comics symposium)

As proof that the drawn book is art and literature, I am going to build my article around one publication or source: my own books.

I have chosen this approach because my work is original. It is not couched in the “comics” tradition. I did not learn to draw or write in that tradition. My work entered that publishing world fully formed after years of private practice..

If anything, my work is based in the classical arts and literatures of the world. My first writing model is Kipling, with his poetic English, flavored with the Hindi vernacular with which he was raised. My own work reflects my long study of the German language (including a B.A. in German language and Literature, from Ohio State University) with its ability to easily express complex and esoteric concepts. It's hard to say complicated things in English. German, with the pop-bead nature of its syllabic and meaning system, allows a speaker or writer to construct brand-new words to express the most nuanced meanings. A German writer can readily express new concepts with words never found in the dictionary. For example, rather than researching the German word for “centaur,” I constructed Halbpferd, literally “half-horse.” The German word is from the Greek, Kentaur, but I wanted a native construction to express the folk nature of the tales I would be telling (It happened that Halbpferd has already been used in German literature as a word for “centaur.”).

My artwork shows influences of several line-drawing traditions, most of them folk or ancient, and therefore anonymous. The strongest influence is one which has worked upon much of the art of the western world for more than a century – the tomb paintings of ancient Egypt. This typically African art, with its supremely refined sense of line and weight, its attenuated physical forms and design-like repetitive patterns, its use of sacred design symbol, in everything from the edge of a linen skirt to thousands of leaves or waves of water, has always been a model for my own art.

Raised in the Pacific Northwest region of the American continent, I was also very much influenced by the native Form-Line designs, as described by Bill Holm in his now-classic Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. The dignity and clarity of the form, with its powerful sweeping lines and paring down of detail, as well as the de-construction and re-construction of natural forms into what can almost be read as a form of hieroglyphic (i.e., a killer whale with a human eye form is not a killer whale, but a man in killer whale form, or a killer whale wearing human form while interacting with the human world), did much to help me form my own viewpoint of the line-work form.

One of my former publishers, Edd Vick, has said that I had almost re-invented the comic form independent of any extant tradition. Without reference to published comics, I built stories using art and writing, placing six equal panels, divided purely for mathematical balance, upon each page. The original manuscripts of this work can be found in San Diego State University Library's Special Collections (refer to:

When I was first approached by an editor, Steve Gallacci of Thoughts and Images, and later published by Eclipse Comics, I did very little to bring my style into line with that more traditionally used by mainstream comics. Without changing the style of either my art or writing, I opened up the layout and made it more approachable by a public. Other than that, I retained my artistic control.

Part of the problem with comics, and the reason they have been considered a mere production model, was that they were based on teams. These teams were originated by Will Eisner, one of the founding developers of the first forms. His own work – especially in his well-received A Life, In Pictures -- uses fiction to tell the story of ancestors and relatives, especially one man who paid less talented workers to become part of a production-line that produced painted faux wood bedsteads, freeing up this man to do more of the artistic work. Eisner introduced this own method in his early publication career, bringing together a group of artists and writers who were happy to do piece work in a production-line atmosphere.

This production-line method works if the creator is a writer, an artist, a colorist or letterer – but what about the author who can do it all? Eisner was one of these, but in opening the field to the less versatile members of the artistic community, he trapped other artists -- like himself capable of completing the project on their own -- in a system based on nothing but piece work, with no options or opportunities for the complete author.

While very few of the writers, artists, or letterers involved in comic books can be viewed as second-rate talents, this model informed the whole future of the art form. Creators were viewed as simply replaceable cogs, in a culture of imitation that supported nothing but a publisher marketing model.

Mr. Eisner meant well, but mis-interpretation of the system by others who didn't understand his original purpose, has led to an art-form that traditionally became as cookie-cutter as a Ford assembly line. A creator of Eisner's stature as a thoroughbred could work within the system without becoming a driven hack. Very few others could. A writer or artist, no matter how talented, could be replaced by the next rising young star -- with an art style that looked just like the old guys' – and often was, because the star author's salary and fees had risen with his career, and anyone who could be hired at a much lower entry cost to the publisher could threaten a career. Worse, the individual creator who could accomplish all parts of this extremely labor-intensive art form was forced into the piece-work model. Small wonder that the writing and art in comics has been so hard to tell apart. Individuality was always at the mercy of the bottom line.

Enter the computer and the internet. In a very short time, print-on-demand technologies, such as the very accessible and more professional (acquired by as its POD supplier) opened up the printing field to everyone. All a creator needed was the ability to use basic Adobe programs, or scrape up a few bucks for layout at one of the upload sites.

Marketing ranged from private websites to's Advantage and Marketplace programs. Artists and writers like Jane Irwin became marketplace masters. Her list of distributors is one of the best ( Her own Vogelein books are a clear example of the kind of talent and originality that can flourish is a creator is allowed to fly free.

Webcomics have blasted open the walls of traditional comics in everything from layout to payment plans. As an example, Joey Manley's – later expanded into the empire – allows total creator control. Creators can even make their own ad deals on the sites through www.projectwonderfulcom Without the stultifying control of market-based genres, authors are free to create thousands of different forms, with a grace and complexity comparable to any literature or art form.

Comics can become a true form of art and literature now, because there is nothing to control or stop it, even more than in prose publishing. Comics creators are very publishing savvy. To be a self-publisher is a mark of honor within the field, because it reflects – on top of amazing talent and the ability to turn out masses of incredible work -- a business sense and work ethic unlike anywhere else in publishing. Comics authors commonly have their own series of ISBNs, and know where to get SANs, ISSN's and LCCN's. They know how to use all the Adobe layout and upload software.

Prose authors, on the other hand, may be falling into the former comics trap. Once the Harry Potter series comes to an end, any author who may fit the bill, regardless of style or ability, can be grabbed and sent into that marketing niche. Prose authors, without knowledge of how to control their own art form, are quickly being chopped into genres as cookie cutter as any of the old tights-n-fights comics series. The only prose forms which may retain their individuality are poetry and mystery – the latter will accept any form of story or style as long as a mystery is stuck into it somewhere.

Traditional publishers count on genre or box thinking to make their products more marketable. It seems as though the No-Child-Left-Behind test system in America are breaking down the ability for original thought, or at least that seems to be its intent. Again, the internet, with its constant accessibility for discussion, dispute and research, may be doing an end-run around what seems to be the attempt of the New School system to lower the educations levels (actual intent of the system to be discussed in another place). While the average reader is content with genre books directed at the perceived housewife or teenager, the comic book reader is the very market that has refused to be kept at the box level, and knows how to get around or past it.

With full freedom of marketing and production, comics creators have been writing about the entire range of human experience, from tragedy to comedy – often in the same books, following the long European tradition of the ambiguity of existence. Art forms are being built from all the traditions of the world and all time, or being developed independently by artists who are as free as their art.

The day may come when the prose writers learn how to get out of the boxes and join the revolution. Will Eisner's original intent of artistic freedom for artists and writers may be realized at last.

Donna Barr 29 August, 2007

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