Comics are Strange
By GMB Chomichuk, guest editor for TWR issue 14
No one can blame you for thinking about these things as “funny books.” Comics are strange in North America. Rather than give you a history of the medium, which you can find here and here in good measure, I will tell you the only thing you do need to know. They are words and pictures together that tell a story. The rest is up to you.
It’s okay to like comics. You don’t need any special knowledge or pop culture credibility. You don’t need to watch Doctor Who or know the name of the man who shot Batman’s parents. You don’t even have to have ever been in a comic book store. Simply take each as you like it or not at all. Life is too short to spend on books that don’t reach you in your heart.
It’s okay that you think they are for kids. As much for kids as the brothers Grimm’s fairy tales or Huckleberry Finn I suppose. There are comics of every genre, though you will find them all together on the same shelves. Not all comics have superheroes and they never did. Are many North American comics male power fantasies? Maybe. Fiction has Tom Clancy to balance that. Yesterday at the bookstore I saw all sorts of strange fantasies on the shelves. Odd depictions of worlds some want to live in. I know what they were about the same way you do: The pictures on the covers. Because an image has a frightening power to take over our perceptions and our emotions. Colour and form rewire us at a glance. Because today you can and do (and sometimes should) judge a book by its cover.
Words and pictures combine with a unique force in the human condition. We are semiotic symbol-recognition machines. We build whole worlds of meaning in tiny symbols. The name of your lover and a picture of a your lover will both conjure up memory and emotion, though never in the same way.
Comics can be big commercial machine efforts: shareholder-corporate-owned characters, publisher-editor-writer-penciler-inker-colourist that somehow still yield a fine tale. Or they can be small affairs where the writer and illustrator-colourist are the same person, and the vision is crystal clear and razor sharp. The only real difference is that in some you know who is to blame when it has wasted your time.
There is no such thing as a definitive reading list for comics. For me there is a list of graphic novels that made me feel things, question things. Words and pictures have different powers. There are a lot of charlatans claiming to give you the magic of comics. But there are also many genuine practitioners. Daytripper (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon) made me weep. Blankets (Craig Thompson) made me young again and The Courtyard (Alan Moore) made me afraid to fall asleep. Battling Boy (Paul Pope) evoked every night I stayed out too late growing up. Cages (Dave McKean) made me evaluate the direction of my adult life. Jan’s Atomic Heart (Simon Roy) made me question my own convictions as an illustrator. Popbot (Ashley Wood) bombarded me with visual storytelling minus the rules.
Why comics? Why not?
We read books for as many reasons as we create them. Better to judge for yourself.