MLA: Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books

While I had intended to live blog the MLA sessions I attended, I did not do so. I saved this one to add pictures to, forgot about it, and left it in my drafts without much hope of ever coming out. Today, in searching for something else I had written, I stumbled upon it and felt that publishing it, while several months late, might be a useful choice–even if I didn’t get matching pictures.

In blogging this conference, I am following the conventions for conference blogging.

Presiding: Charles Hatfield, California State Univ., Northridge; Craig Svonkin, Metropolitan State Coll. of Denver

The room is full. It’s not one of the smaller rooms, either.

Picture books help children learn to enjoy reading. Comic books are seen as “fugitive literature” that people hide.

Share a history.

Long list of works that show that these two types of works are related and connected in unique ways.

“Picture Book Guy Looks at Comics: Structural Differences in Two Kinds of Visual Narrative,” Perry Nodelman, Univ. of Winnipeg
author of Words About Pictures

Find comics confusing.

Two texts both by Michael Nicoll Yahqualanaas: The Canoe He Named X X and Red: A Haida Manga

Comic book structure more complicated.

Picture books, picture are separate from words.
Comics, words appear outside of, in, and through pictures.

Red exaggerates taht by placing words in edges of the panels.

In most pages of comics, there are more bits of information.
Picture books offer more pictures.
Complicated combinations in comics, seem less centrally or purely illustrative.

Hyper-illustration? Comics

Comics both imply sequential panels and other non-sequential possibilities.

Red as it appears on a gallery wall, a network of possible relationships.
Reveals other structures and patterns within them.

Totality = network
strip, page, and album are increasingly complicated

We can and do re-read, even picture books.
But we do so in the context of the relative isolation of the pictures and text, each separated by page.

In reading comics, the potential and actual relations seem immediately important. A single frame, from a corner of a larger picture. That page is a two-page picture. And it can be seen in the network gallery presentation of Red.

Different ways in which they illustrate each other could undercut…

Invitation to join into and out of numerous possibilities.
Red is a particularly intense example of that proliferation.
Characters interact with the borders: lay down, lean against, grab hold…

Comics seem to be radically tangential and unstable. That is its strength.
Always full of unrealized possibilities.

The Canoe looks more like conventional borders. Effect is more illustrative than energetic. Only pictures with “wide-eyed boy” have the energy of Red.

Picture and comic books have different breathing/reading rhythms.
Picture books build laterally. Work to make sense of words and books. Undercut each other. Build meaning. New pages and new pictures and new words give us a new puzzle.

Comics less dual. “fracture both time and space” (McCloud)
Closure allows us to connect these moments.

Ideas in earlier panels add to the new idea.
“the stuttering art”
Both Red and the arrow he shoots “stutter.”

More information makes for more complicated understanding needed.

Easy to downplay generic characteristics, but it is important not to ignore them.
The most significant study: might reveal something about inherent idiosyncratic…

picture books= pedantic,

“Not Genres but Modes of Graphic Narrative: Comics and Picture Books,” Philip Nel, Kansas State Univ.

juxtapositions: between “pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (McCloud)

Picture book: juxtapositions between words and

movement in time:

comics: movement in time on all pages
picture books: movement of page

Venn diagram of the two. Might be different forms.

Comics have panels. And picture books do not. But some picture books have panels.

Typical two pages are one panel or each page is a panel.

In a typical comic, the gutter appears on both between panels and around the edges.

Panels, both with and without borders, have been part of the visual grammar of picture book narrative. (Curious George)

Multiple panels in a given page in all comics, but not in all picture books.
Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug by Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash = multiple panels = comics
Board books = single panels = picture books

exposing the flawed warrant behind my claim that picture books use comics-style story telling…

I’ve been using genre as synonymous with form. Genre is more than form.
“Genre is reflected in form and features, but is not those form and features.”

Difference: Scott McCloud, etc.
Comics represent time spatially.
Comics locate the reader in space and are able to spatialize memory.
Comics’ cartographic temporality makes it particularly suitable for memoirs.

Picture books also represent time spatiallly.
We know looking at Olivia (2000), we know we aren’t looking at 17 fashionable pigs, but one at 17 different times.
They do render time as space.
Even the absence of bordered pictures, picture books still use time.

shortcomings of using genre to talk about form
spatial temporality in both
but panels offer multiple views

aspect to aspect

Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)’s gutters are not like a comic books.

comics integrate words and images INTERdependently… Mark Newgarden

Both use/have interdependent words and images

text and image together form X
the location of that tension determined by where the words appear…

Comic books harder to isolate words and images.

Though some in picture books.

Examples of mixed image and words:
Contract with God
Woof Meow Tweet-Tweet
Bembo’s Zoo
Harold’s ABC

Two key formal differences:
1. degree of specificity in temporal divisions
2. proximity of contiguity of words and images
Greater in comics for both.

“Genres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts…” Jameson, The Political Unconscious (92).

Many continuities between comics and picture books.

Thinking of comic books and picture books as a mode: “a conventional power of action” (Frye Anatomy of Criticism 366)

Literary genres value originality and novelty.

Recommended: Amy J. Devitt Writing Genres

Genres are unstable and evolving…

“Graphic Novels’ Assault upon the Republic of Reading,” Michael Joseph, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

reading very quickly…

I’m going to begin “In conclusion, the elaborated code of comics:
their allusions
their printing history
Loop attention back to the book as a work of art…”

Loop attention back to the process of reading and their experience of reading.

Comics resist traditional process. Spurn authority of typical codex books.
social identity or structure resisted by comics

In early modern Europe, spurning ritual meant being less than human….
The same values that subscribe bookmakers surely subscribe the rituals of bookmaking and reading.

Looking at reading as a physical performance… involving eyes, head, fingers, stomach, and awareness of one’s reading body as an X in space and time. Body acts on environment that depends on how people move in it.
Qualitative experiences in ritualized and schematized reading…

Some woman moving around and into a chair “Sofa” by The Seven Fingers of the Hand… There’s a space around a reading figure in the back. He is enclosed in a void. Reading happens in or creates around itself a kind of bubble or crystal ball.

Reading body not only possesses phenomenology but it is connected to a transformative comment.

Reading is opposite of fear and nightmares. “Wake up, oh reader, and read!”

Child reading comic book under blanket with a flashlight, avoidance of sleep and reason…

“I feel that learning with books is as important a rite of passage as learning to eat with utensils and being potty-trained.”
Romanticized concept of ritual. Allied with a belief that ritual allows people to become human. 1982… anthropologist
books = forks, potties
Book is a culturally coded argument to restraint.

Books immunize the sexuality. Book as kind of chastity belt.

Books were allied with slaves and women… Associated with less intellectual… Greek…

We assume books absorb meaning.
The immateriality of the codex book is an overwhelmingly strong ideal.
Reading as immaculate conception.

Spiritualization of the book…

Porn superstar Sasha Gray reading to children. She’s naked.

Turning and examining and reading a book that requires turning to read keeps the reader involved. It also de-ritualizes reading.

Reading qualifies as ritual.
By romanticizing ritual, we lose understanding that ritual is part of modern world not the answer to the modern world.

“Ritual can be situational. A matter of what … done… rather than ..universality…”

St. Jerome reading… reading as prayer.

Sanctuary? (Syfy) woman in a library, with hands cupped in front of faith, like prayer

Codex… book’s anatomy…

The Ideal Book 1893 “sleeves should be peaceful”

“As to the height of a page, this is governed by the hand and eye.” –Gill

Books anatomy bears the imprint of the reader.

Stephen Lukes “ritual draws people’s attention to certain forms… since every way of looking is a way of not looking”

foregrounding arbitrary …

communal rituals… make pointed, though symbolic and indirect, traditions
make inconsistent demands on the reader, ask to be loved…

“The Panel as Page and the Page as Panel: Uncle Shelby and the Case of the Twin ABZ Books,” Joseph Terry Thomas, San Diego State Univ.

Grew up reading comics.
Didn’t read children’s literature until I hit college.
I was the kind of kid who read comics, comic books, comic strips… My ambrosia was word balloons and colors.
Around the same time I took a children’s lit class, I began reading the so-called language books.
genre-bending books led me back to… historical avant garde… New York School unafraid to cajole the comics I so loved.

Kind of texts I met as a young man resist the genre of Aristotelian…
“Stopping by Woods as a Snowy Evening”
“Visual Text XIV” poem
or “Concrete Cat”
yet they are all poems.
If I had added sound poems, there would be even less.

Theoretical defense: radial category
“typical case” poem
less likely a work is to meet a kind of marker, the closer you are to a typical case prototype

Eventually the case becomes harder and harder to make. We reach, have moved so far from the center, that we have something that is “intermedial” or “experimental” or “X avant garde.”

Historical defense: where published, who wrote

Samuel “Chip” Delaney best articulates this defense in his review of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

“What I mean when I use the term genre: … largely through an unspecified combination of social forces (they are sold from the same bookshelves in bookstores, they are published by the same publishers, they are liked by the same readers, written by the same writers, share in a range of subject matters, etc.), most people will not require historical evidence to verify that a writer producing one of those texts, has read others of that group written up to that date.” (257)

to justify this: Shel Silverstein
“The” US children’s poet
got his start as a comic for Playboy
poems called “seemingly dashed off and endlessly recycled”
Poetry seems so simple and straightforward. Hard to pin down as one form of art.
Poetry interesting because it isn’t always just poetry.
He insists that his poetry must be connected to the illustrations.
Some of his poems are their illustrations.

mixed genres, travelogues, etc.

Consider this: visit to a nude beach “Nudist Camp” essay, photojournal, one panel gag comic, etc.

“New St. Nick” collides the motion of the panel. Here he’s blending the comic strip with light verse.

Savage Sword of Conan #95, December 1983, full page panels
“infamous” sideways issue of Spiderman.

Slipperiness of genre… page of Playboy
Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book…
picture book parody of children’s alphabet book
two double-paged spreads, comic book version
content suggests alphabet book, look suggests comic book
a minor point… Narrative isn’t a crucial element to either comics or picture books.
In the comic version, one reads across the page.
In Playboy, clearly a parody.

Once the panels are broken up into pages and a cover added. Our reception of the work is unsettled. His picture at the back is Shel Silverstein reading with three children moving, but being read to.

In the form of a picture book, we are no longer thinking about a hole, but we are looking at something you might bury in a hole. When you read the page, the drawn hole is a phallus.

Concluding gesture: Delaney’s definition of genre good.
But rather than drawing up lists of which are comics and which are picture books,
See how the text is read by its community of readers.
Asking what happens to a comic when it is read like a picture book and what happens to a picture book when it is read as a comic.

Question: Why have picture books evolved as child media? What does it have to do with our conception of the child as reader?
Spatialization of time…

Resist the idea of picture book and comics being these way because …
Talked back and forth.

Next person: Found the panel very refreshing… Last decade comics’ theory has focused on authority and formal definition. Glad to see this absent here. In doing that, you liberate comics and picture books into a more sophisticated sense of re-reading.

Taking a book apart and hanging it in a museum stops it being a book and makes it a piece of visual art.

Artist’s book … responding to elitism of the art world.
Graphic novels make gestures to sophisticated art work, but they ask to be seen as literature.
mass production of picture books… means they occupy different genres(?)

My first experience with Red was with the museum visual artistic representation. Quite different response to seeing it on the wall. Then intrigued to see the book.

Artists’ books have become overwhelmed by desire to sell well. So they become beautiful but aren’t really art any more.

Not clear to me that the generic boundaries are shared by all readers.
Picture books are mapped out on storyboard… Harry Potter is all those things.

I really want to define a difference between picture books and comics and then in other ways, there’s not.

last issue is a comic book that you are supposed to take apart. Designed to be destroyed. Good if you buy two copies.

Comics “don’t have to be worked at as artwork.” Comics abstract comics. Don’t need to have narrative.

Comics and curation… art…

Historicize the genre as it shifts.

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