The Rattling Skull – 1

Why hello, gentlefolk of the internet. My name is David Wynne, and I am here to speak to you of comics.

I *love* comics. Reading them, making them, talking about them. Holding them in my hands, looking at them on a screen, obsessively re-arranging them on my shelf. I love all kinds of comics; super-hero comics, science fiction comics, crime comics, newspaper gag comics; old comics, new comics. I LIKE COMICS AN AWFUL LOT IS BASICALLY WHAT I AM SAYING.

My hero is Will Eisner, who stands dead centre in the history of modern comics; he was right there in the middle of it all when the madly experimental outlaw art form became mainstream entertainment for all. He was party, at a distance, to the creation of both Superman and Batman. He was instrumental in the formative years of the career of Jack Kirby, and was a mentor to Frank Miller. With his groundbreaking use of theatrical staging and open panel layouts, as well as his pioneering experiments with format, he was one of the architects of the medium as we know it today- his influence is felt in the work of everyone from Chris Ware to Geoff Johns. And he never went mad, which is somewhat unusual for comics’ geniuses.*

But most of all, he understood what makes comics such a great medium.

Now you’ll have to excuse me for a moment, I’m afraid I’m going to have to sneeze a big old boring gob of technical theory at you now; and bear in mind that I have no formal training (beyond GCSE level) in any art form, so my use of terms may not be perfect. Be that as it may, I want to talk to you for a minute about passive and interactive artistic forms:

A passive art form is one that requires little or no work from the audience. Film is, by and large, a passive medium; you sit facing the screen and allow yourself to experience the piece. Prose, on the other hand is an interactive form; you cannot simply open a book and allow the words to wash over you, they must be read and interpreted (visualizing that which is described, etc), which requires a significant amount of work on the part of the reader. There are plenty of mediums that fall somewhere in between, whether it’s theatre (mostly passive), radio drama (heavy on the interaction), or of course comics.

Now, comics are special. One of the things that I and many others love about comics is that they can be almost completely passive, or they can allow the reader a level of interaction un-paralleled by any other medium. Often at the same time.

This is one of the things that makes Mike Mignola so amazing: Hellboy can be enjoyed purely as a ridiculous adventure yarn, sure. But if you are at all familiar with mythology, and in particular european folk tales, it can take on a different tone… while a knowledge of the art deco movement, from Charles Rennie Macintosh to the Bauhaus (shut up, I bloody know, but we can argue about whether or not those two are connected another time) allows you to appreciate his beautiful and exquisitely crafted art in a whole other way.

And this versatility of interpretation allows the reader to choose how they experience the work: you can read a Hellboy collection in half an hour, or you can take a week on it. And I’d argue that this versatility is there by design: Mignola wants you to be able to have it both ways.

Every great creator in the history of the medium understood this; Take a look at the work of George Herriman, of Windsor McCay, of Alex Toth, Joe Kubert and modern master Paul Grist; every one of them strikes a balance between clear, free flowing story telling that allows you to race through the story as if it were a flick book, and clever visual tricks, jokes and plain and simple awe-inspiring beauty that rewards you twice as much for taking your time.

(This is, in my opinion, the lesson that today’s most critically lauded cartoonists have failed to learn- creators like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware like to dictate the pace of consumption, and actively punish the casual reader by hiding important plot details with formal tricks. Comics creators and critics tend to love them for their technical skill; but the elitist, insular leaning of the work is off-putting to me.)

But no-one articulated this kind of theoretical thinking about comics until Eisner came along. His book, Comics And Sequential Art, remains the most important piece of literature ever produced about the medium, and possibly the most insightful. If I’m trying to give a new reader a hand on their way in to comics, I usually recommend Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics; but for people already familiar with the medium looking to understand it more thoroughly, Comics And Sequential Art is the big daddy. Read it.

Anyway. I tell you all this merely to give you an idea of how my thought processes on the subject tend to run. To let you know what you’re in for, and how my tastes run. Because this great wedge of brain droppings before you is the first instalment of a hopefully regular column. And while I’ve no doubt that future instalments will be just as meandering, I can at least tell you that I intend to keep them significantly shorter than this. I won’t be talking so much about theory and form in later columns either; that doesn’t, as a good friend of mine would say, “pump my nag”. My intention, among other things, is to talk about comics, and the creators, that I feel are somewhat overlooked. Next time, for my first trick: Marv Wolfman and Rick Leonardi’s Vigilante form DC.

So, see you next time. ‘Till then: Peace.

* No really, there’s something in the ink fumes that drives us around the bend. Steve Ditko, creator of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and The Question, is a reclusive political radical with beliefs that border on the fascist; Dave Sim, creator of the astonishing artistic achievement that is Cerebus, believes that women are tools of a terrible destructive cosmic force that he calls, I kid you not, “yoohoo”; and Chester Gould, ctreator of Dick Tracy, spent his latter years holed up in a penthouse having paranoid panic attacks about muggers and rapists and most of all those scary, scary jews.

What’s that you say? “What about the hundreds, nay thousands, of extremely talented creators who produced prodigious bodies of work and remained level headed to the end?” Sssh. You’re ruining my fun.

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  1. Finally read through this, after having the tab open for what seems like years. Nice opening, sir!

    Looking forward to hearing some comments and viewpoints beamed straight from your slightly-demented head in the future. And, hey, you’ve read a metric tonne of comics, and even gone into creating them yourself, so I think that qualifies you to speak with a modicum of authority and confidence!

    (And, I love Will Eisner also – although I’ve not read any of his post-Spirit stuff, mostly because they’re pretty damn £££. I’ve taken to buying any Kitchen Sink-published Spirit reprints I can find, they’re great reading – and have informative columns/essays/interviews, too!)

  2. david wynne /

    Hey Mike 😉

    thank you for the kind words, however undeserved! I shall do my best to live up to expectations.

    I can’t push Eisner’s later work enough. There’s a couple of hardback editions out there that give a nice big sampling of his stuff- A Life, In Pictures and New York Stories. You’re right, they’re not cheap, but a decent library should have them (my local library does, in fact- Crystal Palace). Outside those I’d suggest A Life Force, Last Days In Vietnam, and right now I happen to be reading A Contract With God.

    Seriously dude, do yourself a favour and check ’em out- you won’t regret it!

  3. We love Metallica!

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