Thursday, January 10, 2013

Understanding Comics

“Understanding Comics” is a perfect blend of educational and informative literature. It delves into the psychology behind cartoons and how we relate to them in a way that I’ve never read before. The novel sparked a lot of “aha” moments when describing what makes cartoons and comics so appealing and I completely understand why this is known as the definitive book on comics.

An idea that I found fascinating is when Scott McCloud explained why it’s so easy to relate to cartoons. The more simplified a cartoon is, the easier it is to relate yourself to the character. He explains that the human brain takes in the appearance of others in vivid detail while our sense of self is more vague. We don’t see what we look like all the time. This is a concept that I’ve noticed for years but have never been able to explain. I see these principles all the time when I babysit. I can watch any cartoon with a group of kids and they will immediately start assigning who in the room is which character on the show. Regardless if the characters are crudely drawn or even a completely different species. They become instantly invested in what’s happening because they have made this connection to the character that they think best encompasses them. 

McCloud then makes the distinction between the sensory and conceptual world in cartoons. Everything in relation to us, or the character we are relating to, is a part of the conceptual experience while the objects and settings are sensory. This is why a lot of cartoons place their simplistically drawn characters in much more detailed worlds. The cartoon is the mask that we as the viewer are putting on and the world is a rich and exciting place for us to explore. This concept is used all over the place in animation and it’s even apparent in CG movies. For instance, in the movie Tangled, all of the characters are modeled to be stylized in a typical Disney fashion. They all have large expressive eyes and their faces aren’t too realistically textured with extraneous details like pores. Despite the character’s simplicity, the landscapes of the film are almost photorealistic. There are individual blades of grass in the fields and rays of sunlight shining through trees.

It’s exactly the aesthetic type that Scott McCloud describes in the graphic novel and now I understand why so many cartoons choose this technique. How could you not want to picnic in that forrest? This technique is so common place in comics and cartoons that you don't even think about it. "Understanding Comics" gave me the underlying meaning behind comic book conventions and my experience with the medium will become much richer because of it. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Max Ernst

1. "Alas! My cobbler." The old maid flailed her arms in anguish as her kidney bean surprise fell from her lap. "Honey, I told you your knees are too fragile. I offered my wings..." clucked the chicken in disapproval. The couple had hit a rough patch after Mr. Chicken found the maid's male concubine at the bottom of the stairs earlier that morning.

2. "But if true love's kiss won't wake this fair maiden, what will?" The large chicken man began to sob.

3. The ceremonial burying-of-the-dairy maid was almost complete. "Now to set the girl on fire," cooed the rooster priest.

4. "I really don't think this woman goes with the decor." The badger nodded in agreement.

5. "I finished my thesis!" The scientist was too excited to notice his children's homicidal practices.

The Arrival

“The Arrival” by  Shaun Tan is a powerful achievement in pure visual storytelling. It strips away one of the major components of the graphic novel (the words themselves) and is able to tell the story of a man who immigrates to a new country to build a better life for his family. Every page is a testament to the power of juxtaposition of images in telling a story.  From the very first page the reader is presented with nine separate illustrations that, on their own, seem like a random collection of pictures: a paper bird, a clock, a child’s drawing. But when placed one after the other you are able to effortlessly get a sense of a morning routine.  Tan lets the images speak for themselves and it’s astounding to see how much information can come across with simple objects.  There are also plenty of pages where actions are shown in a more step-by-step fashion. To me, these illustrations felt like slowly going through a flipbook. The movement on these pages almost comes to life like an animation.

            While reading the story it took a little while for me to fully grasp the meaning of all the abstract elements in the novel. But looking back it’s rather genius on Tan’s part that he makes the reader feel this way early on in the book because it puts you in the shoes of the main character. You go from the relatable, natural world of his homeland to this chaotic, foreign, and at times disturbing new country. The novel illustrates the uneasy feeling of being in a foreign country where everything from food, language, customs, and currency are completely different from what you’re used to.  By the time I got half way through the novel I started to get accustomed to this strange world and slowly understood what all these surreal monsters and objects stood for which is the same journey the main character follows. 

The art in the novel is beautifully executed with an interesting blend of realistically rendered people surrounded by bizarre elements. Subtle color shifts in the panels indicate a change in tone, mood, or even flashbacks. The novel also uses the negative space in the page for storytelling as well. Some panels are framed as if they are old photographs or pages in a journal to represent people’s memories. Every aspect of this novel is used to convey something specific to the reader and it’s truly inspiring to see that all of this information can be absorbed without a single word.