This article looks at how we perceive comics in the world around us, drawing on examples from the online and real life discussions between attendees at The Comics and the Multimodal World conference, organised by Graphixia and The Comics Grid, which took place at Douglas College, New Westminster, B.C, in June 2013.
Figure 1. Comics & The Multimodal World conference poster by Damon Herd.
The conference opened with two roundtable sessions, one of which was moderated by myself. The panel included Susan Kirtley, Assistant Professor of English at Portland State University, Aine Young, a recent PhD graduate from Queen’s University Belfast and Paddy Johnston, a PhD student at The University of Sussex, and the topic of discussion was ‘What Are Comics?’
There are endless debates around this subject and rather than go over old ground (at least in my introduction) I decided to bring in a recent paper that I had published on The Comics Grid, ‘Dieter Roth’s Solo Scenes and the Comics Art World’ (it could be said that I did go over that old ground in the paper, so perhaps I was just cutting to the chase). I argued that almost anything, including Roth’s 128-screen video installation could be defined as comics.
The paper touched on the theories of Thierry Groensteen, Scott McCloud and Aaron Meskin to show how Solo Scenes (1998) could be considered as comics. It has panels (monitor screens), a grid structure (the screens evenly spaced on shelves), and is a mostly chronological sequence containing repeated icons and text boxes (the repeated shots of the same interiors and Roth in his dressing gown, and the text labelling each monitor with date and place), all things that could be considered as part of a definition of comics. Indeed, these are features that Meskin (2007: 376) would claim are ‘typically’ used in comics but he would argue against any of them being considered standard features.
I broadly agree with Meskin that comics are made of typical features, where no one characteristic is strictly necessary to allow an item to fit the description. I also stated that any definition should be allowed to evolve, as comics are the ‘site of seemingly endless formal experimentation and variation’ (Herd 2013), for example digital comics with interaction, movement and/or sound, or site-specific installations such as Dave McKean’s The Rut (2010). I believe that, if you can defend it, then anything can be comics. So I dropped Dieter Roth in as my opening salvo.
There was at least one answer of ‘definitely not! There is movement’ to my suggestion of Roth’s video installation as comics. I was slightly worried that it might have been too much of a leap in the first session on the first day of the conference but thankfully the panel and audience were happy to engage in the debate. The rest of the panel had brought slides of comics pages to help the discussion, including images of such diverse creators as Frank Miller, Chris Ware and Lynda Barry but the debate did begin to centre around what could be comics, how far could we push it?
One memorable exchange came when Brooke Sheridan from The University of Alaska suggested that the four sound proofing baffles on the auditorium wall could be considered as comics. ‘Yes, definitely!’ was my response and I got the impression that the attendees were warming to this theme. One of the most impressive things about the conference was the lively and interactive twitter backchannel. Many delegates were prolific live tweeters and the debates would carry on during and after panels both online and in person. Sheridan tweeted many drawings during the conference including this one, a comic about the sound baffles.
Figure 2. Sound baffles comic by Brooke Sheridan.
Ryan Cousineau, a Computer Technician at Douglas College, was the first to tweet about the sound proofing panels discussion and helpfully posted a photograph, shown here for comparison. He attributed the experience to apophenia, the perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things. On a side note, the related phenomenon pareidolia, where one sees faces in other objects is an important one in comics, just ask Scott McCloud and Alan Moore.
Figure 3. Tweet by Ryan Cousineau.
The panel ended, as these things do, with no overall agreement over ‘What Are Comics?’ but the debate kept simmering in the background for the rest of the conference. As seen in Ernesto's introduction, several people, including myself, photographed the hand washing notice from the college rest rooms. This little piece of sanitation signage was explicitly drawn as a 6-panel comic with little cartoon character germs and so it was easy to call a comic; it had recurring characters, a sequential narrative, panels, and gutters.
Figure 4. Tweet by Ernesto Priego.
Other examples that people began to notice were more abstract or, to put it another way, they used less typical features. Ernesto tweeted several photographs of the college’s huge atrium with its vast grids in the windows and ceiling. The windowpanes often had translucent film over them and the frames created panels for viewing the buildings and landscape outside. Coincidentally giving an effect not too dissimilar to the poster that I created to promote the conference, see above. The poster itself was inspired by Frank King’s Gasoline Alley Sunday pages of the early 20th Century where he placed a grid of comics gutters over one complete scene through which the characters traversed. The complete background suggesting space, while the panels supplied the movement of time. Aaron Humphrey, a PhD student from the University of Adelaide, got right down to basics with the image that he tweeted, six white tiles from the restroom wall acting as panels with the only text being a tiny scrawled ‘HI DUDES’ in the grouting which acted as a gutter.
Figure 5. Tweet by Aaron Humphrey.
The more abstract of these found comics also had a parallel in the exhibition that was running in conjunction with the conference. Sequential Investigations: The New Comics, was curated by Allan Haverholm and included several artists such as Warren Craghead, Simon Moreton and Oliver East whose work tends toward the minimal and abstract. The most nonrepresentational work on show, however, was that of Derik Badman. Badman uses found images and text to create short strips, even going as far as writing computer programs to create strips that eschew any obvious imagery, text and narrative, the ultimate in abstract comics.
Bart Beaty, from The Univesity of Calgary gave a keynote speech in which he discussed the many ways that comics creators have interacted with other arts such as music, installation art and dance. Many of the points raised by Beaty seemed to confirm just how malleable the comics form is and why it allows comics to be seen not just on the page but on stage and in art galleries as well everyday locations such as restroom walls.
It's all comics.