Random and ultimately conclusionless jottings on the notion of rhetorical comics.
Which is an inexact and probably not useful term, but polemical comics seems even worse.
It’s an idea I’ve been interested in for years, but somehow never had the time to fully develop. It comes from having grown up with the extended televisual essay, also sometimes referred to as rhetorical television. The first one that really impacted me was James Burke’s CONNECTIONS:
You can throw THE ASCENT OF MAN into that bucket too, and probably COSMOS if you feel like it. And, most recently, the work of Adam Curtis, including this summer’s ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE.
The text overlaid on the image is termed a super, for superimposition. A fusion of the intertitle, the text card between sequences in the silent movie, and the lower third or chyron, the explanatory text overlays most often found in the lower third of the screen in news broadcasts. (“Chyron” comes from “Chyron Corporation,” the company most associated with their generation.)
I have a habit of staring at things until they unpack in my head.
It’s an awkward tool to adapt for comics, because it kind of relies on the motion behind it to ensure the whole thing doesn’t stop dead. I tried floating supers on a Marvel comic called ULTIMATE HUMAN once, just because these things should be used to try stuff out on.
When there’s a moving image behind the supers, running time isn’t necessarily being eaten. We can process the events behind the super as well as the super itself. Serial comics can’t match that easily. Real estate gets eaten.
Fraction and crew try supers in CASANOVA: AVARITIA 1. The super’s on a repeated image. They match the super with a hard change in visual tone, a stringed soundtrack descending for half a bar into a doom metal chord. It fits the general warm, organic, analogue feel of a CASANOVA comic, but to me it also opens up the path to the adoption of visual glitch for a similar effect.
Matt’s not going for a rhetorical feel: it’s narrative-diegetic, if you like. It’s in the same bucket, as, say, the end of ANIMAL HOUSE:
Actually, I’m going to correct myself. Fiction-diegetic, perhaps. Because a rhetorical piece obviously has its own narrative. The lyric essay, as pushed a year or two back by REALITY HUNGER, uses all the tools of fiction without being fiction. Which, again, isn’t a million miles away from the tenets of the New Journalism. The supers in CASANOVA don’t pop you out of the story. They serve the story.
In something that is broadly non-fiction, the expectations of being immersed in the text are a little different. A story is being told, but you don’t enter it with the desire to be wrapped up warmly in the internal logics of a new little world. Which is one reason why so many darlings get killed, in the writing of fiction: you can’t always brake to talk about something interesting to you without bringing on that business of “readers being thrown out of the story.” You can’t draw attention to the fact that the backdrop to the car journey really is just two stagehands winding a long paper mural to create the illusion of travel through the landscape.
Except, of course, when you can.
The essay has a different pact with the reader or viewer. The pact is that you’ll be taken from A to B and that there will be a point to the trip, but also that you’re probably going to get to B via C through Z. And not necessarily in abecedarian order.
Fusing that approach with fiction presumably loses you a lot of readers. People being taken out of the story. People who want the story to be the point. I guess an early Thomas Pynchon novel would kill those people stone dead. The thing to bear in mind is that those people already have lots of other books to read.
(A dozen years ago, I did a comic that was nothing but art and dialogue and brief supers, with the explicit intent of keeping people “inside” the book. No internal monologue, no box captions where I could possibly help it. Some of you will be more familiar with that style from Marvel’s “Ultimate” line, particular “The Ultimates.”)
There is a space where the narrative is the point, and the “story” is just one of the things that keeps it moving.
The examples I’ve used aren’t the only ones, of course. Just the ones that occur to me this afternoon, sitting out in the garden writing this. And there will probably be a few people I’m completely unaware of, working in webcomics or minicomics who’ve solved all these tools.
It’s all unlikely to be something I’ll ever get to fully develop, unless something very unusual happens, like the perfect trusted collaborators appearing out of nowhere and sometimes materialising with open funding. And also a few more hours in every day. But, with all the talk about commercial comics going back to the Nineties, or pricing themselves out of the market, or all the other shit-smoke that gets blown every day to stop people thinking about what their next move really *could* be…
…well, it’s just a pleasant thought to me, that a few people might say, “well, these old paradigms are all well and good, but maybe I just want to find new ways to talk about the things that are interesting to me, and people can either come along with me or not.”
It’s a rough ride. I don’t think, for instance, that as many people are as interested in old Smoky & The Bandit flicks as Joe Casey, but I love that Joe’s just saying fuckit and doing BUTCHER BAKER anyway. That said, BUTCHER BAKER intercut with a visual representation of the backmatter essays Joe’s writing, story interleaved with rhetorical comics, or even studded with supers about what Joe’s *really* talking about… that would have been something to see.
Most of us descend into the pop stuff, like BUTCHER BAKER or CAPTAIN SWING or whatever, because it’s where most of us came from. But it always comes with the auctorial request to the rest of the pop medium, I think: please be less boring. Please be less interested in your rules about what comics can and can’t do. Please just say something interesting.
How the hell did I end up there?