Comics And Time: Dundee, 28 June 2009

This is the bones of the talk I gave at Dundee University last month. Didn’t have time to write a full formal paper. I get massively extemporaneous when I do these things, moving in and out of the notes, so this isn’t everything I said. But what the hell. I was writing on the assumption of a mostly academic audience, so I recapitulated some old thoughts and re-used the old Harvey Pekar line I’m so fond of trotting out. Also, this was all written in pencil, in my hideous chickenscratch, in a notebook, a couple of hours before I took the lectern. Anyway. Here it is.

Hello. Forgive me from working from notes. No time to write a full talk in the end. Because I’m a working writer in a deadline business. Which is why I’m here.

I think I’m supposed to be talking about my career in comics, providing some kind of summation to a conference about the relationship between comics and time. To which I’d first offer this, inscribed on a stone plaque embedded in the courtyard wall of the hotel across town I’m staying at:

"God give the blessing to the paper craft in the good realm of Scotland."

That stone was cut in 1870.

120 years later, I’m in Glasgow with Scots comics writer Grant Morrison, who’s just scored some brown acid off Bryan Talbot and is explaining to me how time works in comics. He explains to me his discovery that any comic is in fact its own continuum, an infinitely malleable miniature universe from Big Bang to heat death, and that in reading it you can make time go backwards, skip entire eons, strobe time itself, re-run geologic-scale periods in loops… reading a comic is in fact controlling time from a godlike perspective.

He was, of course, very full of hallucinogens at the time. This is why people were warned about the brown acid at Woodstock.

That said, we can now thank Grant for solving the mandate of this conference while in the grip of profound psychotomimetic hubris, and move on.

What I do is the Paper Craft, and there are few better places to talk about it than here in Dundee, where ink has run in the town’s blood since even before 1870, but thick and dark since 1905, when DC Thomson was founded, Britain’s oldest continuous publisher of comics… making this place the storied city of Jam, Jute and Journalism.

I’ve been writing comics since the 1980s — grew up reading Alan Grant (who was in the audience) — and doing it full time for approaching twenty years. I do a lot of other things too — first novel a couple of years ago, journalism, animation, anything that looks like it’ll pay a bill. Because I’m a working writer. But comics were my first love, and I still spend most of my time writing them. I love visual narrative, and comics are the purest form of visual narrative.

I’ve worked in television, and there are a hundred people between you and the audience. I’ve worked in film, and there are a thousand people between you and the audience. In comics, there’s me and an artist, presenting our stories to you without filters or significant hurdles, in a cheap, simple, portable form. Comics are a mature technology. Their control of time — provided you’re not intent on reversing universes (or even if you are) — makes them the best educational tool in the world. Hell, intelligence agencies have used comics to teach people how to dissent and perform sabotage.

When done right, comics are a cognitive whetstone, providing two or three or more different but entangled streams of information in a single panel. Processing what you’re being shown, along with what’s being said, along with what you’re being told, in conjunction with the shifting multiple velocities of imaginary time, and the action of the space between panels that Scott McCloud defines as closure… Comics require a little more of your brain than other visual media. They should just hand them out to being to stave off Alzheimer’s.

Although I think a headline of "Grant Morrison staves off dementia" might be a little premature.

The line I always quote in talks like these, the one I want you to take away with you, is something the comics writer Harvey Pekar said: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."

And the nice thing about comics, the blessing of the paper craft, is that there’s really no-one to stop you.

© Warren Ellis 2009 all rights reserved etc etc

17 thoughts on “Comics And Time: Dundee, 28 June 2009”

  1. Elegant in its simplicity. [Just practicing my Evil Overlord dialogue…]

    Seriously, I wish I’d been there for the extemporaneous bits but this is lovely.

  2. As a hired gun too often asked to come to the showdown with blanks, I see what you say and hear the picture you paint. Hollywood is full of waterheads and low-rent flimflam men.

    Just read Doktor Sleepless and Gravel in trade. A thank you is in order.

  3. Enjoyed that very much. I too wish I could have heard the extra bits in your presentation. Forwarded to aspiring comic artist before posting. Looking forward to more books, but may have to go buy some comics to keep up with you. Thanks.

  4. Nice to read an article that’s pro-comics without being about any specific ones; without having to wheel out Watchmen or Maus to “justify” the medium.

    Good work, sir – think I shall get me a cognitive whetstone and swipe my face across it until my thoughts bleed!


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  6. Great column. I think it nails a major point.

    I run a comic project in Chile. People ask me all the time when are ewe going to do something on TV. My reply is always the same: “I don’t know because I’m not interested. I don’t do comics as a fist step to reach TV or movies. I do comics because is what I love. Doing comics is what drives me crazy”

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