What interests me most about comics is directly, the medium itself. I came to this realization by something of a hard road. Ad astra, per aspera.About fifteen years ago, I remember attempting the, even-now, Herculean task of convincing those around me, particularly those older by at least one generation, that comics was a viable medium because its industry had begun to tell stories marketed for adults. I showed The Saga of the Swamp Thing, I waved about copies of Sandman and later of Maus.
I was missing the point of course. The value of comics has nothing to do with the political economies of a target audience. Rather it is an innate value, decided by the medium’s capacities to represent four dimensional timespace, and to represent those uniquely human of experiences; memory and emotion. Like poetry or drama, or prose or cinema, comics is a medium that gives rise to unique theoretical apperceptions. Very different from the apperceptions offered by any other medium, and so the medium is able to manufacture its own theoretical engagements with memory and emotion, and of course the world around us.
By this way of thinking, the stories comics is able to tell is of inferior significance, while the method of storytelling comes to the fore. I believe my current opinions, on the medium as paramount, to be something of a correction of the earlier opinions I held. As such, comics holds for me, something of an evolutionary position, similar to such bildungsroman narratives as James Joyce’s Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man or John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. The medium, for me at least, is a genealogy of changing theoretical opinions.
The notion that the medium could appear as a catalog of theory ultimately prepared me for an interest in comics as a catalog of lost civilizations. I do not mean comics might be able to help us find legendary cities like the Atlantis or el Dorado of popular myth. Nor do I mean it in the sense that I prefer reading stories that are archaeological in nature, like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or Warren Ellis’s Planetary or Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets. Rather, I’d like to begin to discuss comics, as being somehow ahistorical. And it is this ahistoricity that I wish to make the subject of this weekly column.
I use this term, ‘historical’, as much in the sense used by comics theorist and creator, Scott McCloud and as that used by French Marxist thinker, Louis Althusser. In the opening chapter of Understanding Comics, McCloud performs an important task of cataloguing; he is able to broaden the scope of comics from something new, originating relatively recently in the 1890s, to that of a fully-established medium, perhaps the first theoretical output of a humankind still in its infancy.
Comics predates the printing press, predates paper, predates writing, and quite possibly predates even language. In the first stirrings of knowledge production in classical Egypt, comics appears as something sacred, a gift of the Divine. And the medium haunts our species’ every step, time and again, crashing in on an unsuspecting humanity in wave after civilization wave. It appears in the classical societies of China, of Japan, of the Aztec, of the Incan, of medieval European, of Indian, of Russian. Why then, bemoans McCloud, has no history of the comics medium been written?
Althusser, not surprisingly, does not mention comics at all. Perhaps unknowingly though, his theory of history and knowledge production, borrows from the medium of comics. Working in 1960s France just prior to the student uprising, Althusser formulates a theory on the production of cultural artifacts. Like the gutter between two consecutive panels, Althusser suggests, there is a break in scientific knowledge. This break, which Althusser calls an epistemological break, is responsible for the formation of a new ‘scientific object’.
After the epistemological break, there occurs the history of this new scientific object. Before this break is the object’s prehistory, a series of rag-tag experiments in different fields. Television comes to us, by way of example, after a series of non-coordinated experiments in photography, in lighting, in sound production, but also by way of radio drama and theater. We see the coinciding of technological and cultural modes of production.
The theory of knowledge and cultural production, proposed by Louis Althusser becomes more accessible, once we are able to grasp the sequential nature of comics. What is Althusser’s theory other than panel-gutter-panel? What McCloud and Althusser share is the favoring of history as a conceptual tool, or what may also be termed history as a governing discourse. History holds a privileged position for both thinkers, where it is able to interpret, using its own terms of reference and internal structures, the world and thinking around it. More and more this is becoming a view I no longer share.
When I recall McCloud’s chapter, I am often put in the mind of the finale of Mike Allred’s Madman Adventures #3, where Frank Einstein, the titular Madman character, and an ensemble cast of bit-players find their ways crossing at an Aztec pyramid. Entombed inside for the past 2,000 years, is an alien crippled by a previous encounter with a hostile antagonist. When the alien finally speaks, it is in the familiar vernacular of each character; Cozmo Carson hears his native tongue of Uraltic, while the FBI man hears the Cajun-accented French spoken to him as a child.
You get the point. Allred refers to this as ‘speaking in tongues’. Not the churchly tradition we are so familiar with these days through televangelism, but a harkening back to the original Pentecostal moment of the New Testament, where all were spoken to in their exact vernacular. What vernacular does Frank, an artificial life-form hear? I don’t rightly remember, but the internet’s always worth a try.
My idea around comics, or to use the slightly more technical phraseology; my theory of comics, is that the medium operates very much like that wounded alien, trapped in a hostile but not immediately-threatening environment. If you consider the full scope, Allred is certainly very elegant in his coincidencing of the various elements, they play out like an opera written by Puccini rather than Wagner.
We see the alien life-form, emissary of a technologically advanced society, sent backwards in time to communicate with a premodern human society. Of course no actual time travel takes place, the distant future and our distant past correspond to each other chronologically. This is one of the unique beauties of science fiction, a literary genre that is able to articulate with great clarity multiple borrowings from other genre and other time-periods within one work.
We see another kind of time travel, that of a kind of embalming. The alien’s dying body is preserved within the pyramid, kept alive, by means of a human technology, for the next 2,000 years. Once the alien finally appears, he is segregated twice over; not only biologically from our species, but also chronologically by 2,000 years of human history.
And yet crucial to this alien’s appearance is his ability to speak in tongues, to be understood sympathetically by each of his auditors. Even the common-sense understanding of ‘speaking in tongues’, accumulated through tradition, is shuffled off for a value closer its originary meaning.
Allred, it seems, is saying more about the nature of the medium than simply telling a story. It seems writers have always been obsessed with the notion of fixing in place how they tell stories, rather than simply telling these stories. It is only in recent days however, that such an activity has come to be one of the hallmarks of postmodern thinking and creativity. But this discussion is one best left for another day.
Allred’s idea on an alien technology of celestial origin that is able to greet those who encounter it with their own vernacular, seems a pretty solid theory on how the medium of comics itself reaches us; over a great historical distance, across vast and gaping civilizational maw. The introduction of divergent time-periods not only enriches the mixture, but becomes essential to our understanding of the theory.
This is the sense in which, to pick up on an earlier thread, I would begin to discuss comics as a catalog of lost civilization. And to suggest that perhaps all civilization is ‘lost’, insofar as all civilization is able to function only within its own given parameters. Once outside these strictures, our own, or anyone else’s, civilization no longer makes any sense. ‘Lost’ in that civilization has no fixed position; locating civilization requires a discourse that is simultaneously alien to and familiar with the civilizational dynamic. It requires, in other words, comics as governing discourse.
It is here that the discourse of history as proposed under Althusser and McCloud’s idea of cultural production, becomes too restrictive. In a certain sense there can be no history of comics. Not only because history is, according to Althusser, something which is produced after an epistemological break, but perhaps more importantly because history is constructed around a prearranged set of values, executed as a set of language-codes. And comics, as McCloud reminds us, is older than language.
Comics comes to us across waves of civilization. For each new civilization there is a new epistemological break, and a new history for the medium. Studying the medium would therefore require more than merely a cataloging of the various permutations of the various histories of comics. In a universe subject to relativistic expressions of time and space due to gravitation, a discourse of comics must equally be subject to a discussion of time as a spatial dimension. Or to put it another way, history must be re-understood as a dimension of culture.
Working with Jim Hartle, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking proposes the notion of imaginary time. In a universe where only the speed of light is constant, and time and space are not universal, but unique for each unique velocity, imaginary time is a quantity that occurs at right angles to ordinary timespace. Again we encounter the notion of the artifact that is simultaneously alien and familiar.
In many ways, the medium of comics occupies exactly this same space. An artifact that is able to articulate divergent histories and cultures, divergent times and spaces, with an equal critical distance. As such, comics is no longer simply an arbitrary set of codes, good for nothing more than articulating adolescent power fantasies. Rather, in a world where complicated theories about our universe results ever-more complicated representations of memory and emotion, comics becomes the central means of cultural and historical production.