The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni

So I’m reading through a few books on comics and how to analyze them and the first one I finished is part of the Routledge Intertext series, The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni.

The audience for this book is, I believe, college students and so the aim here is to help college students analyze comics. From my own experience teaching comics at the college level, this is a worthwhile goal and a clear text is needed. However, I’m not sure Saraceni’s book is that text.

For one, Saraceni makes a few counter-factual claims. Early in the book, he says that one of the two most important characteristics of comics is that it, as an art form, employs both words and pictures (5). While this is often true, it is obviously not always the case. David Carrier makes the same claim in his book The Aesthetics of Comics and that book, while well-intentioned, demonstrates a shocking naivety about comics. So this was an early red flag as I was reading. Then on the next page, Saraceni says that comics have six to nine panels per page (7). Yes, he modifies this statement with “normally,” but he cites this “six to nine” figure a few other times throughout the book. Oddly, he provides plenty of examples that show that comics pages can have any number of panels. While I don’t believe that Saraceni is as unread in comics are Carrier seems to be, these careless claims undercut his authority.

On the whole, the rest of the book provides many interesting insights, but feels a bit underdeveloped and ill structured. For instance, Saraceni asks what relationships exist between words and pictures and answers that there are only two relationships (13). Not only is it odd that he can only see two relationships possible, his way of explaining the relationships is very roundabout. Basically, the two categories that he comes up with are “blend” and “collaboration.” “Blend” is when the words and images convey the same information and “collaboration” is when they do different things but work together to create the overall meaning. Yet instead of saying this straight out, he waits fourteen pages before defining the terms he introduces. In those fourteen pages Saraceni explains the concepts of icon and symbol from semiotics. He ends up saying that words in comics exist between icon and symbol and that images do as well. So they inhabit a similar space. This is interesting, but it doesn’t really help to understand what he means by “blend” and “collaboration.” It also doesn’t help that as soon as he finally defines these two concepts he doesn’t use them and instead says that words and images “interact in many different ways” (28). So we jump from “two” to “many.” This isn’t completely nonsensical, but it is sloppy and adds to the feeling that this book needed a few more drafts.

Then there’s the whole chapter at the end about computers in which Saraceni goes through the icons on his desktop. One can infer some connections to the ideas he has brought up earlier in the book, but how any of this helps us understand comics is beyond me.

There are other odd things like this I could mention, but instead I want to briefly bring up the various exercises in the book. Since the aim of this text is to use it in a college classroom, the addition of exercises is appropriate. However, as a teacher I have difficulty imaging that I would use these exercises. Most of the exercises involve students making lists, which gets old pretty quickly. Also, while many of the exercises are trying to get students to understand how panels connect with each other based on common elements or visual themes, the exercises completely overlook the fact that what most often joins panels is narrative. Usually comics tell stories. This book seems to overlook that fact.

Overall, this book is interesting but it’s careless structure and long asides make it seem more like an early draft than a finished book. According to Neil Cohn, the book is adapted from Saraceni’s dissertation and that would explain why it goes to such lengths to explain certain ideas. Again, the goal of the book is admirable; I just don’t think it is very effective at accomplishing that goal.

Netflix’s Daredevil

Daredevil got me into comics.

Daredevil 216. Story by Denny O’Neil. Art by David Mazzucchelli.

I wanted party favors for my twelfth birthday party and for some reason I decided on comic books. So I set foot in my first comic book store, Comics Comics in Sacramento. Looking through the stands, I saw Daredevil comics drawn by Mazzucchelli and I bought them. Sure, I gave most away, but I ended up keeping the ones I liked the most. And so I began reading Daredevil with issue 216 and continued through Mazzucchelli and Miller’s Born Again storyline. I gave the title up soon after that when neither artist returned to the title.

Because of all this, I felt the need to watch the Netflix series even though I haven’t kept up with the character since middle school. I was surprised by the series for several reasons.

One, it’s obvious that the creators of the show pulled from the same era of Daredevil that I read, especially the Born Again storyline and the phone-it-in origin retelling Miller penned, The Man Without Fear. They decided to make the story more a crime and legal drama than a straight superhero story. And they kept Matt Murdoch’s connection to his hometown, Hell’s Kitchen. This is a far cry from the candy coated dross found in the recent Marvel movies, Avengers, Thor, and Captain America. The focus is more human scale than super human.

One thing that contributes to this is the creators’ decision not to give Matt his Daredevil costume until the very end of the season. This creates a nice build throughout the episodes, but also keeps the focus on people. There are no costumed characters prancing around (until we get our first ninja in episode nine).

Also, part of the conflict in the series is that it is not always clear that Matt’s decision to be a vigilante is a good one. From the very beginning, we see that Matt has a dark side, an insatiable rage that longs to hurt people. So his desire to patrol the night might just be a nice excuse, a comforting narrative that covers the devil, like Wilson Fisk’s narrative that he is a good samaritan. This is a great ambiguity.

Speaking of Fisk, the way the characters are handled here is also really nice. Vincent D’Onofrio’s version of Fisk is amazing. He is at once a frightened little boy, a shy lover, a savvy manipulator, and a vicious animal. And the writers and D’Onofrio make this a coherent assemblage and not a contradictory mess. I also like how they make Karen Page into an actor in her own drama instead of simply the damsel in distress.

There is also some really nice pacing and storytelling here. The show grabbed me from the first scene and the ending montage in the first episode where Matt keeps hitting the bag while we see images of all the things he has to overcome made me want to keep watching the series.

Daredevil 231. Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

The ending has me worried, however. One problem is the costume. It’s not just that the design is kind of dorky; it’s that as soon as Matt dons the mask the show suddenly becomes like every other superhero story: the man posing on a rooftop, the leaping into action, the battle that takes the hero to the edge of failure, et cetera. Sure, part of me was waiting for the suit to appear. Still, once that it does, the ambiguity of whether or not the vigilante path is the right one goes away. The superhero narrative is no longer in question; instead we are supposed to exult in it. And also, the idea that Fisk could almost beat Murdoch only makes sense if you understand that it is a necessity of plot. Story-wise, it’s stupid. Yes, we’ve seen Fisk kill people, but we’ve never been given any evidence that he’s anything other than strong. Matt on the other hand is a seasoned fighter. Yet the genre requires the hero to almost lose before he wins. The fact that the story gives into this cliché is worrying for its future.

Also, while this series has a lot of diversity, which makes sense for a story set in New York, what we end with is essentially three smiling white people. Black lives only matter so much as they add drama to white lives. Maybe recent political events are making me sensitive, but it just left a bad taste in my mouth.

So this show bends various narratives, but in the end gives in to them. Are we actually questioning anything or is it just all entertainment?

Carbon Pen hack

(yes, I just used the term “hack”)

carbon pen cap post hack

What is that roll of green tape doing on the end of my pen?

I really like the Platinum Carbon Pen for sketching, but it has two drawbacks. First, it really isn’t a traveling pen. Changes in pressure cause the ink to leak. So not so good on planes or trips to Yosemite. Still, I carry a little rag with me anyway, so I can mop up leaks. The other problem is the cap doesn’t post. It’s not a huge issue, but when I’m sketching outside I don’t want to have to worry about the cap. It’s just an added nuisance.

So enter my ugly–but useful–solution.

That roll of tape is just wide enough to keep the cap snug on the end of the pen. Sure, it hurts the aesthetics of the pen, but that’s not a big deal to me. What would be a big deal is if the added weight affected the balance. Well, the tape and the cap are both so light that I don’t notice much difference. If anything, it gives the pen a bit more heft, which I actually like. So now I can sketch and not have to worry about the cap rolling off somewhere.