Forming a rounded definition of a comic is a difficult task. The medium contains a rich history that grows and develops into new forms with the advent of new technologies, creating concurrent forms of publication methods. Scott McCloud establishes that the term ‘comics’ refers to the medium itself and not a specific object such as a ‘comic strip’, ‘comic book’, or ‘graphic novel’ (1). These latter terms have loaded meanings related to high and low culture and what is deemed worth of critical and academic attention (2).
Comics are an oddity in the art world, because as much as it is visual, it is also has roots stemming from narrative and prose. Aaron Meskin differentiates the mediums by stating that although comics may (but need not) include words, they must include pictures, while related forms of art such as literature, are works which must include words and may (but need not) include pictures (3). Will Eisner states that a reader is required to exercise both visual and verbal interpretive skills, as the structure of art and literature become superimposed upon each other (4). The series of repetitive images that comics employ form a narrative structure and grammar, while the visual treatment of text form part of a comic’s vocabulary and act as an extension of the imagery (5). McCloud, building from Eisner’s term ‘sequential art’, defines comics as ‘Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer (6). I will be applying the blanket term comic(s) when discussing both the medium and the object as a means of simplification, as the intent of my research is not to present a discussion of the categorisation of the medium and it’s critical place in academia, but to analyse the ‘aesthetic response’ that McCloud refers to in his definition.
Greice Schneider describes the everyday in comics as “stories that challenge any accurate plot description, often deprived of special events and inhabited by characters doing nothing more than living out their own routines” (7). She states that, as the everyday is such a ‘slippery and ambiguous concept’, it leaves little choice but to ‘embrace vagueness and contradiction at the very heart of its definition’ (8). Through representations of the everyday, comics provide the reader with characters living in environments that may be present within their own lives. Schneider establishes that melancholic, introspective narratives based on the everyday can be categorised into two areas; ennui (boredom) and contemplation, of which they frequently overlap (9). In Reinventing Comics, McCloud discusses a comic’s ability to handle depth (10); outlining length and narrative density. He states that in approaching themes of everyday life, comics’ writers face the difficulty of capturing detail and subtlety (11), yet it is clear that in choosing this subject matter, they provide themselves a platform to build from nuances of their own experience and ideologies to create an emotional construction of the world around them. The film American Splendor – a combination of fiction and biography covering the life of comic writer Harvey Pekar, – illuminates the idea of how artists borrow from reality in their work (12). The experiences of these comic writers and artists provide a layer of sincerity to the situations and emotive experiences in their narratives.
Emotional connections between art and its viewers are long since a new revelation, forming a key factor in how we perceive and appreciate art; evoking emotions that were felt by the artists, as well as emotions perceived and experienced by the viewer (13). Emotion is something that requires both cognition and action; emotive situations must be both identified and recognised, based on prior experiences (14). The ability to evoke an emotional response in comics is linked in part to the empathy and understanding that we as a reader feel towards the narrative and characters before us, particularly when these characters’ experiences are recognisable to our own. Jens Eder describes this feeling in film as ‘being close’ to a character through multiple degrees of ‘mental closeness’; cognitive, affective and intimate (15). Mental closeness is achieved, according to Eder, due to a combination of character representation, as well as narrative and stylistic structure which can cue the viewer’s imagination; giving information about a character and their inner life which one could never know about real people (16). Henry John Pratt states, in comparing the mediums of film and comics, that the two tell stories the same way, just in different visual media (17). As such, the feeling of ‘closeness’ that Eder describes should be aptly applied in the same way to comic narrative; perhaps enhanced, due to the added level of reader involvement that comics provide – directing the pace and speed that they read, and the length of time that they focus on details within a frame.
This exegesis aims to discover how comics centred on everyday experience can evoke and portray emotion, focusing on largely melancholic narratives, and the feeling of loneliness, ennui and contemplation that they evoke. I will argue that a combination of authorship, narrative, comic structure as well as semiotic and visual perception can communicate emotional resonance effectively and uniquely. Three comics have been chosen as a central study in this exegesis – Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. These comics have been chosen for both narrative and visual techniques, as they are each based in everyday situations, with differing levels of autobiographical influence between them. The three of these works followed a similar method of construction; each was originally serialised in issues of their artist’s respective comic books, later assembled for publication in a novel format, and all were created in North America during 1993 – 2000 (18), providing comparable consistency between the works.
The findings of this research have largely been put into practice through the accompanying comic, Autumn, Grey. The comic, which is autobiographically influenced, and focuses on the mundane and lonely nature of everyday life, should provide further evidence of the manner in which emotion can be evoked, and the creative processes behind the implementation of emotive techniques.
- S McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, HarperPerennial, New York, 1994, p. 5
- C Labio, ‘What’s in a Name? The Academic Study of Comics and the “Graphic Novel”’, Cinema Journal, Vol 50, No. 3, 2011, p.126
- A Meskin, ‘Defining Comics?’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 65, No. 4, 2007, pg. 370
- W Eisner, Comics & Sequential Art, 18th edn, Poorhouse Press, Tamarac, 1999, p. 8
- Eisner, p. 8
- McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 9
- G Schneider, ‘Comics and Everyday Life: From Ennui to Contemplation’, European Comic Art, Vol 3, No. 1, 2010, p.37
- Schneider, p. 38
- Schneider, p.52
- S McCloud, Reinventing Comics, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2000, p. 34
- McCloud, Reinventing Comics, p. 35
- American Splendor, DVD, HBO Films, New York, 2003
- C Z Ingram, ‘States of Feeling: Using Emotion to Connect Artist and Viewer’, Art Education, Vol. 60, No. 3, 2007, p. 25
- H Hohr, ‘‘Aesthetic emotion’: an ambiguous concept in John Dewey’s aesthetics’, Ethics and Education, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2010, p. 251
- J Eders, ‘Ways of Being Close to Characters’, Film Studies, Vol 8, No. 0, 2006, p. 69
- Eders, p. 69
- H J Pratt, p.108 ‘ Narrative in Comics’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 67, No. 1, 2009, p.108
- Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World was originally published in Eightball from 1993 – 1996, Seth’s It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken was originally published in Palookaville from 1993 – 1996, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was first published in Acme Novelty Library from 1995 – 2000.