Saturday, December 8, 2007

Aristotle and Comics

As classes are wrapping up I’m reviewing student work from the semester and evaluating my own performance as a teacher. One of the things that turned out well this semester was a new thought experiment for young visual composers, especially those exploring the graphic novel and animated film.

Ambitious (and long-lived) primary sources rarely fail to produce meaningful learning for students. In this case I returned to Aristotle’s Poetics, an important text from my own undergraduate education.*

The Poetics is an incomplete set of lecture notes from a disquisition on the subject of tragedy specifically, and drama more generally. One would struggle to identify a more influential text on theater, the context in which I originally encountered it as a student. By contrast, studio art education does not engage the Greeks but for art historical round-ups of red-figure vases and figure sculpture even though Plato’s distrust of images and image-makers has reverberated through the centuries. (A pity, really, that fundamental concepts in the history of ideas do not generally make their way into studio education. Periodically I will address deduction and induction [and Descartes and Bacon] as modes of seeing and knowing to a roomful of student illustrators and designers. Typically they look at me like I am completely crazy.)

Aristotle’s contribution, like that of all important critics, begins with description and proceeds to evaluation. His work to complete the former task begins with basic definitions of tragedy and contrasts same with other forms, like lyric poetry. Aristotle goes on to identify six elements of tragedy, which refer to the creative building blocks of the form. They are, in descending order of importance to A.: plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle.

Plot is the causally-connected series of events that drive the story. Character requires no explanation. Thought refers to the ideas addressed by the work, and can be extrapolated into concept for contemporary purposes. Diction refers to the speech of the characters, music (elsewhere translated “song”) applies to the melody and rhythmic structure of the thing [I prefer the more formalist take of rhythm] and spectacle, lowest of the elements for Aristotle, refers to what we see: the visuality of the experience, and especially dramatic events—e.g., storms at sea.

I posed the following problem to the group: setting aside Aristotle’s rankings, which prize story above all, which of the elements of drama correspond to your interests, and knowing that, how would you choose to heighten those values as you compose graphic stories and works? Choose two or three.

It’s certainly possible to identify implicit interests in the careers of others. Milt Caniff and other serialists emphasize plot; Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and Bob Kane (Batman) are all about character; Charles Shultz stressed thought, primarily via character, and Chris Ware has a strong conceptual bent. Diction is harder; I’m not certain who the graphic novel equivalent of David Mamet would be, although I am partial to Seth and think he writes well, but I think that may be too general. Ware applies very directly to music, because his work is rhythmic and structural. And spectacle? The king of same would be Winsor McCay.

I think this is an interesting exercise. I am planning some short graphic stories. It has helped to identify my three most important elements as character, diction, and spectacle, with special affection for the last.

Images: Bob Kane, Sunday Batman Strip, 1946, panel on Two-Face; Chester Gould, roster of villains from Dick Tracy strip; Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan page; Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, New York Herald, 1905.

*at Kenyon College, in Gambier Ohio, a splendid if isolated school and locale.

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