Monday, October 05, 2009

Novel graphics

A week and a half till Bouchercon, which means I'll be Bouchercramming for my panel on crime fiction and translation. And that means posting may be a bit sketchy for a few days.

Speaking of sketches, I received a nice package of graphic novels this week from Generous Jon Jordan. The opening pages of one, Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos' Filthy Rich, tell a story in ways words alone could not, and I may discuss some of those ways when I'm more fully awake.

Azzarello's words and Santos' pictures work together at least two ways, and I thought back to a post I once made about how another comic created tension yet a third way: a wordless opening, the narration entering only after the art has created the tone.

This is all heady stuff for a words guy like me, so help me, comics readers: How do words and pictures combine to tell stories in ways neither could do by themselves?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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33 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

There is a great book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud that you would probably find interesting. It's a graphic novel that explains how comics work.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I've heard great things about Understanding Comics, although I've yet to read it myself. Peter, did you ever manage to track down a copy of Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of The Hunter?

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I've just fetched my copy from the book room.

What I had in mind when I wrote the post was pretty basic stuff, though, things like the art highlighting the narration's dramatic tone or being at ironic cross-purposes with the words.

Maybe I'll make "Understanding Comics" today's reading when I'm not cramming for Bouchercon.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I did get it and read it. I haven't written about it because nothing hit me with overwhelming force about things Cooke did differently from Richard Stark's novel. But I do have at least one topic I could use as a back-up post.

Have you read it?

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

No, I haven't, although I'm slowing working my way through the Parker novels. (Got done with The Man With the Getaway Face a few weeks ago.) I'll admit that the artistic style looks really interesting. However, The Violent World of Parker linked to a review that called Cooke's version "a storyboard in the guise of a comic book."

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

The art is striking and very good. The total package though isn't the second coming of crime comics, comics in general, crime fiction or fiction in general (For an absolutely stunning graphic novel this year read Asterios Polyp and for the best crime comic read Scalped). The adaptation is so straight forward that it carries with it a been-there-done-that feeling. In fact there are entire pages where there is what amounts to a text dump, large chunks of the original text over a piece of art. I hate saying it (particularly since I reviewed it) but the further away I get from my read of it the more disappointed I become.

Wait for the paperback, which I'm sure due to it's popularity there will be one.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, you have a treat coming when you get to The Score.

I read the review you mentioned. To his credit, the keeper of the Violent World of Parker site linked to the review and gave it credit for interesting insights even though he disagreed with its conclusions.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Brian: Peter has recommended Scalped in the past, and I think I may have to pick it up! It looks ... intense.

Peter: Trent -- the guy who keeps The Violent World -- seems scrupulously fair when it comes to Westlake-related material. He appears to be creating a very detailed database including everything from books to comics to cinema, which is an awesome idea with an author so prolific. I'm glad you introduced me to it.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, my opinion amounts to the same as yours, though I state it less harshly. The graphic novel to me was a pleasant reminder of Richard Stark's novel. Jacques Tardi's West Coast Blues, on the other hand, teased out dimensions that I don't remember having been explicitly stated in Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel.

Maybe Cooke respected Richard Stark too much to tinker or tease out implications of the novel. Or maybe the book was just too close to perfect to be amenable to additions.

You introduced me to an earlier collection of Scalped, and I've read a few more stories since. It's stunning stuff, all right.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Violent World of Parker is one of the best crime-fiction Web sites, a labor of love by a site-keeper who has the additional virtue of knowing what he's doing.

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Semiotics and visual theory have a lot of interesting things to say about graphic novels but I admit I've read a couple and haven't really enjoyed them. Maybe it’s at least partly because I'm a middle-aged female reader that I'd rather read "words" or look at "pictures" separately. I know some women write, and many women read, graphic novels, so I imagine it’s sexist to say that I think the graphic novel is primarily a "guy thing." Again this gets into visual theory and how the sexes see (literally) things differently. Broad (overbroad?) generalization: men like to have things "spelled out" for them while women like to use their imaginations to a greater extent. (I'm just the messenger of this theory, so don't shoot me). But this generalization is cited as the major reason why romance novels (from sexually graphic bodice rippers to gentle Jane Austen-ish stories) make up, according to an entry at Wikipedia, "almost 55% of all paperback books sold in 2004."

I know I would rather read this evocative scene-setting passage from Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely” than look at a picture of it. “1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely rocker and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year’s poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.” Its simple vocabulary belies Chandler's careful craftsmanship in building a mood. An artist's rendering of this scene + Chandler's text would ruin it for me.

Maybe for a graphic novel to be really successful the words and pictures should come together like the words and music of a song?

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, the music analogy may work. The example to which I linked from The Punisher is like a symphony in which a theme is sounded on one instument before a second enters, adding new dimensions to the sound. If there's any theory behind my discussion of this issue, it's that visual storytelling ought to tell a story in ways that neither could do alone.

I wonder if the gender divide in comics, if there is one, is due more to comics' traditional subject matter than to differences in ways of seeing.

A passage like Chandler's, so richly visual, does very nicely without illustration (though I don't discount the possibility that some creative artist could do things with it that I can't imagine, the way Jacques Tardi built upon Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel in West Coast Blues).

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'm not sure that comics' "traditional subject matter" can entirely account for the gender divide. For example, I've been surprised to read how many "letters to the editor" in pulp detective mags of the 1920s-40s are signed by women, even teenage girls (they identify themselves as such). In most of the critical literature I've read on the pulps this female audience is rarely mentioned. Even if the target audience was male, women (like me, decades later) were gobbling up these stories, too.

I’d still rather look at Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère" or, perhaps more suitable for readers of noir, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," than read all of the backstories that have been written about them. The "picture is worth a 1000 words" cliché is often true, too. Again, I just seem to prefer my "words" and "text" apart.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You refer to letters to the pulps signed by women. When discussing the period in question, I believe the correct term is "dames."

You could well be right about gender differences in ways of seeing. Anyone, male or female, with an ounce of sense would rather see the Manet or the Hopper than read about them. But back when I was studying art history, I was drawn to art that told a story at the same time, often in the manner of comic books, such as Trajan's Column. I think I even used the term "visual narrative," though I blush to admit it now.

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

That's OK, you can use terms like "visual narrative" around an old formalist-trained art history dame like me.

Good point about Trajan's Column, whose function was to serve as propaganda (as you know) and yes, propagandistic art is best served by combining art + story. As is much of the religious art of the Medieval-Renaissance period that I love, that is, art meant to tell a story to its illiterate viewers. Don't get me wrong, I love propaganda (in its Webster's 1913 definition, "any...plan for spreading a particular doctrine or a system of principles.")

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's OK, you can use terms like "visual narrative" around an old formalist-trained art history dame like me.

"She held her chin high, her back straight, her shapely wrist low at her side. Her cigarillo pointed skyward at an 85-degree angle. I recognized the iconography immediately -- an obvious allusion to Uccello's Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood. Someone was going to die."

Some analyses of Trajan's Column, notably by a scholar named Ricahrd Brilliant, suggested that the story could be read in ways other than just sequentially, in the helical path around the column. Figures might line up in interesting and significant ways with other figures one or several strips above, for instance. That reminded me of the occasional puckish comic character who would climb out of his panel and into another (not some new trick, by the way. George McManus had characters do it many decades ago in the old "Bringing Up Father" strip.)

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

That's hilarious; what's the source?

Uccello; one of my favorites. "What a sweet mistress is this perspective!"

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What do you mean, "What's the source?" I'm the source. I created it right here at my desk.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I saw the Nicolas of Tolentino panel of The Battle of San Romano a few years ago in London -- a thrilling sight.

It will not surprise you that I like Piero della Francesca a lot, though the supreme master, the greatest figure beyond all possible comparison in the history of Western art, that without whom nothing that followed would have been conceivable, is Giotto.

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh-oh, so that's what happens when art history intersects with crime fiction intersects with sleep-deprived blogger.

Do it again! How about one with my favorite sepulchral monument, the equestrian statue of Cangrande I Scaligeri in Verona.

I love Piero and (ditto your comment) Giotto, too. A print of his "Flight into Egypt" from the Cappella Scrovegni hangs in the bedroom. Have you seen the CS? One time I was there during a major restoration campaign and only a few visitors were allowed in at a time. With all the scaffolding and conservators quietly at work I felt like I had gone back in time and was watching the artist and his helpers at work. Magical.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll call my character "Pete Panofsky: Art History Detective." (© Peter Rozovsky 2009)

I know Cangrande della Scala only from pictures, since I've never been to Verona, so all I have so far for that story is the title: "The Big Can."

Yes, I have been to the CS (or the AC, if you prefer). Only a few people were allowed inat a time, and I took it upon myself to shut the door to the chapel when careless visitors left it open. It was one of those rare sites that I knew endlessly from reproductions and for which my expectations were sky high, and that nonetheless met all those expectations.

My favorite scene from the AC (or CS) has always been “The Kiss of Judas,” but the one that has suggested mystery to me is ”The Meeting at the Golden Gate". Who is that woman in black?

I have also seen the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels at Santa Croce in Florence, the "Death of the Virgin" in Berlin, various panels by him or attributed to him in Paris and Boston, and the "Ognissanti Madonna" at the Uffizi. I've visited San Francesco in Assisi, where the architectural forms in the frescoes attributed to Giotto are just not as good as in his (other) work.

Sleep-dperived I may be, but I work nights; I was at work when I made up "Pete Panofsky: Art History Detective." (© Peter Rozovsky 2009)

I did not get to see Donatello's sculptures at S. Antonio in Padua. I happened to be there during festivites for the 800th anniversary of Saint Anthony of Padua, so the church was full of worshipers. Bloody nuisance.

October 06, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I look forward to the further adventures of Pete Panofsky!

Cangrande means "Big Dog" (great name for a pulp character, huh?) -- I always think of him fondly as a kind of late Medieval gangster who was part thug, part great patron of the arts.

My favorite scene in the chapel is "The Lamentation." The range of emotions, from stunned disbelief to extreme anguish in the faces of the angels and other viewers was only matched by those in Jacopo Pontormo's "Deposition," more than 200 years later. The CS is a pilgrimage site of the highest rank.

I can't help with the mysterious woman in black. I've read she is a symbol of disbelief but somehow that seems too esoteric for Giotto.

The chapel is now like a jewel box with its brilliant colors and that fabulous starry-sky ceiling.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Dont forget from Krakow to Krypton. Terrific book.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Emilio Scrovegni, or at least his father, was a loan shark, another figure highly familiar from crime novels.

I thought of the "Lamentation" after I posted my comment, and this will also apply to "The Death of St. Francis" in the Bardi Chapel: Giotto's style was rough by the standards that came later in the Renaissance. He showed next to no knowledge of human anatomy, as one critic wrote, and he painted no great range of facial types either. Yet the heights of emotion and drama he was able to achieve with that linited vocabulary is stunning. And he was pretty danmed fine as a colorist, too.

V-word: parking

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, there are a lot of Schusters and Segals in the history of comic books, aren't there? Thanks.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, yep, the CS/AC is a jewel box, all right (and I hope you stopped in to visit Mantegna next door. The photo of the frescoes after the WWII bombing are a moving experience.Think of the work required to salvage and reassemble what could be salvaged and reassembled.)

I visited Santa Felicità to see the Pontormo, but Mannerism has never sat entirely easily with me. Some of the postures are moving and elequent in their awkwardness, but the graceful contrapposto just seems odd to me. So do the colors.

October 06, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yes, I've seen the Mantegna frescoes next door. The documentation on the anastylosis of the frescoes' reconstruction is amazing in itself.

I can understand why you don't care much for Pontormo/Mannerism. I've moved more towards an interest in Byzantine/Medieval/Early Renaissance art as I've gotten older but when I was in my 20s I loved Italian Mannerist and Baroque art for that grab-you-by-the-throat quality of the imagery. The placement of Pontormo's "Deposition" in the church seems to demand that the viewer participate, to be the next person to help with the body. That sense of immediacy is very powerful.

October 07, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

I was prepping some reviews to send to Jon for Crimespree this afternoon which gave me cause to re-read some of them. I came across this paragraph in a review of Low Moon by Jason that I wrote:


All of Jason’s characters are upright anthropomorphic animals. And this use of animals subverts how you relate to the characters. Instead of just quickly observing them, identifying with them and then just as quickly dismissing them the non-human aspects of the characters force us to reexamine them, their interactions, their movements, everything about them really, and to do so slowly. By spending so much time with them we in turn spend more time with ourselves."

Which of course has to do with the art specifically and the style of the artist. In Jason's comics there are a number of stretches that don't have dialog so you really focus on the art and the effect while reading them.

It's a fantastic book Peter you should check it out. Awhile back when I got your address from you it was because I was expecting an extra copy of Low Moon and was going to send it to you but the extra one never arrived so I sent you the other book instead.

October 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, my unease about Mannerism is nothing that critics have not been saying for hundreds of years. But I felt like I gained some understanding of the Mannerists' talent when I saw an early Parmiagianino in Naples. The man was awesomely talented at a young age, which makes me at least somewhat sympathetic to the suggestion that he mastered everything there was to master, and so pushed beyond, into the odd proportions of the Madonna With the Long Neck. Some of Raphael's late work, too, makes me wonder what he might have done had he lived beyond age 37.

As far as reaching out to the viewer, I love "Caravaggio Country": S. Luigi dei Francesi, S. Agostino and S. Maria del Popolo, so go figure. I guess it was possible to grab the viewer without getting weird and into odd bodily proportions while doing it.

October 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was less a fan of Baroque than of Renaissance, but I like the Ecstasy of St. Teresa and also The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (and I know about the salacious speculation about just what kind of ecstasy they were experiencing). The church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is one of those almost hallucinogenic experiences -- how can stone be so sinuous and curved? -- so I guess I have some sympathy with Baroque, too. But Mannerism just does not do it for me.

October 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I'm not sure I agree that the characters are "upright anthropomorphic animals," but that is such a fine turn of phrase that it will stick in my mind. In fact, it may cause me to reexamine the one quibble I have had with Scalped.

You'll have to forgive my not remembering some characters' names, but I thought one story went a bit far out of its way to show that the corrupt old chief, the one with the wayward daughter, was a human being after all. He'd been depicted as so venal and power-hungry that when one story depicted him as a defender against the savagery of the Hmong gangsters, I had a bit of a feeling that Aron was going out of his way too deliberately to show the other side. It I couldn't make up my mind whether this was a forced bid for complexity. it was a good story, though.

October 08, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

Different book. Not Scalped by Jason Aaron but Low Moon by Jason. Jason, one name only, is a Norweigian artists and writer. It's his characters that are the animals, literally.

The story "Low Moon" was serialized in the New York Times and can be found here

http://www.nytimes.com/ref/magazine/funnypagesJason.html

It's indicative of the style.

October 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I never liked the pretentious one-name habit, and now it has caused confusion. But that strip is great stuff. I wonder what the New York Times, which pompously uses courtesy titles for everyone, calls him if it writes about him? Mr. Jason?

Anyhow, I'll go look for his stuff at my neighborhood comics shop. Thanks.

October 08, 2009  

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