The laurel wreath.
When worn as a crown, as was customary back in ancient Greece, the wreath was a symbol of accomplishment. Individuals honored in this manner were called laureates, and that word has stayed in use in that context up to our present day. When someone has achieved wide-ranging acclaim for work and contributions to their field of endeavor, they are typically dubbed a ‘laureate’ of that field. Nobel Prize winners are called Nobel Laureates, for instance.
And before you get excited or horrified, we aren’t changing the site name to Multiversity Laureates (although by the time Grant Morrison’s miniseries is done, EIC Matthew Meylikhov might be able to lay legitimate claim to it based just on his annotation articles).
Comics artist Dave Gibbons was recently announced as the first UK Comics Laureate by the charity organization Comics Literacy Awareness (CLAw) at the Lakes International Comics Art Festival. His tenure, beginning in February 2015 and running for two years, has him championing comics and their potential to improve children’s literacy. In an interview with The Guardian last week, he mentioned not only pushing for acceptance of comics by educators for use in classrooms, but also encouraging kids to “express themselves and their own stories in words and pictures – because children naturally take to expressing things in these ways”.
There are people who would argue that having a Comics Laureate is pretentious and self-important.
These people are wrong.
There are people who would argue picking an artist over a writer for a literacy position is stupid.
These people are also wrong.
There are people who think this position is absolutely necessary and the choice of Gibbons to fill it is incredibly smart.
As one of those people, let me tell you why we’re right.
COMICS ARE POETRY NOW?
CLAw is modeling the UK Comics Laureate post after the country’s Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, an honorary position appointed by the reigning monarch. It has no official duties but carries with it the assumption that the Poet Laureate compose verse to celebrate national occasions of significance and act as an ambassador for literature.
Poetry used to have a much more prominent place in society than it does now. I’m not sure of the exact reason why, but I can think of a few probable ones. As technology improves and we are able to experience things in greater detail than ever, poetry’s describing them in non-literal ways will have an uphill battle staying relevant. Visual arts like TV and film are easier to take in than poetry. Poetry as narrative is a foreign concept to our narrative-obsessed culture.
But because poetry had such a long run as a distinguished literary form, it’s still afforded more respect than comics because it wasn’t typecast as lurid, cheap entertainment for the bulk of its existence.
If comics wants respect as a versatile medium, it needs to learn from poetry’s successes and avoid its failures.
Part of those failures are already sidestepped by the very nature of comics’ combination of words and pictures; their juxtaposition can do everything poetry can do and better, stronger, faster. And as a medium it can contain any message, fiction or non-fiction, with potentially equal skill. But comics cannot reach poetry’s level of cultural embedding and institutional support without laying the groundwork for a sustained campaign against those decades of bad impressions and misinformation. Making good comics is absolutely essential for the present, but teaching great comics is critical for the future.
SIMPLE IS GOOD
The key to teaching someone how to read and write is starting them on clear, understandable material while they learn the basics, then introducing more subtle and complex material as comprehension grows. We learned to read with black letters on white pages, start at the top left of a block of text and read each line, moving down to the next until we get to the bottom right. That’s the easiest way for Western readers to get information through text. Is that boring? No, because it’s invisible to us at this point. We aren’t confused by the ‘telling’ so we can concentrate on the ‘story’ being told.Continued below
Since the Comics Laureate’s primary goal is promoting how to read and make comics, they should be fluent enough in its language to competently present it. Any professional comics artist could do, right? Sadly, no. That would be like thinking anybody who speaks English is automatically qualified to be an English teacher.
Comics fluency isn’t about drawing pin-ups or splash pages or rendering the hell out of something simply because it looks cool and will make your art sell for more on the secondary market. Fluency is telling a coherent narrative in a finite number of images constrained by the number of images that can fit on a page (or screen) and the number of pages available. If you aren’t doing this at a bare minimum, then you’re not a comics artist and you’re part of the problem.
(And anyone who tells you the writer does all that work for the artist in the script is wrong. All the writer does is tell the story to the artist. The better writers have, if not the talent to execute it, a solid enough understanding of storytelling in comics to know what their artists can and cannot accomplish on the page, and tailor their scripts to make it easier for the artist to understand and execute that story. But it’s ultimately the artist creating that story on the page.)
If you’re not guiding the reader’s eye across the page in the easiest manner through page layout, panel composition, character acting, and so forth, then you’re not a comics artist and you’re part of the problem.
If you are writing captions and dialogue that clearly states what is going on in the panel unironically, or use too many words on a page so that the artist’s carefully worked-out narrative flow is log-jammed with superfluous balloons? Then you’re not a comics writer and you’re also part of the problem.
The tools to communicate any type of information are there for you to use in comics, IF someone teaches you what they are and how to use them. And given what we know about how dense and layered with intricate detail and levels of text & subtext Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” scripts were, can you think of anyone more suited for making the case of comics as an ideal information delivery system than Dave Gibbons?
The greatest achievement of “Watchmen” is, to my mind, being one of the undisputed gold standards for comics as a medium for telling complex narratives on par with any other literary work. Whether you care about superheroes or the plot particulars or not, it is a true novel in its depth and cohesion, but only through comics does that depth become apparent and, at the same time, accessible. To paraphrase an old Vulcan proverb: comics are that story’s first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.
So it makes sense Zack Snyder would want to model his adaptation’s look on as much of the comic’s as possible; the way Gibbons told that story is the best way TO tell that story. Despite the capes & tights, he treated “Watchmen” like a sci-fi story, in that nothing was taken for granted. Rorschach and Ozymandias’ 1985 New York was as alien a world as Mars or Nu-Earth from Gibbons’ earlier “Rogue Trooper” days. He made it real, he made it solid, and he showed it to us in a way that made us believe.
And of course the film wasn’t as good as the comic. You can’t just copy certain panels as storyboards, shoot them, and call it a day. Comic book panels have their own rules and language, and when you use them the way Gibbons (with Moore) used them, they are better than film. That’s right, I said better. Nobody wants to hear that a person with a pen & paper can tell a story better than someone armed with millions of dollars and an army of technicians and caterers, but it’s the truth.
And while there are tons of examples I could pull from any issue of “Watchmen”, I’m going to go with my favorite sequence in the series: pages 23-24 from issue #9:Continued below
(Quick note: Gibbons lettered “Watchmen” as well as drew it, and since this was in the days before digital lettering, that means he drew the balloons on the art boards as he was working on them instead of pasting cutout balloons later on.)
Moore’s asking for a hell of a lot on these two pages, narratively speaking. Gibbons has two parallel visual (between the Mars present and Laurie’s past) and “audio” tracks to deal with. And remember that in comics, sound takes up physical space on the page needing to be accounted for. Additionally, Laurie’s pivotal realization that The Comedian is her father is handled as a completely internal moment. And on top of that, the pacing of this sequence needs to increase in a chaotic crescendo leading to a climax like the last chord of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
How do you even begin to visualize this?
- Every type of speech is shown in its own coded container. The present dialogue is in rounded balloons, with Jon’s also bordered. The past dialogue is in quotation marks inside caption boxes. The marks are important because when they need to start Laurie’s disbelief in Page 24, Panel 1 for pacing reasons, the marks are removed so the reader will recognize it as present dialogue even though it’s in a flashback panel.
- Laurie & Jon’s conversation has already been intercut with flashbacks prior to these pages, but since the reader’s now familiar with those locations, Gibbons can go back to them for single-panel inserts without unnecessary confusion. Page 23 puts the pedal to the floor with this as Gibbons constantly alternates between present and flashback panels. The fact these panels stay on the page accentuates the fact that they are building up to critical mass in Laurie’s mind.
- Panels 7 and 9 on Page 23 have flashback dialogue bleeding into present panels, but because of Gibbons’ lettering choices, it’s still clear which is which. The last balloon on Page 23 (the small “No” inside a larger white circle) not only visually depicts Laurie’s epiphany, but the size disparity helps it both stand out in the panel and add extra space for that outburst to grow into and explode out of.
- Page 24 is all about building then releasing tension. Having the past dialogue cacophony culminate in a single punchline caption (“…daughter?”) in Panel 4 is great enough, but look at how the ballon placements in Panel 3 guide your eye in a 2-shaped fashion through the two panels. From Laurie’s face in Panel 3, to the “No”, then “…daughter?”, then the throw. By this point your eyes’ movement has picked up enough momentum that, coupled with Gibbons selecting just the right posture for her, Laurie is basically throwing them across the panel with the bottle with enough force to push the panel borders out of the way. He then returns to the three-paneled tier for the bottle’s crash in slow motion, mimicing the way we see things we wish we could undo happen in excruciating delay.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is comics.
(In case you were wondering, the film has Jon mind-zap Laurie, she sees some stuff, he tells her the Comedian is her father, and she punches the crystal. For all the grief people give the “Watchmen” motion comics, they did a much better job adapting that sequence to movement while still keeping the spirit of those storytelling techniques intact. But Snyder’s the visionary, so his film must be an improvement, right?)
WHO WILL PLAY THEM IN THE US REMAKE?
A few interesting facts about the UK Poets Laureate post:
- In its almost 400 years of existing as a more-or-less official post, it has traditionally come with both an annual stipend of cash (approximately $9,200 in 2014 exchange rates) and a barrel of sherry (about 720 bottles worth).
- There has been a concurrent post of Children’s Laureate that could go to a writer or illustrator who shows excellence in the field of children’s literature.
- Former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes wrote “The Iron Man”, which was later adapted by Brad Bird into the animated classic “The Iron Giant”. The 1985 edition of this book won a Kurt Maschler Award, a British literary award given to children’s works “in which text and illustration are integrated so that each enhances and balances the other.” Continued below
Sounds almost like comics, doesn’t it? Text/words and illustration/pictures integrated so that each enhances and balances the other. And the creation of a Children’s Laureate that could go to either a writer or an illustrator. These show that the UK is much closer to accepting an official Comics Laureate as reality than ever before. (I think that first fact just means the Brits value their sherry PRETTY highly…)
But even before that day comes, having Gibbons as an unofficial national Comics Laureate is a smart move. As CLAw describes on their website, “His extensive body of work, his wit and intelligence, his public speaking skills, his passion for the medium and his respect within the comics industry made him an obvious choice.” And that’s not even mentioning his clout outside comics, because “Watchmen” will open doors like few other comics can.
But what about here in the US? How do we get one of those Comics Laureates?
Well, we already have two, actually. Or, Vermont and Alaska do, at least. In 2011, Vermomt announced James Kolchalka as their first official Cartoonist Laureate, and just this year announced Edward Koren as his successor. Alaska beat everyone to the punch in 2008 by naming Chad Carpenter their Cartoonist Laureate. And while some people might make a distinction between Comics and Cartoonist on the false assumption that cartooning is somehow different from comic-ing (yes, that’s a verb now), I’m not going to do that here. That’s a whole other article about why they are the same thing.
But a national Comics Laureate? Official, as in tasked-to-advise-the-Library-of-Congress-like-the-Poet-Laureate official? We don’t have one yet. Who would you pick?
(And I can hear my editor now, screaming, “Uh-uh! You’re not getting out if it that easy! Make a case!”)
I don’t have a case to make for a single person because I think we have lots of good candidates. And since these are usually limited-term appointments we can spread the wealth (if not the sherry). But these candidates come to mind right off the bat:
- Alison Bechdel
- Scott McCloud
- Neil Gaiman*
- Gilbert and/or Jaime Hernandez
- Neal Adams
- Colleen Doran
- Marie Severin
- Walt Simonson
- P. Craig Russell
- Stan Sakai
I’ll cut it there or we could be here all night. And while I’m not going to bust out every reason for every pick, but I will give a few criteria. I don’t think writers should be excluded from the post, but obviously nine of the first ten people I thought of having a strong cartooning background means I lean a certain way on who I would prefer to see in the post. And Neil Gaiman gets the asterisk because I figured citizenship would be an issue, and while he lives in the US he is still a British citizen.
The rest are people I feel have a strong sense of what makes good comics, in either their own work of in others. I tried to represent various viewpoints beyond straight white male. I also thought that been active for a period of a few decades or more was important to give them a certain perspective on comics as a medium but also the state of the comics industry through the years, both in mainstream (like Adams & Simonson & Russell) or independent (Doran & Bechdel & Los Bros. Hernandez).
I’m sure I could just as easily pick ten others. And if we were going for a list of those from years past who are no longer with us, I would pick:
- Archie Goodwin
- Jack Kirby
- Alex Toth
- Harvey Kurtzmann
- Mike Weiringo
Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the Comments section; we only ask that you be civil.
THE LONG GAME
This has all been great news, but it’s not enough. I’m not satisfied, and neither should you be.
Going back to my earlier point, the true goal of comics acceptance can’t be the number of exploited superhero property movies released in a summer or genre-based TV shows you have on your DVR. Not the cosplay parades or the record-breaking auctions of CGC-slabbed comic crypts. Not even making people like reviewer Chris Seullentrop eat their words (although that, I’ll admit, would be a sweet fringe benefit). It has to be about comics, where all these other things we enjoy ultimately came from, take their rightful place among the culturally accepted forms of expression. So you won’t have to automatically qualify things like “I know it’s a comic book, but this one is REALLY good!” to combat the ingrained mindset that words and pictures are great apart but somehow terrible combined. And we get there with groundwork from…you.Continued below
Thought I was going to say the Laureates, didn’t you?
They are great and wonderful and a sign that things are heading in the right direction, but they can’t do it all. This isn’t the time to rest on their shoulders, but rather follow their example. Learn something new about comics from them or somebody else (maybe even us) every day. How they work. Why they work. Why they don’t work. Teach others how to appreciate comics for being comics. Be an ambassador.
Earn your laurel wreath.