What is the Relationship Between Graphic Novels and Film?
Updated: Apr 25
There has always been something sensible to me, if sobering, about Clement Greenberg's emphasis on the materiality of the canvas. Sensible, because he's right - the canvas is the kind of fundamental framework, the window or door, on which the images cavort, the landscapes settle, the still-lifes move slightly, like a horse flicking a fly off its ear. But the canvas - the size of it, the feel of it, and what it allows and doesn't allow as a material heuristic for the painting - is of incalculable significance for what happens when the artist paints and, in a large sense, for what actually gets painted, for the same reason that where we come from, or where we live, or the objects that surround us, in some hard-to-describe way are us. They are the background on which we live the foreground of our lives; and it is no coincidence that when the Nazis attempted to strip Jews of their dignity, they dispossessed them of their material objects - their photographs, their jewelry, the things they owned that reminded them of their loved ones, of who they were. The human being does not stop at the limit of its skin; and we find ourselves in books, food, a particular table passed down from a grandmother, just as much as we find ourselves in words we speak, or thoughts we think.
I think somewhere this is called something like "distributed consciousness," the idea that consciousness does not have bounds exactly; or, the bounds of consciousness are as large as the framework we give it. But this sounds hopelessly vague. I mean that there is a way to see the greatest works of art - novels by Tolstoy, paintings by Picasso, songs by Louis Armstrong - as the product of hearts and minds that worked hard enough, that earn, a kind of unconditioned mind. By unconditioned I do not mean something chaotic, or formless, or infantile; but I mean something that does not hide, that enters the moment within the moment bursting with a life that is not contained within the customary strictures we associate with our more habitual lives. "Unconditioned" is a weird word to use, however, because Tolstoy, Picasso, and Armstrong are also intensely disciplined; and I suppose it is that combination, of discipline and abandon, or discipline-in-abandon, or abandon-in-discipline, that gives us these great works of art.
Are there different backgrounds for different art forms? For example, in painting, we emphasized earlier the materiality of the canvas as a fundamentally important background. And I suppose in sculpture we could emphasize whatever material is being used. What about music? I suppose this could be the time sequence, the chord structure, because music is diachronic - it flows through time - and painting is synchronic - it is spatial more than temporal. But what about literature?
Literature - I'm speaking now of novels, poems, plays, short stories, and essays, but not hybrid works like graphic novels - does not deal with sensuous data, like color, paint, or sound, but language, and language is abstract, meaning it is not something we perceive so much as interpret, or read. We interpret paintings - in fact, there is nothing we do not interpret. But within interpretation, or perception, which is another form of interpretation, there are ratios of sense and abstraction, and painting, which we interpret, foregrounds our visual sense, we could say, in a way that a poem does not. Of course, we see the poem - the black marks on the white page, the font, the arrangement of the lines and stanzas - but the poem is a inverted palimpsest, where the perceptual world is erased so that we can imagine a different world, fed by the resources of our inner imaginative life. The poem works with things that remain invisible without art, or at least conversation - memory, imagination, the life of feeling. The painting works with the same, but it is still part of the perceptual world, even if it is (or because it is) representing it. The poem is also a part of the perceptual world - the letters, the book we hold in our hands - but less so, for through the words we enter into something more abstract. Abstract art is not a thing, because colors, shapes and lines are not abstract, they are sensorial - but abstract language is a redundancy.
One wonders sometimes if abstract art is, in a sense, because of its commitments to a form of askesis, an attempt to come close to language without being language, just as one wonder sometimes if the size of comic books and graphic novels - think of the wonderful enormousness of Ben Katchor's Hand-Drying in America and other stories - is an attempt to come close to paintings without being paintings. Art forms envy each other; ekphrasis is like a kind of sibling rivalry. The director Godard once said that he thought film was closer to life than art and literature, but he said this because he was envious of art and literature, and not because film takes us any closer to life than either art form. We should never conflate representation with life, and we should never say one art form gets us closer to life than another, though I think we can say that a work of art can feel more representationally real than another, as I feel that Tolstoy does this more than, I don't know, Turgenev. To say that one art form gets us closer to life than another is to court a reality-appearance distinction, is to say your novel, your poem, your painting, is an appearance like my film, but the *reality" behind my film is more real than your novel, your poem, your painting. And this courts a fascism and a moralism than would wind up banishing poets and much more.
Graphic novels - although I don't like that term, and prefer "story drawings" - are interesting and important for many reasons, but one is that, because they combine story, visual art, and language, they complicate our notions of ekphrasis, while giving us an enormously rich and subtle ekphrastic object. The language in a graphic novel - through word balloons, through captions, through different forms of narration and dialogue - is, in a sense, ekphrastic, because it is a story, a "poem," about a "painting," about a drawing, just as the drawing is about a story. In an ekphrastic poem, the painting is not there, and we just have the language, though the painting is embedded in the DNA of the language, for it is the painting that gives birth to the poem, say. If someone paints something based on a poem, or a musical composition based on a play, neither the poem nor play is seen, though again, it is encoded in the life-structure, the feeling structure, the ideational or conceptual structure, of the work that follows. But in graphic novels the relationship is not a matter of visibility and invisibility, but concordances and discordances - harmonious, discordant, and anything and everything between and outside these poles -yet the process by which a graphic novel is created is fundamentally ekphrastic, because the actual work is a readerly attempt to get as close to life as possible without being life itself, though by life I do not mean anything prescriptive, but whatever gives life to the artist, from trauma to the mundane and anything else. The danger comes when we say that it does get us closer than film, or any other art form, because that's when we turn from artists to absolutists. But I think we can sensibly say that graphic novels are readerly forms of film, just as film is a more photographic form of theater. Both are interested in embodiment, but the embodiment in film, like theater, is not represented, but acted; while the embodiment in graphic novels is not acted but represented through language and image. All art forms, including film and graphic novels, are performances; and all performances are representations; but not all representations are acted. Perhaps this is why Godard made his well-meaning but slightly disingenuous claim.
Graphic novels, because of their triple commitments to visual art, language, and storytelling, are sensorially the richest art forms outside of live theater and live music. Even music, the most seductive of the art forms, works primarily on the ear, and, while not abstract, works in the mode that is strangest, that is, listening. But graphic novels are also readerly, meaning they come as much from film as they do the novel, but unlike film they have a greater commitment to touch. Perhaps we could therefore say that graphic novels, as an art form, has more parents than other art forms, and maybe this is why they present so many problems for a more formal interpretation.
When we go to a film, we sit in a chair - at least before the age of streaming, but we still sit when we watch films, or lie down - and we watch images on a screen. It is a relatively passive process of experience, even if, in films by Godard, or Bergman, or Tarkovsky, or Chantel Akerman, or the Cohen Brothers, or Kubrick, we are shocked into a need for thinking. But we do not watch graphic novels, we read them. There is a difference, then, between watching, reading, and looking, even if all three activities are interpretive. But one both reads and looks at a graphic novel, whereas one mainly watches a film, and one mainly reads a poem, novel, short story, essay or play. And looking is a different sort of thing, a kind of form of noticing.
Noticing itself is I think what John Baldessari was getting at with his idea of "pointing" - the thing pointed at, the object on which the attention rests, actively and passively at once - and I think the work of Bern Porter, or Ed Ruscha, also get us thinking about differences between looking, watching, and reading. I suppose all three are different forms of witnessing, which has both aesthetic and ethical connotations and implications.