Comics: An Imaginary Pursuit

September 11th, 2013

The Comics Journal Website is composed of a number of phantasmagorical pages, some of them ordered as blog posts, others as columns or interviews or features, all of them dedicated to an art of uncertain value.

Wars have been fought over the best way to define this paper-thin phenomenon, many of them on previous incarnation of the Comics Journal site.  On quiet Sunday afternoons in the early 2000s gangs of rabid comics scholars could often be found tossing verbal molotovs back and forth: are comics sequential art, made compelling by the gaps between images, or is any attempt to define a medium based on what it *doesn’t* contain doomed to folly?  Does this alleged art form have its roots in ancient tapestry or arcane graffiti?  Are stories that strain to make childhood fantasies relevant for adult consumers really that much worse than stories that are at pains to distance themselves from the same fantasies?

Which is to say: Do you prefer Dan Clowes or the Sex-Men?

Mickey Maus or Krazy Kat?

You could catch many notions while trawling the endlessly, depthless sea of these online arguments, but no matter how long and hard you toiled you would be hard pressed to find a convincing definition of comics that didn’t fall back on the tautological – no one knows what comics are, but everyone trusts that they will know them when they see them.

On 30/08/2013 a comment was posted on The Comics Journal website that came close to explaining the joke:

First off, the word “muslim” is never implied. Second, the terrorists aren’t real. They are cartoons based loosely on the fact that there are people on this planet who will kill you because you don’t believe in their imaginary god. Again, they are CARTOONS. It’s complete fantasy. So, your last line about “justification for the depiction of terrorists” really makes no sense. Are you a censor? Depiction of what exactly? They aren’t real to begin with. The key phrase in your ridiculously reactionary statement is “having not read it”.

Indie cartoonist Jason Karns there, responding to a question about whether or not his small press comic Fukitor was as “insanely racist” as it looked.  Here we see Karns displaying a sort of thinking that transcends Keats’ “negative capability”, tending instead towards a sort of unfathomable emptiness – the ability to hold a jumble of seemingly contradictory ideas in one’s head without grasping the implications of any of them.

And what sort of work does such an ability lead to?

Work that looks a little bit like this, apparently:

If you break Karns’ argument down to its basic elements, the nature of the great comics scam starts to become clear:

  • Since the visual language of comics, so called, cannot communicate meaning on its own, the above illustration cannot be racist because the “people” depicted in it are not adequately labelled as such.
  • The people who aren’t depicted in this panel exist out there in the world, and their abominable behaviour justifies the sort of unpleasant depiction that Karns has failed to provide here.
  • Except that because they are(n’t) depicted in Karns’ comic these characters cannot relate to anything beyond themselves.  They are “CARTOONS”, which means that these all-caps figments are official friends of Gandalf, and as such as real as your prospects of living a meaningful life.
  • To claim to recognise anything from the world in a comic is to raise suspicions that you want to prevent the object in question from being allowed to exist – perhaps because the copy poses some sort of existential threat to the original.

Compelling as all of the above is, it’s only when Karns’ says that the key phrase in the comment he’s responding to is “having not read it” that this careful observer felt assured in his findings.  You see, the truth is that no one has read Fukitor because it does not exist in a form that can be read.  Sure, you can exchange money for a physical object that announces itself to be “Fukitor”, and if you want to pretend to see a “gung-ho, over-the-top gi-joe thing” within then you’ll find plenty of people who’re willing to play along with you, but you’ll be living a lie together all the same.

Please understand that I’m not denouncing Karns as a snake oil salesman: to face the truth is to acknowledge that there’s a tradition of make-believe supporting Karns’ behavior, a strange game that most people give up before puberty hits.   The name of the game is comics, and the rules are as easy to understand as they are to lose yourself to: all you have to do is look at collection of squiggles on a page, decorated with the occasional bubble of meaningful text, and pretend to see a story in there.  Once you’ve grasped this it’s easy to explain how Karns’ comic can depict people who exist without referring to reality, or how it can be both tongue-in-cheek and serious at the same time as per Frank Santoro.   You thought Karns’ head was empty, but in the end  he was just straining to articulate the inexplicable blankness of his calling.

Looking at the Fukinator excerpts available on the Comics Journal website with this knowledge in mind, it’s clear that Karns was right, that nothing is being depicted in the comic that the reader has not brought with them to the chaos.

And so, here we have a picture of The Emperor of Ice Cream rising:

Followed by an illustration of The Six of Seven triumphant:

And a 3D diagram explaining the inner workings of Doctor Spock’s left bollock:

The more astute amongst you will have noticed the real danger presented by comics and interpretations thereof.   This threat was hinted at in Karns’ proclamations, but its clearest expression came through in the sheer persistence of his defenders.

Wading into the river of this argument after Karns himself had been washed away by it, Darryl Ayo and David Brothers both made valiant efforts to explain how images like these serve the (racist, sexist) status quo rater than subverting it in any meaningful way.  The fact that their eloquence was met with yet more idiotic honking might seem to suggest that whiteboys are still too damn comfy to get out of the stupid chair, but a more charitable view of Team Karns’ behaviour might reveal the raw panic behind these responses.   To find something from the world in a comic is to beg the question, “If this thing I’m looking at is really just a jumble of lines on a page, is the version of it I know from the world really any different?  Can it really exist?”   Hence, to read about race in a comic by Benjamin Marra is to find oneself in danger of question the reality of black pain, and to read a comic panel depicting  caricatured Arabs is to consign the subjects of these distortions to the same level of reality as martians.  Perhaps martians were real too once, until they were used in one to many comics, who can say?

In the face of this threat, the idiocy of certain Comics Journal becomes easier to understand – after all, who knows what would happen if these guys ever recognised themselves in the mirror –  as do the constant unprompted references to censorship.  In the face of this pernicious threat to life as we know it, this brutalising abuse of the human imagination, censorship is the only sane response.

Ban the comics.  All of them.  Now.  Before we see too much in there and do even more irreparable damage to the world we live in.

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