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How should we read Krazy Kat’s Christmas episodes?

Santa Kat 2

This being the last of our five-part roundtable on George Herriman’s seminal comic strip and coincidentally the last post before Christmas, I thought it might be fun to reflect on two Christmas episodes from Krazy Kat.

As consumers of pop culture, the holidays are a time for us to engage in uncritical enjoyment of TV Christmas specials. There’s something comforting about knowing that the fictional worlds of the shows we follow align with our own seasonal cycles. What’s more, television producers know that Christmas specials have to deliver more and newer viewing pleasures than the usual, so they tend to be worth watching. Christmas specials are always highly conscious of past Christmas specials, and even conscious of past Christmas specials from other shows, so they become uniquely citational, genre bending, and just generally “meta.” I’d like to think that Christmas specials are capable of “inoculating” their viewers against the undifferentiated time of those late-capitalist spaces associated with Christmas, such as big box stores and malls, by placing them into a more telluric time, even if through fiction. The same can be said of comic strips, which are published year-round, for typically longer runs, and which align perhaps even more neatly with the seasonal timeframe of their readerships than does TV.

Santa Kat 1

The fictional universe of Krazy Kat is weirdly both atemporal and attuned to the progression of months, seasons, and holidays. A number of episodes demonstrate this atemporality through an iterative structure according to which the panel in the top right corner and the last panel (bottom right corner) mirror one another perfectly save for one or two small differences but always to remind the reader that there will be a return to the status quo between Kat, Ignatz, and Officer Pup. Frequent visual references to the Sisyphus myth (Kat hauling a bowling ball or a wheel of cheese up a hill in order to please Ignatz who is always disappointed, etc.) echo this sense of atemporality in Krazy Kat‘s fictional universe. In one episode, dated March 25th, 1917, we see Ignatz just awakened and making a vow to himself to “make this a day of great memory.” He asks the brick dealer for his “grandest brick” but is caught in a storm and saved by Kat. In the bottom three panels we see Ignatz awaken only to decree once again that he will “do a most magnificent deed.” Strikingly, the dialogue of these three panels is word-for-word the same as the top three panels. Except perhaps that this time the reader understands the brick dealer is exploiting Ignatz’s sense of singularity by selling each new day’s brick as the brick he considers his “masterpiece.” Ignatz dramatizes a tension between the thought that “today is a special day” and the fear that “today is the same as any other day,” between the eventful and the everyday. If we read the Kat-Mouse-Pup love triangle as a kind of allegory of American life, as E.E. Cummings did, Ignatz’s willful ignorance of the repetition in his life speaks to a need to experience repetition in one’s lives as though each iteration were singular and different. But this willful blindness to the repetitiveness of his life also prevents Ignatz from appreciating the paradoxical temporality of the holidays wherein we allow ourselves to enjoy and revel in repetition by calling it tradition.

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In Krazy Kat‘s first Christmas episode (12/24/1916), the brick dealer begins selling “karbon briquets” instead of bricks for the season. His sign reads, “build a house or build a fire”. When Ignatz wakes to Krazy regaling him with Christmas carols he hurls briquets through the window at the besotted caroler. Krazy gives the “brickwets” to Senora Pelona Chiwawa, the Mexican war bride and her three “fatherless pups,” who use them to stay warm. The concluding panel shows Krazy sleeping under the mistletoe with a caption beneath him that says, “merry krismis and a heppy new year!!” Structurally, this episode is not too different from any other. Aside from the various holiday references and the transubstantiation of bricks to briquets that makes Ignatz into a foiled Scrooge figure, it’s business as usual. But the Christmas episode published two years later is much more self conscious about bringing the weird temporality of Krazy Kat’s fictional universe into dialogue with the equally weird temporality of Christmas. This next Christmas special opens with Kat spying on Ignatz as he verbalizes his disbelief in Santa Claus (“I don’t believe in “Santa Claus”, I’m too broad-minded, and advanced for such nonsense”), “a scene, rife with skepticism, and heresy,” as the caption reads. Kat endeavors to restore Ignatz’s faith and presents himself to the latter dressed as Santa. Ignatz bows down in humble apology to Kat-as-Santa whose tail and characteristic speech give him away almost immediately thereafter. The last panel shows Ignatz seated in the same position, saying word-for-word the same thing he utters in the first panel while the caption reads, “we close, with a scene, rife with skepticism, and heresy.” The ironic authorial tone enables the reader to partake in Kat’s uncritical enjoyment of Christmas while also partaking in Ignatz’s skepticism towards the holiday. In an atemporal fictional universe that nonetheless seems to follow the seasonal cycles of our own, there is room for such self-contradictory positions. There is room to be both cynical and credulous about the brick dealer’s claims, room to feel certain that today will be eventful while knowing that it won’t, room to enjoy Christmas even if we know it’s a scam.

Ignatz l'il unbelieva

How does anthropomorphism represent race in Krazy Kat?

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In their essay collection, Thinking about Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, editors Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman assert that “humans, past and present, hither and yon, think they know how animals think, and they habitually use animals to help them do their own thinking about themselves.” Prompted by the ubiquitous manifestations of anthropomorphism in the arts and sciences, religion and folklore, advertising, and nature documentary filmmaking, the collection’s introduction charts the various psychological, religious, and ethic orientations toward ascribing human behaviors and characteristics to animals and asks: “Has the animal become, like that of the taxidermist’s craft, little more than a human-sculpted object in which the animal’s glass eye merely reflects our own projections?”

The question provides us with an opportunity to linger on the cat and mouse game at the center of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. We might consider what the comic strip’s premise has inherited from Anansi, Aesop, Brer Rabbit, and other tales of talking animals in its serial run from the First World War to the Second, through Women’s Suffrage, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Segregation Era. Or we can reflect on how the strengths and weaknesses of Krazy Kat shape our interpretation of animal characters in the comic art and animation that followed Herriman’s lead. Felix, Mickey, Woody, and Fritz come to mind, but anthropomorphic animals as a trope touch a remarkable number of genres and styles, including titles such as FablesMouse GuardBeasts of BurdenPride of BagdadBayouBlacksad, and We3. And of course, given the subject of recent conversations on HU, we might even wonder: if it wasn’t for Krazy Kat, would we even have Art Spiegelman’s Maus?

While the animals of Coconino County engage a range of social identities and historical contexts against the love triangle between Krazy, Ignatz, and Offisa Pup, I’m particularly interested in the way anthropomorphism externalizes race in the comic strip. Daston and Mitman go on to make the point that animals are not merely “a blank screen” in anthropomorphic representation; their own actions and behaviors as animals bring “added value” to human projections. And so Herriman’s decision to undermine the well-known antagonisms between mice, cats, and dogs is meaningful, and not just because of the way the cartoonist endeavored to conceal his own mixed-race identity.

In Krazy Kat, the cat that chases the mouse isn’t driven by food or deadly sport, but by the kind of desire and affinity that is undeterred by species. In order to take part in this desire as readers, we have to accept what Jeet Heer characterizes as “the strange internal logic of the world Herriman created: we never ask why a cat should love a mouse, or a dog love a cat, since it seems natural. And this, perhaps, is where race becomes relevant.” Indeed, the comic strip’s defiance of the “natural order” brings to mind the discredited scientific theories used to superimpose racial categories onto a Great Chain of Being. Herriman’s anthropomorphism may dramatize difference, but not incompatibility and in the process, the comic affirms Krazy as America’s quintessential stray.

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Heer points out that Krazy’s blackness becomes more pronounced over time, particularly with the appearance of his blues singing “Uncle Tom” cat. Added to this are several comic strips in which racism and white supremacy serve as the primary target of comedic reversals and impersonations. In one story, Ignatz falls for Krazy after the cat has been drenched in whitewash and the mouse longs for the “beautiful nymph” who is “white as a lily, pure as the driven snow.” Once Krazy washes off the paint, Ignatz’s outrage returns. In another instance, Ignatz tans in the sun and throws a brick at a confused Krazy who angrily responds in kind, saying “Dunt think I’m no ‘Desdamonia’ you Otello.” Krazy’s uncharacteristic behavior seems especially odd in this strip until one considers that he is not actually upset because a black mouse has thrown the brick, but because the brick-thrower is someone other than Ignatz. Certainly the Shakespearean allusion speaks to this tragic tangle of racial and gendered constructs.

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Yet while the racial politics in examples like these are more explicit, I find them to be less compelling and somewhat disconnected from the “strange internal logic of the world Herriman created.” (Having discussed Herriman’s Musical Mose elsewhere, I would argue that this comic strip manipulates the concept of racial and ethnic “impussanation” much more effectively in the way that it sets caricatures against one another.) I believe that it is through the anthropomorphic structures of Krazy Kat and not through buckets of whitewash that Herriman achieves his most complex and multi-dimensional engagement with race and other “human-sculpted” realities. What is your take on how race is shaped by the anthropomorphic tropes in Krazy Kat?

What roles might linguistic arbitrariness play in Krazy Kat?

Welcome to the third post in the Pencil Panel Page roundtable on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. We are glad to have found a new home over at Hooded Utilitarian, and as Adrielle said in her inaugural post, you should dive into our archives. Be sure to update your bookmarks for our future posts.

Since there has been some concern expressed on the Hooded Utilitarian site about the state of linguistic analysis, I wish to start my post on Krazy Kat with a note about the linguistic analysis of comics in general. As a linguist, I am most interested in the way that linguistic codes function in comics. I concentrate on the analysis of dialogue using methods borrowed from conversation analysis, primarily but not exclusively to highlight the interrelationship of language and identity. You might take a look at my essay on verbal camp in the Rawhide Kid as an example. But in addition to discourse analysis, and especially for my posts on Pencil Panel Page, I draw broadly on morphology, lexical semantics, dialect and register, as well as principles of bilingual code-switching, among others. Some commenters on Hooded Utilitarian have cited Hannah Miodrag’s book, Comics and Language (2013); Adrielle’s post two weeks ago mentions it. I would also like to note that I edited a collection of essays called Linguistics and the Study of Comics, published by Palgrave in 2012. You can read the table of contents and the introductory chapter here. My understanding is that Neil Cohn has a new book in the works, as well, about visual language. This is a very exciting time to be a linguist and to have interest in comics! And for those of you who are concerned about the dearth of linguistic analysis in comics, never fear! Much more is coming.

And now—on to language and sound in Krazy Kat. The point of Miodrag’s chapter on Herriman is ‘sidelining the visual (and thematic) content in favor of linguistic [in order] to illustrate how comics might truly be approached as literature, and to present a more convincing argument than has previously been achieved for their literary potential’ (p. 21). Some people will agree with Miodrag that comics are literature, and her goals are laudable. But for linguists, the point of a linguistic analysis of comics has very little to do with proving their literary worth. For me, a linguistic analysis demonstrates the nature of comics as comics and their relationship to linguistic systems. The aim is not to use linguistics to measure the nature of comics as literature or architecture or fine art or anything else.

But Miodrag does make some fine points in her discussion of arbitrary minimal units, which are essential in understanding linguistic systems. The arbitrariness of language can be discovered at the phonetic level: with just so many vowels available and a larger but nevertheless limited number of consonants, the tiny phonetic inventory of human speech sounds must necessarily be manipulated to produce vast numbers of unique combinations ranging across more than 6000 languages. (See Ethnologue for more about the world’s linguistic diversity). Depending on the dialect, English has roughly 12 to 14 vowels; other languages have more, others fewer. What this means is that phones cannot have frozen or static or essential functions: their functions are assigned by the speech communities that use them, and those functions always change.

Arbitrariness, of course, may also be illustrated at the morphological, syntactic, and lexical levels. Whether we call it chicken or poultry or fowl, we know that those words refer to a type of bird used around the world for food. Eventually, we’ll call that same bird something else, because languages change and the sign that we use to refer to that type of bird is arbitrary. We could even call it frindle if we wanted to.

Most linguists agree, though, that not every single unit in language is arbitrary. Sometimes, a syntactic form is only semiarbitrary. Consider these two sentences:

(a) We had pizza and beer after we finished our workout at the gym.

(b) After we finished our workout at the gym, we had pizza and beer.

The events here occur in the same order chronologically, but they are reversed syntactically. But in (b), the syntactic order of events mimics the chronological order of events. Workout at the gym comes first, pizza and beer comes next, so the order of (b) is not entirely arbitrary.

I think that the limits of arbitrariness play an important role in Krazy Kat. Like many comics creators, Herriman uses sound effects to provide an auditory element to the page. Many linguists consider human sounds meant to mimic sounds from the environment as semiarbitrary in nature. Even though a rooster says cock-a-doodle-doo in English, says quiquiriquí in Spanish, and says gokogoko in Cantonese—even though these are different phonetic representations—they are not completely arbitrary. They in some sense mimic the acoustic sounds outside the linguistic system.

Herriman’s use of sound effects is fascinating, and a quick survey of the Sunday comics (Fantagraphics, 1916­–1918) demonstrates his playfulness and creativity. I’d like to consider one particular sequence when Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse switch bodies. In the opening panel of the September 9th strip, we see a Krazy Kat throw a brick and hit an Ignatz Mouse with it:

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p. 96.

The sound effect of the brick sailing through the air is Zizz. (Zizz probably because bricks don’t go fap fap fap or sklircha sklircha when they nudge their way through air molecules.) When the brick strikes Ignatz, the sound is Blop!! Naturally, the other characters in the strip are mystified. They simply cannot believe that the mild-mannered, gentle, and kind Krazy has turned the tables on that spiteful bully Ignatz. The mystery is so deep that Herriman takes three Sunday comics to reveal the secret to readers.

In the second installment, on September 16th, the strip opens with a memory. It is an inset of the same event shown on September 9th, with a couple of different details:

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p. 97

This time, when Krazy throws the brick, it says Jazzzz. And when Brick hits Ignatz, the sound is MBOB. There are a few other differences, too, like Krazy’s stance and the absence of speech on 16 September. (In both scenes, Krazy throws the brick from right to left: see Roy Cook’s earlier post about this.)

In the third installment, on Sunday 23 September, Herriman solves the mystery and puts Krazy and Ignatz back in their proper roles. In scene 12, we witness (the real) Ignatz throwing a rock at (the real) Krazy. The sound of the rock sailing through the air is Jazz, and the rock strikes Krazy with a Pap. The anomalous characters and actions have been resolved, and all is right with the world again.

Miodrag is right when she argues that Herriman pushes the boundaries of the standard English linguistic system by making full use of the arbitariness of minimal units. The same can be said for his sound effects. But not all of Herriman’s sound effects push the boundaries of the units. He often uses a standard(?) pow or bop or bam or zip, but his tool kit is wide-ranging. Herriman’s use of sound effects is highly creative. Just as he plays with arbitrary minimal units in creating the linguistic repertoire of characters, he also plays with the representation of nonlinguistic sound. Of course in Krazy Kat, bricks don’t always make sounds when they fly through the air or hit someone on the head. And at times, even on the same page, the sound effects for the same action are variable:

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p. 74

Ignatz throws a brick (from right to left), and the sound effect is Zib. Later on this same page, the sound effect for a similar action is Bzip.

My main question on arbitrariness has to do with the sound jazz. Unlike bam or fwip, jazz is a word that has standing in other areas or domains of English. Its precise etymology is unclear, but early uses of the word associate it with such activities as baseball. (The American Dialect Society voted it the Word of the Century in 2000.) Nowadays, it is most often associated with an important musical genre. I believe Herriman uses jazz as the sound of an object whizzing through the air not because of its arbitrariness but because of its multiple meanings. Herriman plays with these multiple meanings—the arbitrary ones—that jazz contains and brings them to bear on the semiarbitrary representation of acoustic sound in comics. Maybe the relationship between Krazy and Ignatz needs something more than a regular old sound effect, and Herriman uses jazz as a way to give their relationship a little something extra. Maybe the sound of the brick is more than physically acoustic: maybe it’s music to their ears.

Earlier comments on our Krazy Kat roundtable express the sense that Herriman’s comic is best read slowly, in small doses. A slow reading allows us to savor the visual and the verbal, but we also get to revel in the playful, almost-but-not-quite arbitrary representation of acoustics. As much arbitrariness as we sometimes see in the language and behaviors of Krazy Kat characters, as well as the background scenes, we know that Herriman doesn’t go too far afield lest he lose the reader in a fog of inscrutability. But Herriman does make his readers work for it, and as a result of this slow, sumptuous reading, we are very richly rewarded.

Why Does Ignatz Throw Right to Left?

KrazySundayIn an essay on Herriman’s Krazy Kat titled “The Gift”, Douglas Wolk notes that:

Everything from Herriman’s crabbed handwriting and batty phenotic spellings to his habit of showing Ignatz’s brick flying from right to left (against the flow of reading) to the way he constructs his panels and pages – with vistas so wide the eye can’t take them in all at once – means you need to slow down and be mindful of each element of his work to show how funny it really is.

Now, Wolk is certainly right that all of these odd characteristics of Krazy Kat interfere with a quick, superficial reading – one that merely looks ahead to the punchline. But might there be more going on?

KrazyPage1Anyone who has ever read a how-to book on comics – from How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (Lee and Buscema) to Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (Abel and Madden) – knows that one of the first rules of action is that temporally extended events should be portrayed as moving from left to right. As a result, the different parts of the action – the release of a brick, its trajectory through the air, its impact on a cat’s head – will be read in the temporal order in which they occur (McCloud’s discussion of the passing of time within a panel in Understanding Comics is also of relevance here). So why does Herriman, more often than not, break this rule with Ignatz’s brick?

Now, there is an easy explanation: The depiction of the brick as flying from right to left goes against the rules of comics composition as we have know them. But it was Herriman, amongst others (including of course Eisner, McKay, etc.) who discovered and developed these rules, through decades of trial and error and aesthetic experimentation. So perhaps this particular aspect of the construction of action scenes in comics just wasn’t apparent or important to Herriman.

KrazyPage2While simple, this explanation seems unlikely. After all, Herriman was certainly a sophisticated enough practitioner of the comics art to realize that the right to left orientation of the flight of the brick would interfere with ‘natural’ reading. So why did he do it?

Here’s another, more theoretically interesting possibility: Depicting the brick as being tossed from right to left doesn’t merely slow the reader down. Instead, it highlights, in a sense, the artificiality of Ignatz’s act of violence. In drawing the path of the brick in this manner, Herriman is de-emphasizing this action as an action. After all, we don’t read Krazy Kat strips in order to find out how the big action sequence turns out each day – that is, in order to find out who wins the brick fight. Rather, the tossing of the brick is one of a number of uniform narrative ingredients that Herriman re-mixes, mashes, and rearranges in each strip. In de-emphasizing the action, Herriman also emphasizes the nature of the thrown brick as just one of a number of generic ingredients that go into a Krazy Kat strip (where, for these purposes, Krazy Kat is a genre unto itself).

How does George Herriman’s Krazy Kat Reshape the Comics Canon?

ImageGreetings to our old friends at PencilPanelPage, and our new friends at Hooded Utilitarian!  We are thrilled that Hooded Utilitarian has agreed to host our comics criticism blog (celebrating two years on the interwebs this autumn), and look forward to your responses to our posts (which, for our new readers, are always framed as questions that are meant to engage you, provoke you, and otherwise prod you into thinking with us about all things comics).  We have no distinct agenda, and pose questions that are as likely to be about comics structure, form and technique as they are about content, authorship, or reader reception.  Please visit our archive (PencilPanelPage.com) to access earlier posts and comments; you’ll read some interesting pieces, and you’ll get a better sense of our approach and predilections.

Now, let’s begin our promised Krazy Kat foray!  This is the first of our five-part roundtable on George Herriman’s seminal comic strip.  For the next five weeks, we’ll invite you to join us in re-assessing Herriman’s accomplishment now that Fantagraphics has issued the final volume in its stunning Krazy and Ignatz complete set.  I don’t think anyone has gotten his/her head around what it means to have all these strips available to us now in high production-value collections, but there’s no question that Herriman, if he wasn’t already a pulsing blip on your radar, is now a meteor coming at us full-speed.  We’ll be interested to hear your responses over the next few weeks; just what does the eternal triangle of Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pupp mean to you?  Color or black and white, Sunday or not; is Herriman our great under-appreciated forefather?  How does our unprecedented access, via the Fantagraphics republications, to hundreds of Krazy Kat strips alter our sense of the comics canon—its seminal works, its stylistic trajectories, its history and its future?

Here’s what I am thinking about:

In his 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot suggested that masterworks fundamentally alter the chain of related works that precede (and, by extension, follow) them:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead….[W]hat happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. (Section I, Paragraph 4)

Overlaying a mathematical framework onto this argument helps, I think, so let’s explore Eliot’s assertion as a mathematical postulate.  This is not just to say that a new addition to the canon {let T= tradition, or the set of previous masterworks in a given artistic tradition} augments the size or total number of works {T+1}; Eliot seems to suggest that the very properties of T (and thus, by extension, each element of set T, or each of the previous masterworks contained in the set) are fundamentally altered by the new addition.  If Herriman’s work is substantial enough—innovative, alert to the unique affordances of the medium, intelligent, taut with momentum—and I do think it is, then a careful, extensive, reading of Krazy Kat ought to change our very perceptions of the comics medium itself, as well as our interpretation of other works in the canon (insert your beloveds here).  If I had more space and more time, I’d explore the ways Herriman’s long-running, palimpsestic strip alters my perception of other strips from the early 20th century, but also the ways it changes my perception of newer works, including those that are similarly experimental (in both form and content).  If I really had time, I’d want to mount a full-on linguistic study of Krazy Kat’s diction, for never have I seen more virtuoso movement up and down the register scale (informal to formal and back down again), code-switching, regional/literary/archaic/contemporary dialect streaming from the mouths of a gender-bending cat, a dogged pup, and a brick-slinging mouse.  I really wanted to do this when I read Ng Suat Tong’s comment on the paucity of true linguistic analysis of comics in his recent (November 4, 2013) post, “Comics Criticism:  Even Comics Critics don’t Care about it” on this very site (Hooded Utilitarian): “It’s been some time since I read a detailed analysis of the actual language (structure, style, grammar, whatever) of a literary comic. It might be that these critics don’t often get the chance considering the language skills of most cartoonists.”  Herriman is definitely not “most cartoonists!”

 What I do have a little more space and time for is a wee study of space in a single Krazy Kat strip, dated January 28, 1922.  This one strip seems to me to be the Krazy Kat  world in miniature—a near-perfect example of Herriman’s pictorial and linguistic talents.  It is pictured in its entirety at the top of this post, of course, but let’s break the page down a little to examine its notable components:

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The top panel takes the space of three panels, offering a rectangular capture of all three of our main characters outside at night, separate but absolutely fixated on each other.  Krazy sits on the left, thinking of Ignatz, Offissa Pupp is in the center, body angled toward his beloved, Krazy, but his gaze is directed at Ignatz on our right (“I’ve got me eye on you…..bum”).  Ignatz peers out of his adobe window, right back at Offissa Pupp:  “And a ugly eye it is, too”  (a little floating meta-speech bubble to the side stage directs: spoken softly ).  Together they stand, separate but connected.

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In the center of the page, distinctly forming a unit, the next group of panels (six panels, most borderless with simple white backdrops representing the interior of Ignatz’ house plus one exterior shot with borders) depicts Ignatz’ clever engagement of a local gopher to aid him in bricking Krazy despite the above-ground obstacle of Offissa Pupp who blocks him.  Connecting the top panel to this set is a small overlay  (see top panel above) that offers this interesting meta-comment:  “Now let’s [circle] this [triangle].”

I think this is delightful.  Not only is space manipulated panel-to-panel, above-ground to below-ground, and as movement of points along a line (Ignatz begins to move from his right-side position to the left), but Herriman also works with borderless panels, carved out groups of panels that form separate scenes, overlay panels, AND the inclusion of meta-references to shape-change that really signal directional shifts in the chasing (who is chasing whom in which direction?).

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The final set of panels, as you can see, includes a road shaped according to perspective, a tunneling gopher with Ignatz in tow (moving him right to left unseen by Officer Pupp above ground) in a panel that ends just shy of the right margin, and allows the lowest panel –a landscape– to bleed upward.  Maybe this is a reach, but it also seems that the tunneling panel (middle, last row) effectively takes Officer Pupp’s “space” if you follow the spatial logic of the top panel (despite the fact that smaller versions of Pupp appear in that panel and the right edge of the landscape panel).  Ignatz has triumphed, but as usual, all three characters have had their anxiety relieved via this act (Krazy has had her/his desired bricking, Offissa Pupp believes he is vigilant, and Ignatz is—at least for the moment—sated).

This single compressed scene is extraordinary in that it is the perfect synecdoche for the strip as a whole, and because it showcases Herriman’s ability to stretch three-dimensional space (in both its physical and psychological permutations) across a two-dimensional frame.  If this doesn’t exploit the particular affordance of the comics medium, I don’t know what does.

Now, your thoughts on Krazy Kat!  Plus, tune in next week for another installment of our Krazy Kat roundtable.

We’re Moving (and Other Exciting Stuff)

SquareLogoStarting next week, PencilPanelPage will be hosted at:

HU

The link is here:

http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/

All of us are very excited about this new collaboration, as it promises to expose PPP to a much larger audience, while retaining the questions-oriented, quality interrogation of the comics form that you have (we hope!) come to expect from Roy, Frank, Qiana, Adrielle, Michael, and our frequent guests.

KrazyIgnatzPupAs part of the transition to our new location, so to speak, we are having a special event: A PencilPanelPage roundtable! The PPP logo references a number of different, historically and theoretically important comics. Over the next five weeks we will produce a special series of posts, all on the first such reference: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

This sroundtable will be cross-hosted both here and at The Hooded Utilitarian. After that, we will move full-time to the new location (but you can still find the link here, if you forget!)

As a final note, we want to thank everyone who has stuck with us during the first two years, and we hope you will find that the move to HU provides an even more vibrant environment for first-rate discussion of our favorite medium.

Thanks for everything!

The PencilPanelPage gang!

How do we talk about coloring in comics?

image1I am looking for more effective ways to talk about color and the strategies that colorists use to convey meaning in comics. I’d be grateful, too, for examples of comics that you feel are particularly striking or innovate in their use of color.

In my comics course this semester, I have found myself alluding more frequently to McCloud’s brief chapter on color in Understanding Comics, but I’d like to build upon these terms and concepts to analyze coloring more convincingly as a signifying tool. The class’s most recent discussion of Jeremy Love’s Bayou referred often to how the southern landscapes of the comic were made all the more lush, haunting, and gruesome by Patrick Morgan’s distinctive use of color, a vivid palette that recalls children’s picture books and Disney cartoon animation.  Color frames readerly expectations about the content in this example, but the interplay between text and image ultimately enlists these very color choices to critique the aesthetic expression of the southern past as idyllic nostalgia.

Color is particularly useful in exploring how socially constructed ideas about race negotiate the realities of skin color (something I also discuss here in this post’s thought experiment). Another example that I find interesting comes from the 1953 story “In Gratitude” by Al Feldstein and Wally Wood from Shock SuspenStories. In this scene, the parents of a Korean War veteran named Joey visually recount the incidents narrated in their son’s letters from the frontline. Described in the letters are the heroic deeds of a fellow soldier named Hank who ends up giving his life to save Joey.

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Click to enlarge

What Joey’s mother and father don’t know initially, however, is that Hank is African American. The comic invites us to see through their field of vision as they read the black soldier’s virtues in Joey’s “raceless” prose as white. Yet the way the panels are colored, the men on the battlefield are washed in hues of blue and later a field of deep red as Hank leaps on the grenade. The colorist’s choices convey the clash between Joey’s recollections and his parent’s assumptions, and the monochromatic panels might even been said to have a democratizing effect on the bodies being battered and broken under fire. (Perhaps it is no mistake the expressionistic color choices are also the primary color of the American flag.)

“In Gratitude” ends with Joey ashamed and outraged at his parents and his hometown for refusing to bury Hank alongside their cemetery’s white bodies. The work of EC’s colorist — most likely Marie Severin — help to reinforce the comic’s critique of these segregation practices as well.

How does color factor into your evaluation of comics? What resources and examples do you use to talk about this element of the form’s style?

How do Southern, racial, and sexual identities mix?

This weekend, I have the great fortune to participate in Comics Studies in the US South, a symposium held at the University of South Carolina. My talk explores the juncture of linguistic production, race and ethnicity, and sexuality in characters that are presented as Southern. It isn’t my intention to make a broad survey of comics but instead to examine two in particular, Kyle’s Bed & Breakfast, by Greg Fox, and Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse.

The first comic, Kyle’s Bed & Breakfast, is not a comic about the South. It is set in Northport, on Long Island, a small picturesque community in rural New York. Written, drawn, and colored by Greg Fox, this comic is meant to be a kind of soap opera serial about the lives of the gay men who live in the B&B. There have been a couple of Southern men who have entered the story lines. The most recent one is Drew, a social worker who is originally from Huntsville, Alabama. He develops a relationship with Lance, a long-term resident of the B&B who originally comes from Chicago.

Drew & Lance meet

Drew & Lance meet

The second comic is Stuck Rubber Baby, a graphic novel written and drawn by Howard Cruse. Set in the fictional city of Clayfield, it is modeled on Birmingham, Alabama, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, depicting the tortuous complexities of race relations and sexuality in an environment of police brutality, KKK lynchings, economic inequality, and changing gender roles, among others. All of the characters in Stuck Rubber Baby engage in everyday friendships and romantic relationships that variously reify, cross, or minimize racial boundaries.

Marge and Effie (facing the reader) meet Toland

Marge and Effie (facing the reader) meet Toland

In both of these comics, characters refer to markers of identity in their conversations with other characters. Drew and Lance, for example, talk in a limited way about what it means to be from the South, and they directly address stereotypes about the South and about Southerners. Two of the stereotypes are food-oriented, including fried chicken and ribs, among others. In Stuck Rubber Baby, characters foreground the notions of race and sexuality, but the Southern-ness of the characters is woven into the fabric of their being, their ways of life. In Kyle’s Bed & Breakfast, the presence of a Southerner is unusual, an event to be noticed and critiqued, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. In Stuck Rubber Baby, the Southern-ness is of course not notable, not much to be commented on. Though there are some non-Southern characters in the story, their ‘otherness’ is mentioned usually in passing, as part of the day-to-day, not a subject of conversation per se.

The questions of regional identity and sexuality get trickier, though, if there are not explicit mentions of it. What I mean by this is that there are cues that, when bundled together, suggest a regional identity more strongly than others.

One such example can be found in Scenes from a Multiverse. In this particular comic, titled ‘Blessed Are the Programmers,’ it is clear that the sexuality of the couple should be read as heterosexual, insofar as computer code can become sentient, much less sexual. The four panels contain a discussion between two characters who have ‘children,’ and specifically a daughter named Jenny. Studying the dialogue in the panels, the banner, the title, and even the alt-text gives no indication that this should be construed specifically as a comic about the U.S. South. Indeed, the linguistic features used by the ‘guy’ (i.e., She don’t believe; no more; and I ain’t seen no) point to any number of ‘working class’ dialects found throughout the English-speaking world, ranging from Birmingham, Alabama, to Birmingham, England, and around the world.

Blessed Are the Programmers

Blessed Are the Programmers

Other cues, though, indeed point to this comic as being a critique specifically of the US South. The ‘male’ character wears a white tank-top (undershirt) known in some circles as a ‘wife beater,’ a cue that often points to a stereotyped ‘redneck’ – a hypermasculine, anti-woman identity. The topic of conversation, though, may be the trump here that indicates Southern identity. The idea of homeschooling and the idea of evolution vs. creationism are oft-cited examples of anti-intellectualism in the US South. Of course, it isn’t true that only Southerners homeschool their children, and it isn’t true that only Southerners or all Southerners reject scientific reasoning. This is made clear in the disagreement that the two characters have. The ‘dad’ subscribes to one set of ideas, and the ‘mom’ subscribes to another set. Interestingly, the ‘mom’ does not use any nonstandard (or working class) linguistic features in her speech. Is she a Southerner? Can she even be a Southerner if she doesn’t use certain linguistic features? Further, do readers ascribe a racial or ethnic identity on these characters? How weak or how strong is the possibility that these characters are construed as white?

Recently, I re-read an article by Leonard Rifas on race in comix. He refers to the representation of racial identity in underground comix as a ‘tangle,’ and he pinpoints race thusly:

“It can be hard to shake the common sense idea that people belong to different races. There is no question that human differences are observable in eye-color, hair color, skin color, head shape, blood type, and many other biological dimensions, however, clear-cut boundaries between races do not exist as biological facts. People “construct” racial groups by emphasizing certain features and then exaggerating the differences between people who do or do not have these features, and then minimizing differences within those contrasting groups.” (2004, ImageText, 1.1).

Rifas is right to point out how we construct racial groups, and we have more work to do to understand and overturn racism. And like groups of people based on ‘race,’ we also create other groups when we emphasize certain features, exaggerate differences between groups, and minimize differences within groups. When it comes to categorization and stereotype, this also includes gender, it includes sexuality, and it includes regional identity.

What is the Connection Between Cosplay and Comics?

NigriDPThis blog wouldn’t exist if comic studies hadn’t made great strides over the past decade or two (well, the blog might exist, but it wouldn’t have many readers). At the same time, studies of fandom (both comic and other) have taken off – see influential work by people such as Henry Jenkins, Jeffrey A. Brown, and Will Brooker, amongst others.

What isn’t always clear, however, is how work in one area – the study of how fans react to and interact with both their favored texts and with each other – and work in the other area – the study of the nature of these texts themselves – connect. This is a topic that has been mentioned on this blog before, but I want to address it directly: How do the events, practices, and attitudes of fandom affect the way that fans understand the relevant source material, and how should it affect the way that scholars approach and address these same text?

MisianoJokeIn his recent sequel to The System of Comics, titled Comics and Narration, Thierry Groensteen suggests that in some cases the connections are rather remote. In particular, he suggests that the relationship that cosplayers have to their source text is rather different from the relationship that genuine comics fans have to these same texts:

Of course, we have to acknowledge that comics is now put to many other uses, and arouses, among certain groups of younger readers, different expectations. To be convinced of this, one needs only to consider the phenomenon of “cosplay” (derived from “costume play”, originating in U.S. science fiction conventions but subsequently appropriated by manga fans worldwide) to realize that these young people who dress up as their favorite hero have little interest in the story – what they are seeking in comics is the hero or heroine with whom they identify. The emphasis in on the characters themselves, their costumes, their attributes, possibly the values that they incarnate, but not at all the context in which they appear or the adventures they have had. This phenomenon of identification is difficult for readers of my generation to understand – we were also crazy about heroes, but what mattered to us was how they gained hero status through their actions and how they swept us up in the excitement of their adventures. (p. 76, emphasis added)

HanCatThis passage strikes me as mistaken: Cosplay does not necessarily have to involve an alternative means for appreciating comics texts, but can instead involve an extension of traditional methods by which we imagine or make-believe the content of fictional works. In addition, I am somewhat skeptical of the claim that cosplayers in general have less attachment to, understanding of, and engagement or identification with the heroes of their favorite texts, when compared to non-cosplaying fans.

So I am wondering: In your experience, what differences, if any, do you see between people who cosplay their favorite comics, and those fans who merely(?) read and enjoy them?

Pictures:

Jessica Nigri as Deadpool

Anthony Misiano as the Joker

Yaya Han as Catwoman

References:

Groensteen, Thierry, Comics and Narration, Ann Miller (trans.), Jackson MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.