Before I found the rich vein of comics, many other text/image combinations and relationships captivated me:  advertisements, tarot cards, the paintings and poems paired in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience,  photo-essays such as John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Looking at Animals, illustrated nature journals and field guides.  None, however, transfixed me as much as the pairing of visual images (usually, paintings) with ekphrastic writings (usually, poems) that explicitly acknowledged their close relationship with the chosen image.  Ekphrasis, which the OED defines simply as “interpretation of a thing” is a contested term, but usually refers to a written text which comments directly upon another art form.  James Heffernan’s gently recursive, elegant definition:  “a verbal representation of a visual representation” (Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery [Chicago UP]) is wonderfully playful at the same time as it acknowledges the artistic independence of the verbal work; in effect, we have infinite regress a la Magritte or Escher—a representation of a representation, and potentially another, and another, all able to be read as themselves, and in relation to the visual work, as well as in relation to other ekphrastic writings on the same visual image.  For example, the fertile Icarus set, which could include the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, Ovid’s representation of their story in the Metamorphoses, Pieter Bruegel’s 16th century Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and two of the many poems which explicitly comment on Bruegel’s painting:

“Musee des Beaux Arts”

W.H.Auden (1907-1973)

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters:  how well they understood

Its human position:  how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

 

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance:  how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to go and sailed calmly on.  [1938]

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

According to Brueghel

when Icarus fell

it was Spring

 

a farmer was ploughing

his field

the whole pageantry

 

of the year was

awake tingling

near

 

the edge of the sea

concerned

with itself

 

sweating in the sun

that melted

the wings’ wax

 

unsignificantly

off the coast

there was

 

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning [1962]

As much as we can say that Auden and Williams create works that are intimately connected to their visual antecedents, we can also say that they stand alone, whole unto themselves as literary, verbal works.   If we allow that critical works can also be “literary” (and I do allow this, as I believe that the very best criticism is as expressive as it is expository; see the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Roland Barthes, Pico Iyer, and Julia Kristeva for ample evidence), then it seems to me that excellent comics criticism could be seen as ekphrastic– again, “verbal representation of a visual representation,” yes, but implicitly, works of art in a different medium.   As a gifted comics scholar enters the graphic work and begins to “speak out” (the literal translation of “ek-phrasis”) what s/he finds there, in the panel, across the panels, on the page, backwards and forwards through the work (as Thierry Groensteen would have us do when evincing a “series”), s/he seems to dive headlong into the comic and compel our gaze to follow.   Now controlled and shaped by the critic, our gaze upon the scene (the panel, the page, the full sequential narrative) is not as it would have been prior to the critic’s insertion into the scene:  the image bends and warps at the touch of the gifted scholar; perhaps a micro-element of a panel grows in prominence, or a pattern becomes evident.  Or maybe the very shape of the panels themselves become visible to us (as they did not during a linear, narrative-driven read) as the critic lingers at the borders and edges of panels, commenting on, let’s say, their porosity or variation.  As we look at the comic through the gifted critic’s eyes, we see, in one sense, the “same” visual work we saw before, but in its new configuration, with newly foregrounded or obscured elements.  As a painting detail, or a photographic close-up of an element in a previously shot long view, can be expanded and printed as a separate (albeit, derivative) artwork, the critic’s discussion of the comic can stand alone as a uniquely configured work.  I will offer one example of a critical essay that, to this reader, reaches this transcendent state:  Georgiana Banita’s quietly brilliant piece, “Chris Ware and the Pursuit of Slowness,” included in David Ball and Martha Kuhlman’s excellent collection:  The Comics of Chris Ware:  Drawing as a Way of Thinking (Mississippi UP, 2010).

Listen to this description:

Consider, for example, the last two pages [of Jimmy Corrigan] before the epilogue, each containing two panels that follow Jimmy’s progress from the train station to his office building.  Emotionally, he is traversing a critical time:  his long-lost and then regained father is now dead; his step-sister violently pushed him away…. If the second panel contains slight modification compared to the first, the difference between the third and fourth panels is so microscopic as to be almost unrecognizable [Ware 361-362]…. As still, encapsulated moments, the panels themselves come to resemble a sort of gutter interposed between the story and its ending… (Banita in Ball and Kuhlman, 187)

This evocation of time is accomplished by calling our attention to minute differences among similar patterns; Banita slowing down me down like this results in a return to the panels in question, and I think about them anew, searching for an even more proximal cause for the slight angle of difference in point of view.  Why would Ware draw the building all over again (right, I know:  self-punishing exactitude is Ware’s m.o., but why this particular time?) for just a few degrees of difference?  Following Banita’s gaze, I return to the panels, and enter them as Jimmy walking by this building.  Feeling my body slumped in a slow, dejected lumber, I feel time slow down and I become viscerally aware of the building’s corner as I pass it by.  “Two steps,” I write above the figure in Banita’s article, the panels now distinct moments in time and space as they had not been during previous readings of Jimmy Corrigan.  If there was “slight modification” from panel one to two, and even less from panel three to four, then Jimmy’s already morose and sluggish pace has become, by panels three and four,  near-paralysis.

Though my practice is to have the original comic to hand whenever reading detailed commentary on a work (in order to do precisely this kind of re-visioning), I know that there is also self-contained pleasure and knowledge that can be derived solely from this critical description and discussion of Ware’s work.  Were I to wake up blind tomorrow morning, I can comfort myself with the knowledge that exquisite, focused and precise representations like this would offer me continued ability to take in a beloved, inherently visual medium despite the loss of the faculty of seeing.  Without such an occurrence, I know that I now have multiple versions of the panel, series, full-length comic to explore—my own mental representation of the comic work, and the gifted critic’s re-shaped, re-focused version of the same.  As William Carlos Williams  and W.H. Auden direct us to train our eye on the foreground of Bruegel’s painting, asking us to linger on the ploughman, the shepherd and the farmer (and doing so because they believe that Bruegel, too, asked the same…and thus fundamentally shifted the import of the story away from its main protagonists, Daedalus and Icarus), “Chris Ware and the Pursuit of Slowness” offers me a way of seeing Ware’s work that brings certain elements into relief (and perhaps into greatest importance) and diminishes the import of others.  Georgiana Banita, then, too, is a writer engaged in ekphrasis, a bringer of words to image, an artist who takes the original work and gives it to us again, changed.  Would you agree?  Are there other works of comics criticism that cause you to “see” the discussed comic anew and differently (not metaphorically, but literally)?

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About Adrielle Mitchell

Adrielle Mitchell is a Professor of English at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY. She is a comics scholar whose work is informed by visual and media studies, cultural theory and formalist criticism.

4 responses »

  1. What a fascinating question, Adrielle. I don’t often think about scholarship as being very artistic. Part of this has to do with the fact that in linguistic research, much of the writing is located in the tradition of social sciences and purports to be fact-driven (empirically based) and strives to be objective. In those situations, the author is supposed to erase traces of herself/himself from the writing as fully as possible. Thus, the language that scholars use to write this scholarship is normally not considered to be artistic.

    Your examples of Auden and Williams, for me, are thus quite different from scholars who publish is linguistics journals and related venues. The question I have, then, is whether you’re defining ekphrasis as necessarily artistic language making comment on another work. If so, then that probably leaves out a great deal of scholarship. (I would include most of my writing in that category because my writing tends not to be poetic.)

    On the other hand, if you mean most (all?) scholarship, then that really does open up the discussion to an extraordinary degree. Would you also consider our blog posts on Pencil Panel Page to be examples of ekphrasis?

    Your post gives me a lot to think about!

    • Thanks for you comments and questions, Frank; they are very helpful. I definitely don’t mean all scholarship (or even, all comics scholarship, I now see as you ask me to clarify my thinking); I was just musing about scholarship that explicitly comments on (in a sense, “translates/interprets”) visual elements of artwork (paintings, comics, photographs, drawings, sculpture, architecture….). So, though the Williams and Auden pieces are poems, yes, I was more interested in wondering whether the critic also, like a poet taking a position inside a painting when producing an ekphrastic piece of writing, has to enter into the comic and bring its “silent” visual components to language in some odd, perhaps shadowy artistic process that isn’t quite as distant as the ostensibly objective stance taken in the social sciences/sciences suggests. So, “artistic” in process, not necessarily content. It doesn’t have to sound “arty” or be lyrical, or overtly read as 1st person narration, but just as we have debunked the idea that history, for example, can be known without reference to who is speaking about it, when, where, and for what purpose, or that employing the scientific method presents pure data without observer impact (thanks, Heisenberg), I find it interesting to wonder what kind of work we are doing when we include visual description in our analyses of comics.
      So, is the whole PencilPanelPage blog ekphrastic? No, I don’t think so. Is ekphrasis happening at times here? Definitely.

  2. I’ve been doing some research using WJT Mitchell’s discussion of ekphrasis as the idea of a subject giving voice to a “mute art object.” Like Frank, I hadn’t thought about it as something that comics critics are involved in as well! But now that you’ve brought it up, I’m wondering if your question also depends on the extent to which comics are viewed as mute art objects in this equation. Some writers/artists produce comics that are more “silent” than others and may better lend themselves to ekphrastic readings. It’s fitting that Ware’s work is used as an example in your post, since his comics tend to be more silent and function as more tactile art pieces than others. (Hope this means we can start talking about “Building Stories” soon!)

    • That’s a wonderful follow-up question, Qiana, and I think you’re right. It makes me think about why some comics make me linger and stare (Seth’s work, Mazzucchelli’s, Ware’s, of course…) and with others I have to fight not to just hurtle on through, overly dependent on words…..As for Building Stories, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel for me this semester. Last day of classes, Dec 6; immersion into Building Stories, December 7. Oh right, finals. Okay, immersion into Building Stories, December 14.

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