Sunday, October 23, 2011

Classic Panels of Yore

Here's a few more images that relate to a previous posting re: narrative art and the single-panel comic, and the continuing thesis. One of the key definitions of "sequential art" loosely, is image + text juxtaposed to tell a story. Single-panel gags do tell a story, albeit a short one, that being a joke. However, for some folks, the other crucial part of the equation is the presence of multiple panels, in sequence, as they, along with the gutters inbetween, facilitate the perception of the passage of time. Scott McCloud's already academically entrenched definition coupled with Will Eisner's (who is credited with coining the term), now has the side-effect of systematically (either deliberate or through oversight) undermining or entirely excluding the "subgenre" of the single-panel from the medium. Contrasting against this limiting and restrictive perspective are the works of R.C. Harvey, who has rebutted and championed the cause in many an essay: he maintains that the defining characteristic of a comic hinge more upon the presence of that unique synthesis of pictures and words: both working together in what one could say is a synergistic effect.

This dismissal of the single-panel is reflected in a couple ways, one symptom being the term "sequential art" itself, being used by institutions as a more connotatively serious label (a notable exception in the Center for Cartoon Studies), who relegate gag cartooning - and editorial panels - to, at best, a humorous illustration class in a different department (ex: caricature courses), or at worst, the bastard step-child in the back of the classroom, only given brief, cursory coverage at the beginning level in one general topic course. 
Personally, having flunked art classes in highschool because the art teacher was of the opinion that comics don't count, it has been a sublime irony to watch the maturation of the medium, as it has become increasingly legitimized along with its popularization. And rightfully so. But I have no patience whatsoever with the elitist ostracization of an equally valid form within the category of comic art, as it's the same bullshit sentiment reflected in the tired, old "...oh... those aren't for grown-ups" that's historically stigmatized the industry as a whole. 
This is why I usually don't even use the term "sequential art" at all anymore, opting instead for the simple, basic, and ultimately more inclusive "cartoon" or "comic art." Same goes for a "graphic novel" - it's a comic, they are cartoons (I'm reminded of the logical outcome of all these territorial pissings by Daniel Clowe's hilarious "narraglyphic picto-assemblage" take on the whole scene). And yes, single-panel gags count. Which at times is about as popular as farting in the art gallery, a class divide not unlike telling a contemporary painter that you dig Bob Ross (see related post). But hey, as I would frequently remind my own students, it's all good.

More evidence of the establishment of a stratified upper echelon is the omission of the single-panel from many, if not most, of the professional surveys being published. Casual perusal of any one of the recent massive tomes that compile classic examples of comics reveals a lack of consideration for this form of cartooning. By and large there is little-to-none mentioning of the gag format, which is ironic when one considers the very origin of comics can be directly traced back to early 18th century British publications. This perspective also has the unfortunate result of knocking another dearly-held assumption off its hallowed pedestal, that of comics being a uniquely American artform (baseball and jazz are still safe). Even if, as the splendid samples posted here attest to, the historical examples are covered, there is a falling-off of representative works when it comes to contemporary comics. Some reasons for this, and some key points to consider in defense of the single-panel format, I'll be proposing (sequentially) over the course of my next series of thesis -related postings.

Opper panel from Brian Walker's The Comics: Before 1945. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2004.
Outcault from 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics. Maurice Horn, ed. Random House Publishing, Inc., 1996. 
Hogarth from Industry and Idleness Plate 4; "The Industrious 'Prentice a Favourite, and entrusted by his Master" 18th century. Wikimedia Commons


  1. Great stuff.

    FYI, Eisner was one of several people who first used the term "graphic novel", all independently of each other, around the same time. Richard Corben and Jim Steranko each put out books called "graphic novels" on the covers the same year as Eisner, and his wasn't even a novel (it was a collection of short stories). The term had been used before that, although its exact genesis is unclear. (I've been researching this for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.)

  2. I'll be damned - I did not know that about Corben (who was one of the reasons I dug Heavy Metal back in the day). Kinda like the theory of natural selection from both Darwin and Alfred Wallace...
    Another firster, though not in using the term "graphic novel" would be Raymond Briggs' works: while he's known more for "The Snowman" over here, "Fungus the Boogetman" came out in '77 and is one of my all-time favorites to read and to share, plus his "When the WInd Blows" is a classic (along with the excellent animation based on it).
    And I love this on the Wikipedia page for "graphic novel":
    "Writer Neil Gaiman, responding to a claim that he does not write comic books but graphic novels, said the commenter "meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who'd been informed that she wasn't actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening."