Sunday, November 25, 2007


When words and pictures are combined to tell a story, one medium or the other usually ends up doing most of the heavy lifting.

Personally, I prefer art where the picture plays the central role but I acknowledge that the People In Charge of Handing Out Awards These Days seem to have the opposite view. The most honored graphic novels often combine powerful words with weak drawing.

Take for example Alison Bechdel's touching book Fun Home, Time Magazine's No. 1 Book of the Year and a National Book Critic Circle Award finalist:

Bechdel can write about an "abject and shameful mien" but she sure can't draw one. You'd never guess from these facial expressions that you are looking at a sobered person confronting a shamed person. Furthermore, her commonplace composition doesn't contribute much design or style. So perhaps we are entitled to ask: do Bechdel's drawings really enhance her words, or are they just a place holder enabling the reader to fill in the gap with his or her imagination?

Another example of the emphasis on words over pictures is Art Spiegelman's pulitzer prize winning Maus-- again, a powerful story accompanied by weaker drawing.

As with Bechdel's drawings, Spiegelman's facial expressions are either simplistic or blank. His figures are often stiff and static,and nothing in the staging of this drawing adds depth or profundity to the story already being conveyed by the words.

The same is true of the widely acclaimed "masterpiece" of the graphic novel, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan. Ware correctly acknowledges, "as individual drawings [his work is] pretty bad."

Each of the pictures above tries to reduce a dysfunctional relationship between parent and child into a line drawing. To see what we are missing, look at how the same subject is handled in drawings from lowly MAD magazine. These pictures by Mort Drucker never won a prize or even merited a review, yet Drucker employs a whole collection of visual tools that are far beyond the reach of Bechdel, Spiegelman or Ware.

Note how the pictures enhance the words. This picture is drawn from an angle, looking down on the oppressed kid to make him even more diminutive; note the thick coarse line used to draw the abrasive father, the exaggerated shoulder and immense paw holding a cigar butt; and most of all, note the psychological insight in the marvelous facial expressions. This drawing reflects a lot of thought, effort and talent that are utterly lacking in the pictures above.

Here's another traumatized kid being manipulated by a parent. Once again, the expressions are perfect. Note how the parent leans forward and the kid cowers, looking back over his frail shoulder.

Here's a hilarious glowering mother hunched over the kitchen sink doing chores that her disrespectful daughter dismisses with a wave of her hand.

More body language: clasped hands, weary head in hand and raised eyebrows.

One last example: this picture shows how the angry mother has intimidated both the son and the father. They have furrowed brows and heads shaped and tilted to convey their weakness, as the mother's head and finger thrust forward into the picture.

When you compare these two sets of pictures, they exhibit dramatically different talents pursuing dramatically different goals. All of these creators claim to be "artists," but Bechdel, Spiegelman and Ware practice psychology using words, while Drucker practices it using pictures.
It is hard to say whether one medium is more insightful than the other, but the wild disparity in their treatment by the critics reflects a fundamental prejudice in favor of words and a gross ignorance about pictures.