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The Power of Comics

So last night, Kevin and I went to a reception/dinner for the Iraqi sculptor and journalist, Ahmed Fadaam.

For those of you who don't follow NPR obsessively, he was an artist, a native of Baghdad, who saw his studio and life's work destroyed in the looting following the overthrow of Saddam, and began working as a journalist and translator, reporting the collapse of Baghdad and the attempts at rebuilding for NPR and the New York Times. You can read a much more detailed account than I can give--it's a fascinating, frequently painful story, and his first-hand reports from Baghdad, "Ahmed's Diary" would wake grief in a heart of adamant.

When Kevin found out that he had come to the US and was having an art reception, knowing how much I admired the man's work, he got us tickets. I have mentioned before, I think, that Kevin is a keeper.

It was a lovely dinner, and--well, "moving" doesn't even cover it. He was speaking about his latest sculpture, a copy of which is now on my bookcase, called "Grieving Woman." The inspiration was simple--on his beat, he would often see between sixty and a hundred dead bodies a day, and most of them were men. He said that at the morgue, or at the site of the car bombs, he would find their wives grieving, an image that got burned into his brain week after week, and which he tried finally to excise by sculpting it.

At one point in the dinner, as various people on the staff were chatting with the various guests, it came up in the usual fashion that I did comic books, and one of the producers said "Oh! You have to talk to Ahmed--he just got a deal with DC to turn the diaries into a graphic novel!" So when an opportunity presented itself, I went up and introduced myself, and congratulated him on the deal with DC.

This may sound like an insipid conversation starter, given the man's life, but it's very hard to fangirl over someone's pain. Besides, I don't know crap about war, or atrocity. Nobody has ever wanted to kill me. I make a living as an artist, but my hamsters-wearing-hats is so far from the sort of art this man is doing that calling them both by the same name is a tragedy of language.

Comics, though, I know. Comics I can talk about with anybody, anywhere, with enthusiasm.

And this quiet, soft-spoken man, who had been telling us matter-of-factly, without emotion, about the horrors of life in occupied Iraq, cracked a huge grin and practically bounced on his feet, and began telling me how excited he was, because he'd grown up on Superman and Batman, and to be working on a comic for those people...!

Here's a guy who slept with an AK-47 next to his bed, in anticipation of somebody breaking into the house at any moment to kill him and his family. Here's a guy who has seen more death and ruin come to his home than any human should see in a dozen lifetimes. Here's a guy who had to flee his country because of death threats against him as a Western collaborator, who had been speaking about the resentment Iraqis feel towards Americans, who hasn't seen his family in months, and cannot go and visit them because he will be denied reentry to the US if he leaves.

And he was excited to be doing a comic.

More than excited, he was suddenly animated, telling me about his art submissions for the proposal DC had sent him, and how he had taught figure drawing and how they were having to work out the art style for the comic, and then there was much mutual commiseration over illustration deadlines. "A hundred illustrations? Brutal!" "Eighty in six weeks? How could you see afterwards?"

This is the power of comics.

I have said before that readers will give you more and forgive you more, and feel with you more in comics than any other medium. And I still don't know why that is. I'm an artist, even if most of it IS hamsters wearing little hats, and I'm a writer, and I have stared at the process from both ends, and three volumes of Digger* and an Eisner nomination and a graphic novel for kids with Penguin later, I still don't know why. Whatever bizarre alchemy occurs between the word and the art, I cannot point to it and say "There. That bit. That's why it works."

All I know is that it works, and comics have power. I gave up believing in magic--mostly--long ago, but if I had to point to something in the world that's magic, it would be comics. They shouldn't have such power. They shouldn't be able to change the world. But they do.

Thank god.

*Four, once I get everything mailed off...

Someone needs to Digg or Technocrati or whatever this. I'll go 'round up the gang at Metachat.

Storytellers try to reach into the imaginations of their listeners/readers and create basically-visual things with basically-verbal stimuli.

Comic-book artists try to reach into the imaginations of their listeners/readers and show the L/R what the artists are creating inside their own heads.

Comics are much more interactive that word-only books. The reader will think "Yes, that's what I thought they'd look like!" or "No, that drawing isn't right at all, THIS is how that character/place looks!" Either way, it's very hard to be indifferent.

It's much more mutually interactive. Much more a "done with" than a "done to."

On a more frivolous note, the sky is blue so as to provide better contrast for rainbows, how far is up is "halfway", and cats keep us safe by eating monsters-under-the-bed (dogs are for monsters-in-closets).

The reader will think "Yes, that's what I thought they'd look like!" or "No, that drawing isn't right at all, THIS is how that character/place looks!"

I don't do that at all with comics. At least assuming one artist, or at least a consistent style, the way it's drawn on the page is what it looks like.
The reaction you describe here is only something I get when I first read a prose description, and afterwards see a visual interpretation, be it illustration or movie or comic adaptation.

More people should know of this.
I need to link with someone...

Marvelous. I metaposted about this in my CC/creative/techie blog.

That was absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

I've just finished reading Maus, an extremly powerful comic. So I've been thinking about this for a while. And I think it has something do do with the fact that it's one thing to read about autrocities, or wonders, another to see them there on the page; and to share, even even periphially that image is a powerful thing. That's one reason why comics affect people so much, it takes the image out of the imagination (a powerful place but an individual one) and places it in the public realm. Thus the grief, or wonder, of the image is shared. And humans are after all a social animal.

That is a fantastic sculpture.

Roz Kaveney's recent book on comics spends three solid pages early on comparing comics and opera - one of the points of both from the creators side is that both allow the viewer to see the inner monologue of multiple characters in the story and not lose narrative momentum, something film, for example, is at best really hard to manage. The rest of that bit was also pretty decent.

In 1975 in a tv special called something like It's 25 Years, Charlie Brown, Carl Reiner said to Charles Schulz, "Picasso said the greatest artist is the one who can draw a bull in three lines. You give us life in three lines." That's the best definition I know of the power of comics.

I bet he started drawing figures by copying Superman pages. A lot of folsk start like that. Art and Story. One of these days I'll get off my ass.


Cool story, thanks for sharing.

Thanks so much for posting about this. I'm weepy now, but it's a good thing.


Please consider that your hamster with funny hat makes people laugh, smile, wonder what's next and enjoy imagining what came before. It's that discussion on art that "just is" vs "art that tells a story or makes you imagine what the story might be".

Comics both tell a story and leave you wondering about the bits not narrated. They are accessible vaguely inexpensive and vignettes of the cosmos.

Saying "they are just" diminishes the enjoyment that is generated by your creations. Those also serve...

Well, you know we're all nuts about your artwork. But I swear, this post demonstrates perfectly why I will happily read every word you write. (And no, I don't have any theories about why it works either.)