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Art of the Funnies and the Comic Book: Aesthetic Histories

I recently read both The Art of the Funnies and The Art of the Comic Book (both subtitled “An Aesthetic History”) by R.C. Harvey. I heartily recommend both volumes for those interested in the history of comics from the “Yellow Kid” to recent alt-comics. Both books are collections of essays molded into book form. As such they are not completely unified, but Harvey is consistent enough in his writing that the connections are made.

For the most part, The Art of the Funnies covers the history of comics previous to the mass production of comic books (only one and a half chapters focus on post-50’s work (that half being on Walt Kelly’s Pogo). He writes about all the biggest names in some detail (McCay, Herriman, Segar, Caniff, Crane, Gould) and covers others in groups (a chapter on the illustrative school). The chapter on Roy Crane and his Wash Tubbs & Captain Easy was particularly interesting for his close look at the strips evolution and influence on the adventure strips that followed it.

The Art of the Comic Book starts with the earliest superhero comics and moves through Kirby, Eisner, an ill fitting chapter on westerns, Kurtzman, Gil Kane, Crumb, and numerous other comic artists. He takes close looks at number of pages or sequences of pages to discuss how they work, which provides interesting and educational reading.

The Art of the Funnies opens with a chapter wherein Harvey calls for a vocabulary of comics criticism to aid in discussing and understanding the form. He notes the utility of some cinematic terms (camera angle and distance, framing) but cautions against applying the criteria of other forms to the comic. Literary criteria are also useful in many cases (plot, characterization, theme, etc.) but one must be careful to not ignore the graphic element of comics.

He focuses quite a lot of time on what he calls “visual-verbal blending” (or “visual-verbal interdependence”). This is the way both the words and the pictures of a comic are used such that one does not work without the other. In many cases words are redundant to image or vice versa, which Harvey refers to as “double exposure”. In his opinion, this visual-verbal blending is the defining aspect of comics and, thus the main element used for critical evaluation.

He is careful enough to qualify this assertion with numerous other factors to take into account, such as genre, history (comparison with tradition and breaking from tradition), or excelling in some other particular aspect of the comic (art, characterization, dialogue). But he does take the blend as his first criterion for comics criticism, because “it derives directly from the very nature of the art,” (10) and for Harvey it is important to take advantage of the unique potential of the comic.

Also discussed are Harvey’s “four distinct graphic threads useful for analysis: narrative breakdown, layout, panel composition, and style.” (14)

Narrative breakdown is the way a story is divided into distinct units (panels), as such it controls elements of suspense, intelligibility, action/movement, timing, and focus. He spends little time on layout (the size and organization of panels) since in daily strips there is almost no room for variation, and his comments on style amount to that: style is mostly a personal preference, but one can judge style based on its relation to content. Composition (the organization of elements within a panel) gets some amount of discussion but mostly in connection to “clarity” and “focus”.

In The Art of the Comic Book, the first chapter is a similar piece on verbal-visual blending and the four “graphic threads”, though in this case he spends a little more time with layout and composition (using two pages of a Batman comic as a case study). He uses his example to show how the composition and layout can add to the emotional and thematic effect of a scene through timing, visually emphasizing relationships, and representing emotional states.

These chapters provide a basic framework for comics criticism and evaluation. The following chapters of both books provide examples, to varying degrees, of this framework in use. Harvey concentrates quite a bit on history, genre, and plot, particularly in The Art of the Funnies. He spends a lot of time discussing the biography of Winsor McCay and the superb drawings and layouts of Little Nemo but never discusses the rather obvious “double exposure” created by the redundant dialogue in most of the strips. In fact, he rarely directly addresses this blending that he sets out as such a defining feature. That said, I can’t say it causes much of a problem. I’m not convinced of the importance of the visual-verbal blending in the way he discusses it. For instance…

In a chapter on the rise of the illustrated style in comics, Harvey removes Prince Valiant from the form of “comic strip” because he doesn’t see the text as interdependent with the images. That overlooks the aesthetic element of the strip. Surely, we could read the text without the pictures or look at the pictures without the text, but it is only with the combination that we see the the real aesthetic value of the work and can truly enjoy Hal Foster’s work. To relegate this to an “illustrated novel” is very much a misnomer. I think we can consider Prince Valiant a much different form than a Robert Louis Stevenson novel with a handful of N.C. Wyeth plates interspersed with the text.

Regardless of small quibbles, these two volumes are must reads. They provide valuable starting points for comics criticism, vocabulary, and aesthetics. And, for me at least, they provided the impetus to pick up a few more comics that I hadn’t considered reading before or had never heard of or just need to revisit.