The Watchtower: Where text and image meet

    Though I’ve addressed much of what comics are capable of in previous articles, I have yet to hit upon their greatest strength. It’s not the iconography of images, the nuance of words or even the extended narrative offered through serial storytelling. No, what really marks comics at their best is the integration of words and pictures. And it seems that the Eisner judges for this year just might agree with me.

    If you didn’t already know, the Eisner Awards (named for The Spirit creator Will Eisner) are essentially the Oscars of comic books. Generally considered the most prestigious awards for the medium, they recognize works of excellence in an ever-changing assortment of categories. However, this year, they nominated two works (the winners will be chosen this July at Comic-Con) that illustrate this integration beautifully: Detective Comics (featuring Batwoman), and Asterios Polyp.

    An innovative panel structure marks J.H. WIlliams’ style throughout his Batwoman run in Detective Comics. Photo by Mr Tammany Hall on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s seven-issue run on Detective Comics kicked off last June with issue #854. Despite upending (albeit temporarily) a traditionally Batman-centric title, any complaints of skewed traditionalism were quickly dashed with the first issue’s skillful, meticulous merging of text and image. The art and story throughout the run draw from a tremendous number of influences, incorporating elements of sources ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Eastern philosophy, delivering, as the story requires, a seemingly frenzied, carefully ordered, or distinctly psychedelic experience.

    David Mazzucchelli’s original graphic novel, Asterios Polyp, is just as clever. Though many media can certainly offer both text and image, comics bring the two forms together in what Scott McCloud describes as a “marriage” of sorts, creating a unique set of circumstances in which the two bleed into one another. And Mazzuchelli, if nothing else, understands this well.

    His titular protagonist, a middle-aged “paper architect,” (meaning that he’s made his career off designs rather than actually having things built), is, fittingly enough, entirely fixated on the idea of structure, namely through the lens of dualism. Because of that, Mazzuchelli often draws him in a way that captures that fixation — as a carefully-arranged, steely-blue creature of line and symmetry. His lover, Hana, on the other hand, is a sculptor and a formalist — overall, a much more feeling, dynamic individual. So she’s drawn in a soft, full-bodied magenta accordingly, bringing to life her emotional depth and good intentions with such skill that her image on the page seems to actually radiate warmth. When the two actually meet, then, they merge a bit, gaining a bit of one another’s better qualities — he, her warmth and she, his structure — completing each other in the truest sense possible.When creators like Mazzuchelli take such an integrationist stance, they can create a seamlessly flowing co-evolution of text and image, making a story that is wholly unique. This daring brand of experimentation and a willingness to deconstruct comics down to their most basic elements (namely, panel structure), is quite rare. As such, to have two such refreshingly bold nominees in a single year is nothing short of spectacular.

    Ultimately, what sets Mazzuchelli, Rucka, and Williams apart from other creators is that they know the difference between “writing and illustrating” and “cartooning.” Not that there’s anything wrong with illustrating — the word just bears with it certain confines. Typically, “illustration” implies simply representing what is already present in words — which is not always the case in comics. Though it may seem like splitting hairs, calling comic artists illustrators sells them a bit short; the difference between “illustrating” and “cartooning” is the distinction between drawing an accompaniment to a story and drawing the story itself.

    Mazzuchelli matches style to story. Photo by Mr Tammany Hall on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    There are, of course, comics that lean towards this type of illustration, and that’s not always a bad thing. Most of them, like Neil Gaiman’s justifiably lauded Sandman series, are rather narration- or text-heavy. Though that certainly doesn’t stop a title from being excellent (as Gaiman’s legion of fans could attest), there’s a pronounced stylistic difference in such work, and one that makes a given comic much more novelistic. Consequently, it causes the story to become less graphic and more textual. Though the decision to rely on text over image is, of course, a stylistic choice, and a fine one, it doesn’t realize the medium’s full potential.

    Even on the “finite canvas” of a single page, there’s a great deal of experimentation available to creators.  Since comics as we know them are still such a young medium, they still have countless directions to expand out into, even in print. It hardly seems a stretch, then, to imagine that in ten years, creators could look back and see Asterios Polyp and Rucka and Williams’ Detective run as far less remarkable or experimental than they appear now. For the time being, though, they’re truly pioneering works in the integration of text and image and prime exemplars of what the medium has to offer. I just hope the Eisner judges reward them for that.

    Asterios Polyp is out in hardcover now and can be found on or at the Northwestern University Library. Batwoman: Elegy, which includes all 7 issues (Detective Comics #854-860) of Rucka and Williams’ “Elegy” and “Go” arcs, will be out on June 30 of this year.


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