A couple of categories dominate mini-comics at SPX: the quick-and-dirty ones with simple drawings and simple or no text, usually photocopied, and the visual-artifacts-with-really-nice-art ones, which are beautifully drawn and decently- to well-printed, but often with “stories” that are rarely more than journal entries or slice-of-the-mundane or just random patter – hat racks for the high-quality art.
Exceptions to the hat rack problem are most often found in wordless mini-comics. The best example in my stash is Alexis Frederick-Frost’s simple but gorgeous “Voyage.” (I originally didn’t think this comic had a prose name: it’s not on the comic and I didn’t immediately locate it on his blog; I’ve been calling it “The Here Be Monsters Mini-Comic.” I was a little disappointed to discover that it did have a title!)
Visually referencing woodcuts and 18th-century maps and illustrations, the comic is an elegant flip-book that you flip through very slowly, so that instead of the animated motion of objects, you see the motion of time, through a simple but significant series of events that happens to the ship that’s the main character. You can read part of it online; the online version is incomplete and much smaller than the physical book, and this sense of a flipbook is lost.
(I’m especially fond of this tiki scene, which I scanned so you could see how it’s laid out in print: one panel per page, read longwise, with nothing on the top page. Click on all the images to enlarge.)
The comic has Big Themes of conflict and loneliness and isolation and adventure, but they’re just evoked, unforced, allowed to emerge, should you choose to pay attention to them, out of the images and that skeletal sequence of events. The sequence has an elusive meaningfulness, but the authorial voice that would give shape to that meaning has receded entirely, allowing us to just listen to the drawing’s voice. “Drawing’s voice” is, of course, a strange term, mixing image and textual elements. But these images do speak. They signify that things happen, yet those things are not exactly told. The story emerges out of the images with a heightened phenomenological immediacy compared to prose: Frederick-Frost’s ship is in the same place in every panel, locating you clearly, physically, on that ship as the setting changes around it. Physical, spatial continuity, something very immediate, replaces the more abstract and distant psycho-linguistic continuity characteristic of the range of conventional narrative voices in prose. This gives a nice extra level of resonance in this comic between the voice and the historical “adventure” setting: distance versus proximity is a formalist meta-theme. It’s an extremely satisfying work: playing Pound to Mazzucchelli’s Pynchon.
Because of that it feels both inadequate and overstated to call Frederick-Frost’s “story” a narrative. We rarely call poems narratives. “Narrative” is at root the noun form of “narration,” which is a type of speech act quite different from the speech act performed by these images. Narration is the “telling” part of story-telling, and this story is not told. The drawing’s voice is allowed to speak without any interruption from an authorial narrating voice. There is a difference between a true “image-narrative,” where the entire story emerges from the images without the necessity of processing into linguistic referents, even mentally – without the need to “read” – and a conventional narrative told in images, where you do read the images. We can cobble together the word “story-showing” to describe the work of an image-narrative, but there is no unique word to complete the analogy: narration : story-telling :: [insert neologism here] : story-showing. The lack of that word reminds us that the parameters for what distinguishes an emergent image-narrative from an enumerated word-narrative are just not well defined, let alone broadly intuitive, although my intuition is that those parameters will center around the different vantage point and continuity.
In typical “wordful” comics, the tension between the vantage points/voices native to language and image is part of what Jonathan Lethem described as a “baroque reading experience.” When a comic has both linguistic and imagistic voices, in order for those voices to blend into polyphony, the cartoonist has to harmonize their native but distinct vantage points and create balance. If the tension between them remains strong – and it can be a purposeful tension between two different but equally sophisticated voices – the experience is baroque (or to extend the metaphor, contrapuntal). But for gifted artists who are not trained or gifted in or even just extremely familiar with prose writing, balance can be extremely difficult, because the formal sophistication of the imagery so far surpasses the sophistication of the narrative structure, often both in concept and rendering. That experience is often like a concerto for woodwinds and toy piano.
Avoiding the linguistic voice altogether, as Frederick-Frost does, is an appealing alternative approach. His “story” is extremely simple, but that’s what allows it this clarity: the more complex an image-narrative becomes, the more language-narrative properties it tends to takes on, because language-narrative is in such common daily use that we are immensely comfortable with it and we gravitate toward its mechanisms as starting points. Because of that, there is likely an upper limit to the complexity possible through pure image-narratives without requiring language or becoming abstract. (Again, abstraction is a place where the inappropriateness of the word narrative is obvious.) But pure image-narratives are so under-theorized, however, and so relatively uncommon, that we really don’t know.