Originally presented: Panel on Frames and Ways of Seeing in Modernist Narrative at The Tenth Annual Modernist Studies Association (MSA) Conference, Nashville, TN, November 2008.
Author’s introduction (“disclaimer”)
This paper was presented at the Modernist Studies Association conference two years ago. As such, the audience for the talk was not comics scholars, or, even, necessarily people who were interesed in comics. The paper is pitched to that audience and therefore says quite a number of things about comics that are fairly obvious to the comics scholar (or even just the perceptive comics reader). In fact, it even says things I know to be debatable, and even incorrect, since those things weren’t my primary concern. So, yes, I know that “The Yellow Kid” isn’t the first comic strip in U.S. newspapers (to say nothing of the world at large), but since splitting those hairs wasn’t the point of the paper, I used that as a generally “known” reference point.
I was invited to participate in a panel on “frames and ways of seeing in modernist narrative” after one of the participants in the original panel dropped out. As I recall, all three of the original panelists were from the University of Toronto, studying under/with noted modernist scholar, Melba Cuddy-Keane. Cuddy-Keane got in touch with my dissertation advisor at University of Maryland, Brian Richardson, and asked if he knew anyone interested in frame narration and modernism. Brian got in touch with me, recalling a paper I had written for him many years previous as a graduate student. That paper, however, was already forthcoming in Narrative, and I wasn’t really interested in recycling the material. So, I took the opportunity to apply some of the research I was doing on time, modernism, and comics and to write some of that out, rather than merely having it bounce around in my head. All of this is the long way of saying that the paper was even more rushed and “tossed off” than the typical conference paper, since I was a late addition to the program. At this point, I feel as if there may be nothing particularly revelatory here, as much of this material feels (to me, anyway) as if it’s fairly obvious and straightforward and covered elsewhere in the literature. Since this is a blog (my brother’s no less), I don’t feel quite so guilty about letting it see the light of day, as long as nobody really feels like it reflects the care I generally take in my scholarship. Things that make me cringe a bit, are… a) sources cited, but no bibliography listed. The sources are mentioned, for the most part, in the paper itself, but obviously, a bibliography should be included. Since I was only reading it out loud at the time, however, and I knew the sources, I never typed them up. (At this point, this note may be taking longer than it would take to type the sources… but let’s not ruin a fairly boring and mediocre story). 2) The paper also includes various notes to myself telling me to elaborate on this point or that orally. Obviously, for written publication, I should turn those into more coherent written claims… but I’m just writing a disclaimer instead. [Many of these were references to the images, so I’ve replaced them with “See Fig. X” reference. -ed.] 3) The quality of the scans is sometimes pretty bad, as well. My scanner is just an 8 x 11 and some of my sources were much bigger. I should have gone to the Artist Formerly Known as Kinko’s and done the scans on a larger printer to get things right… but, again, I reveal the generally slipshod nature of my efforts on this particular piece. All of this is why I told Noah and Derik that they could have this conference paper if they wanted it… but that I was generally unsure of its “ready for prime time” (using the term loosely) status. Derik and Noah decided to run it anyway (making me think that they reall need more submissions for this feature [We do! Send us something -ed.]), so, here it is “warts and all.”
“Through Space, Through Time:” Four Dimensional Perspective and the Comics by Eric Berlatsky
Whether pamphlet-form comic books, cramped newspaper comic strips, or more traditionally codex-form “graphic novels,” comics have only recently started to receive serious critical attention as “art objects,” as opposed to mass culture ephemera. The biggest breakthrough in comics criticism is still undoubtedly Scott McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics, a book that makes a bold play for considering comics as “art,” by bypassing the typical starting date for its history. The standard date, particularly in America, is, of course, 1895, marking the beginning of R. F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley as a newspaper comics page in The New York World. This date, would, of course, place the origins of the newspaper comic strip in close chronological proximity to the “high art” development of modernism. However, McCloud’s choice to define comics as “sequential art,” or, in the longer version, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence,” allows him to include pre-Columbian picture manuscripts, the Bayeux tapestry, Egyptian painting, Trajan’s column, and Hogarth’s “Harlot’s Progress” as comics, along with other, more likely, suspects, like Rodolphe Topfer’s “picture stories” of the mid-nineteenth century (McCloud 10-17). McCloud discards some of the elements of earlier definitions of comics in order to detach the era of comics’ increasing popularity (the twentieth century) from its definition, suggesting that some of the greatest achievements of older “high art” are, in fact, comics. While this has the potential to raise the culture caché of comics as a medium, it also obscures the ways in which the form reflects and takes part in the modernist project and the advent of modernity.
David Kunzle, by contrast, argues that in order for something to be considered “comics,” it must be intended for reproduction, linking comics to the history of mass printing, as in the daily newspaper where comics gained its popular foothold in contemporary culture (History of the Comic Strip v.1, 1973). While Kunzle’s claim is problematic in other ways, it succeeds in fastening comics to the high-speed modernity of the turn into the twentieth-century, a time marked, perhaps most forcefully, by speed and simultaneity, as Stephen Kern emphasized in his The Culture of Time and Space 25 years ago. Telegraphs, telephones, high-speed trains, the automobile, the airplane, and cinema all made it possible for widely disparate places to undergo the same experiences simultaneously, or to at least give the appearance of simultaneity. Comic strips, like the rest of the newspaper, were experienced simultaneously by thousands of readers in stark contrast with the Bayeux tapestry, which could be experienced by only a small number of people at once, and never from precisely the same perspective. Relative to the newspaper, thousands of pairs of eyes could occupy the same space at the same time, while relative to the Tapestry, only one pair of eyes at a time could occupy one space.
Simultaneity is important not only to the reception of comics, however, but also to the form itself, something which McCloud’s focus on sequence obscures. McCloud mentions how comics must be multiple images “juxtaposed,” but he does not insist that these juxtaposed images must be able to be viewed simultaneously. This is, however, perhaps the most unique quality of early newspaper comic strips, especially Sunday pages, which could, by their nature, be viewed both sequentially and simultaneously. That is, in the early days of newspaper comics, it was possible to open to a Sunday page and see that entire page as a single design, with panels arranged as compositional elements of a larger “picture” or “painting” (see Fig. 1, 2, 3). In most cases, of course, the strip could also be read sequentially, as we see Walt and Skeezix (Fig. 2) moving sequentially across a still background, showing us both a variety of discrete spaces at the same time, and a variety of different times articulated as space.
In fact, McCloud is quick to note how the comics format gives the artist unique opportunities to use the “page space,” indicating how the Bayeux tapestry might be read as a “whole page composition” in the manner of McCay or King, and how comics artists use this inherent feature of the medium far too infrequently (12). At the same time, McCloud’s use of “whole page” is somewhat disingenuous if applied to Trajan’s column or the Bayeux tapestry. These objects are simply too big, or too oddly-shaped to actually be viewed simultaneously, as a whole, in one instant. To see all of the Bayeux tapestry, one would have to stand too far away to be able to make out the contents of the picture, while only a segment of Trajan’s column can be seen at a time without having to walk around the column, bringing the progression of time, or sequentiality into the picture. The newspaper comics page provided an ideal instrument for witnessing an entire composition simultaneously, without making it impossible to also see the sequential progression of panels. It was the paradoxical capacity of the comics page to be seen both as a single instant and as a sequence of instants, that created “modern” comics, and it was the much neglected unit of the single page “story” that made such a union possible. In this way, newspaper comics were different from the (typically older) high art with which McCloud wishes to join them, an important distinction given the significance of simultaneity to modern existence. Single paintings or sculptures are usually seen as, or in, a single instant in time, but they do not also depict sequence. McCloud’s early examples of proto-comics, by contrast, tend to sacrifice simultaneity for sequentiality.
As McCloud notes as well, film is a medium that operates in time, with images flowing past at the rate of 24 per second. That is, what one sees on the cinema screen is a series of sequential images, many images that give the illusion of time flowing irrevocably forward, as it seems to do for us in “real life.” While a stoppage of the film (or the repetition of the same image) can give the illusion of a single instant, this simultaneity does not coexist with a sense of sequentiality. Instead, it usually exchanges one for the other. Likewise, as Kern points out, a variety of filmic techniques, like double exposure, montage balloons, and parallel editing, were used to suggest simultaneity in film’s early days, but the film nevertheless always rolled by in time. In film, we are inevitably given sequence, with simultaneity approximated with a variety of techniques. In comics, simultaneity is inherent to the form.
My account of simultaneity thus far depends on a fairly common-sense use of the term: Different “things” in different “places” happening at the “same time.” As Kern notes, the introduction of the telegraph and telephone near the close of the nineteenth century made the world seem much smaller and made it seem possible to be “in two places at once,” both in your own home, on your own phone, and, perhaps, halfway across the city, or the world, where your voice ended up. The Futurist fascination with simultaneity was, of course, spawned by this new hyper-industrial understanding of time and space, creating works like Blaise Cendrars’ “First Simultaneous Book,” which included both image and text (see Fig. 4), including an illustration by Sonia Selaunay, a map of the Trans-Siberian railway, and a poem about Cendrars’ journey on it. The insistence on a single page, so as to approximate simultaneity and to reduce the “sequential” effect of turning pages, along with the combination of image and text, makes Cendrars’ 1913 breakthrough seem like nothing so much as an American Sunday comics page, without the funny animals or gags. The use of rectangular “panels,” to separate title, painting, map, and poem might even give the reader a clue on how to read the “book” sequentially, despite its attempt to approximate simultaneity.
As Kern notes, the subject matter and map of the train journey encapsulates Cendrars’ efforts to connect different spaces at the same instant, since the map shows widely disparate places at the same time, even more quickly than the high speed train could actually join them. Similar techniques were used in contemporary comics like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which uses the panel to show two separate locations in a single panel, indicating that the actions in them take place at the same time. The train is always a signifier of the advent of modernity, of course, and its high-speed crisscrossing of this page (see Fig. 5) shows the near instantaneous journey of the train from one place to another as in Cendrars’ “book.” As Kern says of the “Simultaneous Book” however, Cendrars is not merely interested in showing multiple places simultaneously, but also, and paradoxically, multiple times. The poem is designed to express Cendrars’ capacity to “experience every moment of the journey and the world beyond it simultaneously” (74). How can multiple times be shown simultaneously, or at the same time? The cubists attempted this by showing multiple perspectives on the same person or object in a single picture, thus indicating either multiple times and/or multiple spatial orientations at one moment. Cendrars did so with “verbal montages,” juxtaposing multiple far-flung locales in near-simultaneous time, and with fanciful autobiographical visions that, as Kern notes “unit[e] remote ages.” “I spent my childhood in the hanging gardens of Babylon” (qtd. in Kern 74), Cendrars unrealistically declares.
The fascination with showing not only multiple spaces at once (simultaneously), but also, and paradoxically, many times, coincides with, and is perhaps partially inspired by, the emergence of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. With this theory, Einstein, of course, introduced the shocking notion that time is not “homogeneous” and “empty” as Newton asserted more than 200 years earlier. Rather, time actually passes more slowly or more quickly based on the speed at which an object moves (especially as it approaches the speed of light) and by its rate of acceleration. The relatively new notion that diverse spaces could be joined at the same time (through telephone or telegraph or radio waves) was almost immediately undercut by Einstein’s theory which indicates that no two places could ever share a single time, both because it takes time (however brief) for sound and light to travel through the new technology, and because time is actually moving at different speeds in different places, depending on such variable phenomena as rate of motion and altitude.
While, no doubt, early comics creators were largely ignorant of the mathematical basis or “real-world” ramifications of these findings, the comics page nevertheless expresses a strikingly similar sense of time, which later creators were quick to link to ideas of Einstein’s relativity. A return to the Krazy Kat page, for instance, combines its single panel expression of spatial simultaneity with a full page expression of temporal simultaneity: multiple different times capable of being viewed at once.
This Little Nemo page (see Fig. 6), published at the close of 1905, the same year as the Special Theory, is even more indicative of Einsteinian thought, since each panel shows Nemo at a different age, scrolling through a wall of dates and aging (or occasionally getting younger) in an instant. Time passes at a different rate, however, for the Father Time figure, who remains old and bearded throughout. For Father Time, then, the panels progress sequentially, progressively, and at roughly the same rate from panel to panel, while Nemo’s time accelerates, or reverses, rapidly depending on which date he takes off the wall. For Nemo, of course, this is all just a dream, and is in no way meant to reflect the very recent advances in theoretical physics. Nevertheless, the idea of time passing at different rates for different individuals parallels Einstein’s famous “Ann and Betty” thought experiment, where Betty travels in a rocket ship at 80% of the speed of light away from and back to Earth, while Ann stays on Earth. While twenty years pass for Ann, Betty’s rapid speed actually slows time for her and her ship, and she only ages 12. That is, if Betty leaves earth in 1905 and returns in 1925, twenty years have passed on Earth, but only 12 have passed in the rocket ship, simply because of Betty’s speed of travel. In different places, time is passing at different rates, making the notion of “simultaneous” spaces meaningless, although a paradoxical notion of simultaneous times is introduced. As Einstein points out, if there is no “present” which multiple spaces can share, then the terms past and future can also have no universal meaning. One person’s “present” is another’s past, or future, suggesting that, in a sense, all times are simultaneous, something the typical comics page also indicates, since each panel is usually a different “time,” but is capable of being viewed simultaneously.
Indeed, Einstein’s shift to his “General Theory” of relativity in 1915 makes the connection to comics even clearer. With the realization that gravitation and acceleration were not only related but equivalent, Einstein, with the help of Hermann Minkowski, insisted that time and space were actually connected physically, and could be graphed spatially as a fourth dimension. As theoretical physicist Paul Davies notes, “Minkowski insisted that he was not […] tacking an extra time dimension onto the three space dimensions for fun, but because the resulting entity formed a unified ‘spacetime continuum,’ in which the purely spatial and the purely temporal aspects could no longer be untangled” (73). The notion that time is merely a fourth dimension that we experience, but do not see, indicates that past, present, and future are, in some sense, places that we go, and that they are all always already there, in accordance with the Special Theory’s erasure of universal notions of before, then, and now. In many ways, the comics page too is a four-dimensional-graph, in which past, present, and future are always already there, since we can progress through them sequentially, or take a new perspective and view them all at once. This is why McCloud argues (see Fig. 7), with no mention of Einstein, that, “In learning to read comics we all learned to perceive time spatially, for in the world of comics, time and space are one and the same” (100). Time is turned into space on the comics page, just as it is in Minkowski’s four-dimensional spacetime graphs.
What makes comics particularly “modernist,” though, in ways few have acknowledged, is their capacity to represent two perspectives (or two “frames” of reference) at once. Michael Leja, in Looking Askance, has suggested how modernist art introduces a kind of skepticism toward vision, wherein seeing is no longer believing, and there is an intensified disbelief in “common-sense” notions of a reality defined by vision. The “common-sense” notion of time, at least since Newton, has been of a passage of time that is regular, consistent, and sequential. While Bergson insists on a more internal subjective time that varies from individual to individual, even he never rejects the “reality” of an alternative social time shared by humans, who define it by clocks. As Scott Bukataman has noted, an intensified interest in the sequential moments of time was a primary feature of Edward Muybridge’s chronophotography, developing at the end of the 19th century, and this interest was not, in fact, alien to comics, but central to it. As Bukataman shows, McCay’s Sammy Sneeze and (again) Little Nemo are obsessed with a regular, almost “ticking” clock time, that records motion in regular intervals (see Figs. 8, 9) indicating a belief, even a faith, in Newton’s homogeneous empty time. At the same time, however, this page intrinsically gives us an alternative view, of past, present, and future mapped spatially and coexisting simultaneously, merely with a reorientation of vision. Whether intentional or not (and likely not), McCay’s page shows us both Newtonian and Einsteinian time, two visions of time that seem to work together easily both on the page and in reality, unless one happens to be under extreme gravitation or traveling at high speed.
It has taken some time for comics creators to identify their medium’s own affiliation with the modernism that developed contemporaneously with it, but creators like Art Spiegelman insist on comics’ affiliation with modernist high art, precisely because of its capacity to present two visions of reality simultaneously, as in cubism. In this page from “The Malpractice Suite,” (1972) (see Fig. 10) Spiegelman indicates how the view of the panel from the “Rex Morgan, M. D.” newspaper strip may seem “real,” but actually provides only a partial perspective, similar to cubism’s rejection of simple vanishing lines and singular perspectives. The real revelation here should not, however, be how comics can imitate the formal innovation of cubism, but how it always necessarily must, since the panel and the page are always two aesthetic units that provide alternative and differing perspectives of sequential and simultaneous time.
The contemporary creator perhaps most devoted to exploring the relationship between the development of relativity theory and comics is Alan Moore, who, in 1986-1987’s Watchmen, provides us with a text both obsessed with sequential clock time (as a doomsday clock ticks down toward nuclear war), and with Einsteinian simultaneity, particularly in its depiction of a “superhero” ex-physicist who experiences time spatially and simultaneously (see Figs. 11-12). Likewise, in From Hell, Moore takes these ideas back to the 1880s, just before the introduction of modern comics, and builds a story around the Jack the Ripper murders and C. H. Hinton’s early discussion of a fourth dimension in the 1884 essay, “What is the Fourth Dimension.” Moore’s own formal play with the dual nature of sequence and simultaneity reaches its apex, perhaps, in the final issue of Promethea (April, 2005). Here, the reader can choose to read the story sequentially, like a traditional comic, or to take the staples out and create a giant poster, or “page,” that can be read in a different order, or seen, simultaneously, as a single image (see Fig. 13). The first page of this issue has an unnamed narrator inform us that “Einstein’s Spacetime is a timeless four-dimensional solid, containing every instant simultaneously, forever… including our lives. Death, therefore, is a perspective illusion of the third dimension. Don’t worry. A funeral celebration, or wake, dominates James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in which all human experience is distilled into one timeless day.” Here, Moore pulls together Einstein’s sense of time and one of the most iconic of modernist literary masterpieces. Moore’s creation of a sequential comic book that is also a simultaneous poster approximates the Wake’s circular achievement, but more than this, it reminds us of how the single comics page, emerging contemporaneously with both modernism and Einsteinian spacetime, has always done so. It is perhaps, time, to consider comics as a particularly modernist medium, not only because of the time in which it develops, but also because of its development of time.
Eric Berlatsky is Associate Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. He specializes in twentieth-century British and postcolonial literatures, (post)modernism, and, when he can get away with it, comic books. He has published essays in academic journals or collections on Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, embedded and frame narratives, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, Graham Swift’s Waterland, Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. He has also published online essays on Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Swamp Thing. He is currently completing work on the editing of a collection of career-spanning interviews with Alan Moore (Alan Moore: Conversations), which will appear in Fall 2011 or Spring 2012 from the University of Mississippi Press. His first book, The Real, the True, and The Told: Postmodern Historical Narrative and the Ethics of Representation is forthcoming in April 2011 from The Ohio State University Press. It includes a lengthy chapter on Art Spiegelman’s Maus, for the comics aficianados.