Friday, July 31, 2009

Outcomes assessment #5

This is the fifth in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 2 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 6 is here.
Number 7 is here.

Dan's exercise in the narrative environment: (In-class, day three)

Dan led the class in a short discussion of "environment" in comics and how it affects the delivery of narrative. By environment, he referred both to the created material and psychological world of the told story and to the physicality of the comics artifact itself - whether it was small or large, on paper or a computer screen or the wall of the building. He was asserting that there was influence exchanged between these categories, and that the nature of one could affect choices for the other.

The discussion was followed by slide-show survey of visual narrative and communication, from the Lascaux Caves, through the Sistine Chapel and the illustrated poems of William Blake, up to Topffler and McKay and Herriman and Siegel & Shuster. The inquiry was less concerned with a McCloudian legitimization of proto-comics and more with increasing awareness of how the actual presentation of an illustrated story affected its narrative and its own environmental reality. That the cave painting in Lascaux could only be seen after an arduous journey to a particular place is as significant to a viewers apprehension of them as the size of broadsheet newspapers at the beginning of the last century was to readers of Little Nemo. And in both cases, the form of the art affected what content the creators could and would choose to present.

We followed this with an exercise in the interplay of artifact and narrative structure. Using as a model a European set of laminated images, we each created some interlocking cards; each one contained three panels to a side, and each side comprised some sort of simple narrative. We were given ninety minutes to design, pencil, and ink the cards. I chose a monster movie theme, and created these tableaux, not really narratives, but more like tropes:

Card 1, front: Bride of Frankenstein, Mad Scientist, Frankenstein's Monster

Card 1, back: Rasputin, Golem, Nosy Photographer

Card 2, front: Wolfman, Vampire Bat, Priest

Card 2, rear: Quasimodo, Scared Bobby-soxer, Vulture

Card 3, front: Intrepid Girl Reporter, Sea Creature, Hunter

Card 3, rear: Angel, Wall (I was getting tired), Devil

After we had finished our cards, we assembled them and critiqued each other's work. Here's a little video of how the project actually works:

Some of the projects were astonishing. One woman created cards showing the peaceful narrative of a bunny and a separate narrative of a snake. When the cards interlocked, there was an immediate sense of threat and menace created, even though the images had not been designed specifically to interact. I think my own efforts suggest different narratives without making them explicit, almost like a dial-a-story device.

And I think that's where the nut of this exercise lay. It goes without saying that the sequencing of the panels was the determinant of the narrative; it was also clear that the physical configuration of the panels moved control of the narrative to the viewer/reader, since he or she could re-arrange the cards, and allowed for multi-layered narrative, since when viewing one sequence, another sequence might also be in view, even if obliquely. But it was just as clear that beyond a minimal number of panels, it would be impossible for a creator to design the cards in such a manner as to influence in any more than a general way the narratives created by the re-arrangement of the cards. There are just too many permutations; the decision tree gets so dense so quickly that we couldn't see any way to keep the narrative sequences from being anything more than random. While it was a fascinating art form, there seemed to be little chance of it being used to create a deliberate narrative.

The point of the exercise, however, was to explore the connection between the actual physical environment a comic inhabits and the narrative world its story inhabits, and that goal was certainly met. While this particular comics format might not lend itself to many purposes, it put one in mind of the different formats commonly used for comics - golden age size books, modern age books, old size strips, new size strips, digests, treasuries - and the possibilities of new and different forms - webcomics, murals, and who knows what. These considerations push the envelope around the position often expressed (by Ellen Forney and Art Spiegelman, for sure) that in comics, the product of the art is the finished "published" work. That product could be a lot of things.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Whoever did the manipulation of those interlocking cards did a great job! I hope she got paid very well.