Style, you say, is a huge part of comics’ artistic merit, but how do you differentiate between the stuff that’s pretty and the stuff that strives to tell the story?
I’m actually moderating a panel about this at Comic-Con in couple of days in San Diego. A lot of really gifted cartoonists adapt their style to one extent or another to the kind of story they’re telling. If you think of pretty much any of the best comics ever — I’ll let you fill in the name of your favorite comic right here — the way that they’re told is a lot of the experience of it, and a lot of the pleasure of it. That’s a writing choice and it’s also visual choice. It’s what cartooning is.
Did it ever feel strange to you looking at cartooning this way? When writing this book, did you ever step back and have to wonder how easily Kant fits into comics-theory?
Occasionally. It was more of a feeling like, “Wow, I bet nobody’s put this stuff together before.” It didn’t ever seem to be a bad fit. [Laughs]. I used that stuff where it seemed to work, you know? It wasn’t as if I sat down and said, “Okay, I’m gonna use this high-flying aesthetic theory to fit Aquaman” and so on. But you know, every so often, the high-flying aesthetic theory does fit Aquaman, and there ya go.
But does looking at comics in this academic way somehow undermine their inherent appeal as escapism?
I don’t think so at all. I’ll explain this in a very pretentious way first [laughs]: To quote the Danish poet Piet Hein, “Taking fun as simply fun and earnestness in earnest shows how thoroughly thou none, of the two discernest.” There’s a reason the entertaining stuff is as entertaining as it is and those reasons are worth thinking about. They’re worth thinking about to understand why things are so entertaining, they’re worth thinking about if you want to create something that’s really entertaining.
A lot of the critical-theoretical side of the stuff I picked up from some visual narrative courses I took in grad school, basically. My favorite teacher into all that stuff was a guy by the name of James Schamus, who was also the guy who wrote Croching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He’s very specific about the idea that if you know what you’re doing as an artist, you can do much more interesting things. A little theory never hurts. It’s not like to be a good cartoonist you have to be some sort of noble savage saying, “I dunno, I just put the pictures on the paper and the magic happens,” you know? I don’t think looking at comics academically take away from their pleasure or power. And in some ways, it means I can get more pleasure out of them. It makes it more fun for me to read. I find myself looking at things in sort of the critical/analytical way a lot, and it’s hard for me to shut that side off. But every so often—like now, I’ve been reading this amazing manga series called Death Note, and that, I realized, is one of the first comics in a long time that when I look at it, it’s hard to focus on the craft, because when I read it I’m just thinking “Oh my God, what’s gonna happen next?!” And that’s kind of nice, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it later on and find things I missed the first time around.