Comic book series written and drawn by Hugo Pratt
David Hajdu has described comic books as the rock and roll of literature- essentially geared to an audience trapped in adolescence (or earlier). Hajdu finds exceptions in artists that use their respective art form (pop music or comic book storytelling) to explore themes of aging and history. I’m sure that he talks about it somewhere, but I haven’t quite stumbled across any reference to the way other countries view comics.
The profusion of Dilbert and Far Side cartoons in office cubicles across the nation indicates that adults are perfectly willing to read comics, just maybe not in the long form. Of course, you could argue that the popularity of Dilbert mirrors the morphing of the workplace into a nerdy teenagers bedroom with cool computers for everyone.
While people unwilling to read books are unlikely to read graphic novels, those who read already face numerous barriers beyond mere confusion of what might make a good read. The profusion of comic inspired movies has created the impression that the superhero genre is preeminent and wholly representative. Worse yet, anyone willing to give comic books a go faces comprehension challenges similar to dropping William Shakespeare in a screening of Pulp Fiction. It’s colorful, attention-grabbing and might make some sense, but I fear that Will would spend the next week weeping into craft brews.
Hugo Pratt’s most famous creation, Corto Maltese,
is an early 19th century adventurer who traverses the globe without a superhero or magical creature in sight. The stories are told with the clarity of the best Sunday newspaper strips and a beauty long banished from our doorsteps (you know, where the paperboy used to leave the newspaper).
The lie of comic books has long been that they are like reading a movie. The reader takes the skills that they have accrued from watching films up to that moment. Then, they apply that same syntax and story-hearing to the graphic novel. Waa-laa! The tale is comprehended and enlightenment happens.
Well, we have all sat through incomprehensible movies. Even films that we have ostensibly enjoyed can leave us questioning plot holes and strange edits. Video has the advantage of not stopping. We tend to forgive as the next moment is already upon us as we sit there in the dark. Comics, on the other hand, require a steady hand because every panel needs to drive us forward. At least, they need to do so enough that we don’t withdraw into ourselves and away from the story.
In film, we prize the few directors that have mastered this clarity of storytelling because they are so rare: John Ford, Michael Curtiz,… . In this regard, comics are similar to movies. They are unforgiving if you fail to respect your audience and the artist gets in the way of the story. Hugo Pratt is a true master of the graphic story. I know this because I gain the same satisfaction from his work as I get from The Searchers and The Charge of the Light Brigade.
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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 147 more to go.
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