When Words Collide

Wed, February 4th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: February 4th, 2009 at 3:51pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

GOOD READERS AND GOOD COMICS

Nabokov from a 1969 Time Magazine Cover

In 1948, nearly a decade before the publication of a scandalous novel which would make him a literary sensation in the English-speaking world, Vladimir Nabokov began teaching a class at Cornell called "Masters of European Fiction and Literature." As a teacher, Nabokov was notoriously specific, using at least once, legend has it, a final exam which included a single question about wallpaper described in a single sentence in Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina."

Nabokov believed that the only way to know a story was to fully immerse yourself in its fictional world. If you inhabited that world fully, you would know the pattern on the wallpaper. If not, well, then anything you had to say about the work of literature was suspect -- based on generalities rather than specifics.

What happens if we take Nabokov's approach to literature and apply it to comics?

What happens if we take Nabokov's opening lecture to his students and apply it to ourselves, as comic book readers?

Let's find out.

"We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know."

Nabokov is talking about great literary works, reminding us that even the most "realistic" fiction is a work of artifice. It creates a world that doesn't really exist, but in the case of a more realistic work, the appearance of that world may mirror our own more closely. That doesn't mean it's any less of an artificial reality though.

Such a Nabokovian approach applies to comic book reading, certainly. We cannot hold a comic accountable for reflecting reality as we know it. Each comic, whether it's Chris Ware's "Acme Novelty Library" or Frank Miller and Jim Lee's "All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder," creates an artificial world, and our role as readers is to study that world, not judge it according to what we expect it to do according to our reading of other comics in the past. Is Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" seemingly more realistic than Jason Aaron and Tan Eng Huat's "Ghost Rider"? Sure, but the key word there is seemingly. Each is a completely artificial world with its own internal rules and sensibility. The realistic approach and the fantastic approach are both just that: approaches, styles, ways to turn conceptual imagination into narrative artifice.

Realism by Tomine
We need to approach all stories as such, says Nabokov, and accept the fictional reality as it's given to us.

"The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales."

Following that same train of thought, Nabokov compares all great works of literature to the enchanting magical reality of the fairy tale. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thinks only a child can truly see nature, Nabokov believes not in ignorance but in an unprejudiced worldview. A child doesn't listen to a fairy tale and scream "THAT COULD NOT HAPPEN!" when Hansel and Gretel find a house made out of gingerbread. A child doesn't challenge the structural integrity of such a domicile. Instead, by accepting the fictional reality as its presented, the child becomes the kind of good reader Nabokov wants to see.

If we apply this to comics, it reminds us that each individual issue -- or collection, or graphic novel, or webcomic -- is a work of singular enchantment. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't expect story progression from one chapter to the next, but it does mean that when we read Willow Wilson and M. K. Perker's "Air," we shouldn't immediately scoff at the apparent superficiality of the initial conflict, or the strange relationships between the characters, or the introduction of "hyperpraxis." Perhaps that's not the best example, because "Air" is one of the most fairy-tale-like comics on the stands today. But so are all of them, really, from "Walking Dead" to "Green Lantern" to "DMZ" to "Scott Pilgrim." The trappings of each story may look different, but as Nabokov reminds us, they are all -- just like all works of literature, great or not -- essentially fairy tales.

"The real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper's rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself."

Besides approaching a literary work -- or a comic, if we keep up with my conceit that Nabokov's words apply to comics as much as anything else -- with an open mind, and a willingness to go where the author leads us, we should also realize that a major writer (and artist, presumably) builds their own narrative rules in the very act of creation. The "real writer," as Nabokov phrases it, does not rely on the established traditions of storytelling, but instead creates new techniques to tell the story.

The Enchantment of Air

I can't help but think of Grant Morrison's "Final Crisis" in this context, even though it didn't really break new ground -- it just expanded upon the cross-cutting techniques that other DC events comics had used and fragmented the chronology a bit. Nevertheless, some readers seemed baffled and/or upset by this slightly different approach, and yet new approaches are precisely what Nabokov expects from a "real writer."

It also reminds me of the "City of Glass" adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. In transforming Paul Auster's postmodern detective story into a comic, they had to create new ways to turn ideas into narrative. A literal adaptation -- if there is such a thing when you're turning words into images -- was impossible, or worthless, and Karasik and Mazzucchelli had to create new techniques to effectively tell an unorthodox story.

Nabokov reminds us that we shouldn't reject a work of literature because it's different from what has come before -- we should embrace such new techniques and expect them from our best creators.

"The good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense."

If we apply this to comic book readerdom, we might substitute "Wikipedia" for "dictionary" (although Nabokov would surely loathe such imprecision), and the point is that a reader needs to -- should be expected to -- do some work. Not only should the reader allow for extra "research" if the text demands it, but the imaginative act of reading is, in its own way, an act of participatory creation as well. Perhaps reading prose requires more imagination that reading a comic -- after all, comics were regarded as the medium of children or simpletons for decades -- but perhaps not. Great comics don't require less imagination. Great comics require as much imagination as you can muster.

"Since the master artist used his imagination in creating his book, it is natural and fair that the consumer of a book should use his imagination too."

Shouldn't comics be entertainment, though? Just for "mindless reading"?

No. Not at all.

If that's all you're looking for, why choose to read comics? Comics engage the imagination by their very nature, through their images which must be interpreted, through their combination of text and pictures. You can watch "Rock of Love" if you don't want to think. And it's free.

A good reader approaches a comic with some imagination and some effort.

New Values for a New Medium
"…and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use."

But a reader should not, says Nabokov, worry about whether or not he identifies with any characters in the book. Likability, or identifiability, should never factor into the reading of a work of literature. Just because you can relate to the money and/or romantic troubles of Peter Parker, that doesn't make "The Amazing Spider-Man" either good or bad. Responding to it because of some personal identification doesn't tell us anything about the literary work in question. What's worth reading, say Nabokov, are the works that challenge the imagination, and in reading those works, it’s the unity of the aesthetic effect that matters -- the creation of a new "fairy tale" world.

The best comics tend to openly reject relatable characters, and that turns some readers away from them. "Acme Novelty Library" or Daniel Clowes's "Ice Haven" are built on aesthetic structures and image patterns, and the stories are often filled with unlikable, unsympathetic characters.

That isn't to say that Nabokov wants readers to remain completely emotionless, insensitive to the affect of the story. But the emotion should come from the sensual nature of the details -- from the story specifics, not from the coincidence that the reader's balding father suffers from depression like "Jimmy Corrigan." Or that the reader always dreamed of being a test pilot like Hal Jordan.

"We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy -- passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers -- the inner weave of a given masterpiece."

Nabokov seems to differentiate between immersion and critical perspective. These are both readerly modes. You must allow yourself to fall under the enchantment of the writer (and, we would add, artist) while remaining critically aloof, judging the work from a more distant, aesthetic perspective. A good reader, says Nabokov, combines these two traits, and doesn't mistake compulsive readability for quality, nor maintains such aesthetic distance that the story becomes a purely intellectual exercise.

Miller and Lees Batman Fairy Tale

A good reader -- of a good comic -- should enter the fictional world that's presented but keep a kind of critical compass which allows a sense of perspective. The work should be evaluated from the inside and the outside, simultaneously, which is not often easy to accomplish upon the first read.

"A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader."

How often have we heard complaints of a writer's approach or a story arc only to hear readers say, "it works much better when read as a whole" or "it reads better in the collected edition"? It's not simply the act of reading it as a whole that creates this affect -- thought it certainly helps (think of evaluating a movie based on a fifteen minute chunk from the middle). It's the act of rereading that matters. The act of engaging with a text for multiple readings, looking for connections between scenes and images. Looking for meaning that was missed on first glance.

Some comics gain little from the reread, while others gain tremendously. The depth of meaning upon further reflection and study relates to the artistic quality of the work. Will a further reading of "Secret Invasion" reveal layers of untapped meaning? Probably not. Will a further reading of "Flex Mentallo"? I think so.

"It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science."

Notice the paradoxical language Nabokov uses to describe the "precision of poetry" and the "intuition of science." By reversing the customary descriptors, he reminds us that the best poetry is not based on pure intuitive feeling -- it is as precise as any art form, built on the specifics of language and image. Science -- the best science -- comes not purely from facts and figures, but from intuitive leaps which allows innovation to occur.

Man of Muscle Mystery

The best comics are poetic, but precisely so, with images that mean and don't simply show. Comics are perhaps more akin to poetry than most narrative art forms, for what are comics if not a series of images, often cut adrift from perfect context? Film and television feature images that move logically from frame to frame, but comics are hyper-montage, with images juxtaposed in rapid succession. Look at Jack Kirby's art on "Fantastic Four" #48-50, and you'll see panel-to-panel progression that defies logic, and yet makes perfect aesthetic sense.

And the mad scientists who make the best comics innovate based not on formulaic principles, but on intuition. Stan Lee and John Buscema's "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" can only get you so far, and it rarely results in a "Casanova," an "All-Star Superman," or a "Powr Mastrs."

"Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of steel and glass."

Through the exchange between reader and creator, we build imaginative worlds. Worlds that have a deep emotional and intellectual reality. Worlds that are beyond mere words and images. Literature. Comics.

Nabokov's prescriptive doctrine on how to be a good reader may not be a perfect fit with comics, but they are words of wisdom to consider, to ponder.

We can't expect comics to be better than their readers, and if we want better comics -- and I think we all do -- then we need to make sure we are up to the challenge.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, batman, flex mentallo, optic nerve, acme novelty library

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