Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 27, 2000
David Carrier The Aesthetics of Comics University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. 140 pp.; many b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (027101962X)

This book is a free-flowing philosophical rumination about an art-form to which the author has been addicted since a child (as such he appears on the dust-jacket), and which he rightly considers to have been unfairly marginalized by art and cultural history (ignored for instance by CAA publications)—not to speak of philosophy and aesthetics. The book breathes a relaxed air, despite its rather daunting frame of scholarly reference, mitigated by a cozy reflex to begin each chapter with an autobiographical snippet. The book is loosely constructed and wanders casually among weighty philosophical truisms and concrete examples of comics, idiosyncratically chosen. Foremost among these are works by the author’s favorites George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Gary Larson’s Far Side. The former is in its way an obvious choice, the latter an odd one, because for all the six or seven pages devoted to him, Larson is known as a practitioner not of comic strips (or caricature for that matter), but the single panel or “gag” cartoon; while the author takes, as do most students of the field, the “comics” of his title to be comic strips, the familiar narrative sequences, an art form quite distinct from the single panel variety.

Carrier describes himself as an “analytic philosopher” who, like philosopher Arthur C. Danto, whom he quotes most liberally and comes to praise, loves art and writing about it. Carrier has written books on Poussin and Baudelaire, which explains why these figure so prominently, the former with scant apparent relevance. In fact, the question of relevance is a major problem in this randomly erudite book. The text is larded with names of all kinds of philosophers and theorists, usually in association with some profound generality unrelated to comics as such; and there are a host of arbitrary, idiosyncratic and even plain nonsensical comparisons, like the structure of Tintin to that of Proust’s La recherche (sic, repeated elsewhere—is the full title A la recherche du temps perdu really too cumbersome?). Carrier’s effort to raise the critical standard on behalf of the comics, and usher them into the critical realm of high art, is laudable; but what is the use of comparing Herriman’s Krazy Kat to Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross? Why is it the supposed “tradition of narrative art of Piero, Poussin and Greuze” that is continued by modern comics artists, rather than the real tradition established by the real forefathers, Hogarth, Töpffer and Wilhelm Busch (the latter, at last getting in Germany a critical edition worthy of the giant of the medium, is not mentioned at all).

There is a lot of Gombrich, who certainly has clarified the mechanism of caricature, without engaging narrative comic strips as such. Carrier should have made this distinction clearer. Tenniel’s “Dropping the Pilot” (taken via Gombrich) is not a caricature as Carrier describes it, but it is a cartoon (a term then relatively new) that unlike the French equivalent, consciously avoids caricature by making the faces straight portraits.

It has always seemed to me a mistaken kind of formalism to be hung up on balloons. Speech balloons are in this century (oops—the 20th) to be sure a distinctive constituent of most—but not all—comics (Larson’s single panels generally avoid them), but I would not attach such overwhelming importance to them; the idea that balloons were a kind of midwife to the comic strip, and therefore, that nothing before their introduction into the American newspaper comics at the end of the 19th century can count as a comic strip, is part of what I suspect is a U.S.-chauvinist myth of origin. Carrier is a balloonist, so is the book’s designer, who puts the title into a speech or thought balloon on the jacket cover and (differently) on the title page, and who puts each chapter number into an exploded balloon. Historically, the transition of text from caption, below the frame, into available space within the frame has, I believe, first to do with the growing sense of autonomy of the comic strip (and, of course, photographic reproduction which obviates the need to set text in type), and second (quite a bit later in time) with the acceptability of text within the picture in high art (via Cubism and avant-garde book-illustration?). The question is not so much why a “seemingly complex convention” like the balloon (is it really so complex?) should have been so quickly mastered by readers, the idea on which Carrier ends his chapter on the subject; rather one must ask why and how balloons suited the growing ambition of the comics to convey narrative complexities and transitions long-since domesticated by the novel.

Since Carrier is so engagingly open, and even self-critical, about his procedures and prejudices, I must confess to an unshakeable prejudice of my own— shared I daresay by many—that the narrative artist of the 18th century, the granddaddy of the modern comic strip, is William Hogarth. To say, as Carrier does, that Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress is “not a true narrative, for the successive images present discrete events that are too distant from each other, and so require too many intermediate stages to be filled in, to be viewed as a continuous story” (55), is to take a strange and unhistorical definition of “true narrative.” Hogarth expended great effort—I would say his whole genius—in creating sequences (three times of six, once of twelve scenes) that would not only create maximum narrative interest within each scene (a multitude of incidents all credibly functioning simultaneously and intimating movement in time as well) but also to interconnect directly with adjacent scenes and create continuity. In those respects Hogarth set standards impossibly high, his imitators, deep into the 19th century, making a rather poor showing—always excepting Charles Dickens, of course. And if I may at this point, with Carrier who is free with autobiographical anecdote, offer one of my own: long ago, when I was official lecturer at the National Gallery, London, engaged to speak to the public directly in front of the objects, come Hogarth time I found his Marriage à-la-mode hung on the wall with the pictures in the wrong order (and the story bisected by a large Reynolds portrait). Remonstrating with the Curator-in-Charge (who later became the Gallery Director), I was told that he thought they simply looked better that way—truly a triumph of form over substance. Since the order in which the pictures were hung indicated the countess was first to sin, followed by the Earl, and not the other way round as Hogarth wrote the script, a reversal which of course threw the onus of the initial blame on her, I decided to sue the Gallery for defamation of character, on behalf of the countess’s heirs, or (lacking which) Hogarth himself.

I have been spoiled for this kind of book by the belief that what comics really need is historical, not philosophical—aesthetic exegesis. I do respect however the author’s intention to raise critical awareness of comics to a higher level, but I doubt that random analogies with Piero and Poussin and Proust will do this effectively. It is true that European pundits such as Umberto Eco have applied themselves to the task of rendering intellectual honor to a supposedly un-intellectual medium, and that the semiotics of comics has generated theses, books and learned conferences. And it is significant that the comic book format (merging into the type of “illustrated book” where illustration outweighs text) has been used most successfully and at a high theoretical level as a didactic medium. The Mexican cartoonist Rius was here the pioneer, and he has been followed by an extensive series of “comic book” monographs on great historical thinkers “for beginners,” with clever graphics and more or less laced with humor, launched by the Writers and Readers Co-operative in London. Any attempt to embrace the extraordinary variety of formats and artistic eclecticism of the 20th-century comic must take such phenomena into consideration.

David Kunzle
Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles.