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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Understanding Comics ch. 9

OK, again with the disagreement — McCloud’s wistful picture of individuals in radical isolation, whose incapacity to communicate without mediation generates “nearly all human problems,” gets off on the wrong foot. Mediation isn’t an undesirable artefact of our inability perfectly to share thoughts; mediation, with its attendant phenomena of ambiguity, predictable misprision, finitude, and so on, is just how we communicate (James K. A. Smith has an excellent theological book about this premise, The Fall of Interpretation). Or in the words of John Hollander:

The Widener Burying-Ground

In spite of all the learned have said,
We hear the voices of the dead.
Not scholiasts who like Burke and Hare
Turn dead leaves in the living air,
Unlock the Essay and exhume
Philosophy from its dry tomb,
Nor wise embalmers of the text
In humble buckram or perplexed,
Carved, interlaced half-calf, who come
To show how gold they are, and dumb –
We strike from silent lines a fire.
Troped sea-shell, loud Aeolian liar,
Nymph-haunted cave and mountain-peak
Choir with voices that we seek
As, scholars of one candle-end,
We hear the hush of dusk descend.
We unfired vessels of the day,
Built of a soft, unechoing clay,
Grow obdurate of ear at night
When images of voice are bright:
The dreamingale, the waterlark,
Within the present, silent dark
Echo the burden (on these stairs
Mistranslated) the singer bears –
He who packs, with a glowing faith,
In that portmanteau, fame and death.
Our marginalia all insist
– Beating the page as with a fist
Against a silent headstone – that
The dead whom we are shouting at,
Though silent to us now, have spoken
Through us, their stony stillness broken
By our outcry (we are the dead
Resounding voices in our stead
Until they strike in us, once more,
Whispers of their receding shore,
And Reason's self must bend the ear
To echoes and allusions here.

So McCloud’s “gauntlet” of obstacles that a pure “message” traverses on its way to a receiver’s mind involves a whole litany of tangles. All the aspects of the gauntlet form inevitable parts of a message, not extrinsic deflections of meaning. Without the gauntlet, no communication.

So rather than accepting McCloud’s schema of message and media, we can take this section as a reminder of how very complex are the webs of signification, and how many dimensions of mediation we need to attend to. Thus, when McCloud says “The mastery of one’s medium is the degree to which that percentage [of successful transmission of conceptual content from mind to mind] can be increased, the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey,”* we can reread him to be saying, “The more you want to control someone’s uptake of your communication, the more attention you need to pay to the fullest range of dimensions of your communication.”

His closing series of panels, evocative of the vast power of comics for stimulating imagination and enriching communication (and alluding yet again to Magritte, p. 207 lower right), aptly suggests my interest in the many dimensions of expressive, interpretive practice that extend beyond word-for-word substitution. And, as McCloud assures us, “the truth will shine through.”

* Here’s an interesting “beautiful” point: HTML mark-up permits various ways of signalling the browser to compose a page (and these in turn are complicated by divergences among different browsers, alas). I try to adhere to semantic mark-up conventions when I write HTML, so I distinguish the use of italics for emphasis (a <em> tag) from the use of italics for a foreign language (a generic <i> tag), and so on. When quoting from Understanding Comics, then, what interpretive decision should I make about rendering McCloud’s lettering effects? Often he makes emphatic phrases heavier, obliqued, and larger than surrounding copy; should I thus increase the letter size when I mark up my quoted text? Can I reliably distinguish “emphasis” in his copy from other possible rationales for changing type styles? What about in Hollander’s (typeset) poem above — do I accurately interpret his decision to set one phrase in italics when I mark it with <em> tags, or should I adopt the more neutral (less semantically-precise) <i> tag? And can we make different interpretive decisions about McCloud’s second book, in which he used computer-controlled type to simulate hand-lettering, thus already complying with a roman-italic-bold distinction of type styles?


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