Comical symmetry (and culture)

Thursday, 20 January 2005 — 5:37pm | Comics, Literature

As a subscriber to The Economist, and a satisfied customer at that, every now and then I feel a need to point out how cool they are. While I maintain that their Christmas edition last month was probably the best issue I’ve seen in the few years I’ve followed the magazine – what, with a year-end summary in verse, discourse analysis, jazz record reviews, the DS/PSP wars and a board game feature – most of what I want to acknowledge, as you probably realized if you clicked on any of those links that just passed you by, is subscriber content in the online edition. If you are a subscriber, you are aware of these pieces already. If you aren’t, then change.

But every now and then, my favourite periodical pumps out an excellent article that anyone can access. Such is the case with this article on the Web as a linguistic corpus, a piece that cites my favourite blog.

And how cool is this: in last week’s print edition, their weekly Obituary page was a feature on Will Eisner (again, subscriber content, but you should really sign up). The Eisner Awards – the comic book industry’s equivalent of the Oscars – are named after the late Will, and not Disney’s resident evil clown.

Curiously, while the otherwise rigorous obituary goes at length about Eisner’s own projects and his influence on the maturing of comic storytelling (indeed, The Economist concurs with the view that he practically invented the graphic novel), it has nary a mention of his masterwork Comics & Sequential Art, which everyone, everyone, recommends as the definitive textbook on how to make a comic book, and with good reason. Eisner literally wrote the book on graphic storytelling. Comics & Sequential Art is highly technical in its focus, but presents itself as introductory in the way it boils everything down to simple design principles. To comics, this book is what The Animator’s Survival Kit is to animation: all the basic principles collected in one place. The true artist doesn’t just stop there – he works his way upwards – but this is where to start.

The definitive book on reading comics is a beast of a different nature, and its name is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Between McCloud and Eisner, we have the foundations of what is a theoretical canon of the medium.

Needless to say, theoretical texts only go so far, and it’s the experience of reading the works of fiction themselves where you see them applied.

The other day I dropped by Wizards Comics & Collectibles across the street and down the road apiece from the Garneau Theatre. It isn’t a great shop for blokes like yours truly who prefer to catch up on the seminal graphic novels and mini-series in the form of a durable trade paperback – in fact, they don’t have much in the way of TPBs at all – but from what I can tell (from my limited experience in such matters), it’s definitely a store meant for single-issue collectors.

In one of the racks, I found several original issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, including multiple copies of the remarkable fifth chapter, “Fearful Symmetry”, which shares its title with Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye‘s study of William Blake. It makes sense, since they both take their names from Blake’s poem “The Tyger” – which, if you think about it in the context of Watchmen, is an entirely appropriate allusion.

The thing that makes “Fearful Symmetry” (Watchmen #5, that is) so remarkable is that, well, it’s symmetric. In the 28-page chapter, pages 1 and 28 have mirroring panel layouts, down to the colour coordination of alternating reds and blues. The same goes for pages 2 and 27, 3 and 26, and so on until you get to the pivotal assassination attempt bridging pages 14 and 15. Moreover, each of these symmetric pairs follow the same characters. You see the same juxtaposition of the newsstand and the fictitious Tales of the Black Freighter on page 12 as you do on page 17, and a parallel shipwreck on pages 9 and 20. It opens with Rorschach, and it closes with Rorschach.

A gimmick? Far from it. It doesn’t just preserve the flow of the story, it adds to it. Like the other visual motifs that characterize every chapter of Watchmen, the layout is at the service of the story – and to its credit, this is a prime example of something comics can do that other formats simply can’t. At the end of the chapter, the question at the end of Blake’s poem – “What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” is turned on its head and directed to the reader as a riddle to be answered.

If you’ve read Watchmen and know the solution, look at the question again. The answer lies in that very chapter, embedded in the symmetry itself.

And while on the subject of fearful symmetry – you didn’t think this post was over, did you? – I want to mention the cover of Tuesday’s Gateway, which, for reasons intrinsic to what you can do in print that you can’t on the Web, has not been reproduced in the Web edition.

While I typically keep this weblog text-only aside from attaching the occasional Scrabble post-mortem photograph for illustrative purposes, I feel like saving a thousand words:

Maybe I missed a few issues, but I can’t recall this ever having been done in the three years I have been on campus, and it’s going to take a historian or editor armed with a few bound editions to tell me if it’s ever been done. As with Watchmen, at first glance it’s a simple trick anybody could devise, a gimmick. Here we see two cover stories instead of the usual one, but the real kicker that makes it worthwhile is that they are two opposed cover stories. In this corner, Blatz – in this corner, Amrhein. It’s nice to see a paper take some risks every once in a while – real risks, not just your standard old Transformer blowjobs.

One thing, though: the cover would have been cooler if it were really symmetric.

There’s one more thing I want to mention about this issue, and it has to do with Kristine Owram’s piece in the Opinion section, “English really isn’t teaching English anyway.” To quote:

I couldn’t agree with their arguments more, but I must admit that I find these views of the English department more than a little ironic. After all, this is the same department that completely overhauled its course guide last year to offer a much more theory-based approach to the study of literature. Yep, nothing’s going to teach me how to communicate better than a course called “Textualities: Signs and Texts,” in which students will be introduced to “the structural study of sign-systems and discourses.” Take heart, though, for it will not be “an exercise in structuralism alone”! No, my friends, instead it will provide us with a “comprehensive historical review of the principles of semiotics and the analysis of discourses.”

Now, as someone who actually took ENGL 217 (“Textualities, Signs and Texts”) last semester, I find it rather amusing that Owram pinpointed it as her example. Naturally, this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it is arguably the best and most intellectually exciting course I have taken at this fine institution, and alongside the MATH 117/118 Honours Calculus route, the one I am readiest to recommend to every student who thinks he has the wits, bowels and overall academic machismo to handle it.

See, here’s the thing – the English department’s restructuring last year wasn’t moving in a more theoretical direction. The creation of the Textualities series, that being the 217/218 pair, was a direct result of axing ENGL 216 from the course catalogue. 216, a full-year course in literary theory exclusive to English majors, was effectively split in two.

This entailed two consequences. The first is that now, non-English majors can get their fill of the foundations of sign theory. Of course, according to Owram, critical theory is “only important to someone interested in a career in the humanities, like an aspiring English professor.” You’d never have, say, a Computing Science major take a course like that, so why let them? Everybody knows sciences and humanities don’t mix.

The second consequence is that the two courses no longer go hand in hand – you can take one, but not the other. Unless you take both 217 and 218, you can’t compare and contrast across different intellectual traditions. Moreover, without 216, there is no integrated alternative.

You will also notice that the 300-level catalogue is about as bold a move away from theory as it gets. Take a look: “Postcolonial Literature and Culture.” “Medieval Literature and Culture.” “Early Modern Literature and Culture.” What are cultural studies, if not literature placed in context? What are cultural studies, if not literature applied?

Actually, what’s really interesting is that the 217/218 professor, in his introduction to either course, stated his personal conviction that they should be properly offered at the 400-level, and in fact are at most other universities. That’s an assessment of relative difficulty, really. I think the courses are fine where they belong.

My reasoning here is that an introduction to critical theory is purely that – an introduction. These courses consist of readings that are foundational, and more importantly, interdisciplinary. By cataloguing them in the 200s, you encourage students to take them earlier – which means they can apply those theoretical concepts elsewhere instead of acquiring them at the end of their educational careers, when the theoretical rudiments are but a footnote.

Mathematics courses are analogous, and that’s why I so highly recommend the 117/118 route to entering students. The standard 114/115 path (or for Engineers, 100/101) will give you what you need to proceed along your merry way and work with rates of falling objects, basic electrical circuits and all the other fun stuff calculus is good for. But it’s one thing to have the tools, and it’s another to understand the tools and have an upper hand later on. That’s why theoretical foundations, particularly those that come early in your education, are a good thing.

As it stands right now, if the English department encounters further cuts, it’s actually the theoretical disciplines that you can expect to wither away. It’s a crying shame, because theory is exactly the direction in which university-level English should be moving, but isn’t. Owram states that the common defense of English courses is that everybody needs competent writing skills and a background in major works of literature. If that is really the case – and it probably is, given the department’s reorganization in favour of an easily defensible attachment to culture – it really is a pity.

I posit that it is a defect in K-12 education that students enter university without basic skills in composition and critical reading. Higher education isn’t just about vocational preparation, and certainly shouldn’t be. Theory is only relevant to aspiring English professors? Preposterous. Theory should be what the Department of English exists to offer.

I conclude my discussion of the matter with this morsel of advice: take the Textualities courses. They are, in a word, rewarding.

Among the required readings for 217 was Northrop Frye, whom you may recall from earlier in this post as being the author of Fearful Symmetry. The book that was covered was a more theoretical text, Anatomy of Criticism, which is such an essential addition to your bookshelf (even if you don’t care much for structuralism) that suggestions to keep this material away from casual passersby, lest we scare them away, is really quite unbelievable.

Also on the reading list last term was The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man by the Patron Saint of Wired Magazine and my second choice for the Greatest Canadian. Interestingly enough, much of the book is a critique of print media and layout design. McLuhan would have loved Watchmen.

We come full circle back to comic books as I leave you with this piece of trivia: The Mechanical Bride makes a cameo appearance in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #4, nestled in a pile of books that a killer robot from the far future studies in his quest to destroy the Escapist once and for all. Industrial Man, indeed.

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