Facial expressions can definitely be viewed within the first principle of physiognomy, but since this second category is so essential to visual storytelling, it needs to be stressed in its own right. The emphasis on what our face instinctively expresses and how these (mostly) natural reactions are perceived can actually be far greater at times, since human communication is the most intimate and revealing when observed or experienced face-to-face.
We can view this in more or less every good comic that involves a comprehensive dialogue or two, where facial features and character reactions are of such importance that background is often left out, so the emphasis remains on the face … and there is less hassle for the artist to worry about pesky background details when those are of secondary, if not tertiary importance. (Two birds, one stone.) Pragmatically, this is established in large extent through many close-up and medium close-up shots. This is a feature of storyboarding that the comics medium shares with film. Storyboarding is the concept of sequential visual images telling the story and showing the shots the director will invariably choose, unless a myriad of changes occurs, of course. (Comics are essentially a storyboarding concept brought to life, albeit much more finalized and complete than in film, where storyboarding is the map that leads to filming the action/acting.)
The stress on the character’s face and their facial features reflects our desire and ease of expressing both basic and complex emotions. The reader for example embraces subtle frowns or smirks very fast and consequently adds this emotional state to the overall depiction together with the text expressed in the balloons or captions. Easier said than done, of course, since mastery of comprehension of such features essentially pales in comparison to the artist actually being able to capture just the right emotion not to create unwanted confusion or guessing from the reader (again, unless intended). This means that the artist needs to laboriously study the whole human body, from the bones and muscles to the tiny, delicate changes on the face. Just one line too many in the neck and too dark an outline can make all the difference between unwontedly seeing that dark line as for example a vain that can make the character seem too angry/nervous/excited in that specific context.
McCloud has a couple of very methodical/formalistic schemes that beautifully capture the richness of facial expressions and the prudence of the artist to capture them appropriately.
Conversations over the phone are on the other hand much different than in person. While nowadays it has become to an extent easier to converse digitally (especially, if one seeks a less emotionally hectic experience), looking a person in the eyes offers direct connection, noticing even the smallest frowns and squirms … if your converser is observant enough or rather emotionally invested enough to care to notice. But that’s the case with essentially everything we do, especially nowadays when stimuli (over)consumption is almost inescapable. The parallel of what we experience in reality to the depictions in pictures is obvious. The visual rendering, however, becomes a far more hectic matter to everyone who has ever tried to draw a face conveying the appropriate expression.
Lastly, perhaps the reason for such stress on facial features stems also from the fact that the body part with the most muscles is in fact the head. A relatively small body part can thus astonishingly create a whole plethora of emotional responses that guide and govern the observer’s own reaction. While the body as a whole is a visually more prominent factor that can convey general expressions (even from a distance), the head is responsible for more detailed expressions and emotional nuances that can be viewed only at close distance, in a fittingly more delicate setting. As they say, if you cut off the head (of the snake), the body will follow accordingly.
The concept that I label physiognomy encompasses the larger framework of being knowledgeable about the human appearance and anatomy. While race and gender may differentiate, there are certain visual features that apply to any and all humans. This just means that generally speaking we for example have a pair of arms, regardless of the length of the forearm, color or veininess of the skin (or rather veininess viewed under the skin), etc. Flexibility, gestures, what we do with our hands and how we do it is another matter altogether, because various natural attributes and cultural dogmas quickly come into play.
When drawing gymnasts for example, you can even go overboard with their flexibility, the same way as muscles and veininess of superheroes have become the obvious staple of their physical appearance (this relates to the notion of stereotypes that will be discussed in a future post). On the other have, the position of the limbs (body itself) can subtly reveal a lot about a character: whether they are in a defensive position (with arms crossed) or overtly stiff, which can be used for a specific purpose like showing the character as shocked or emotionless … or can indicate the artist’s slight lack of visual prowess in not being able to capture the appropriate appearance. (Generally speaking, when the comics creator is both the writer and the artist, such “abnormalities” are far less likes to be either allowed, let alone observed.) Gestures, on the other hand, can also be misused culturally or drawn in a dubious way, so ideally any sort of potentially confusing elements should be scrubbed out right away … unless of course confusion is intentional, as the best works can hold steadfast to. This means that if you’re reading a story about Nazis and you’re not sure if a raised hand is intended as a greeting, merely stretching or a controversial salute, in the best situation this misperception could be used by the artist to create further intrigue and plot twists, it can foreshadow or deliberately build the story in a way so you have to read it again. (Me thinks, the Nazi salute example is the effect of finally getting my hands on the first volume of B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs. Clearly, everything is connected, but I digress.)
The human body therefore has specific features that need to be met without the work of the artist regressing to a farcical state of perception. Of course those delicious exceptions to the rule that I already mentioned, are not the only ones. Theoretically speaking, every rule of physiognomy can potentially be broken, if stressed sufficiently and maintaining its established subject matter. The same way as Disney has for example established its unique look based on loose rules of anatomy and spread them worldwide (for example influencing the manga work of Tezuka, who in turn influenced back the mainstream Anglo-American comics). As part of the comics canon, Smith’s Bone, is for my taste just about the perfect masterpiece of how to create an epic story with a unique look and deliberately cartoonish features … and most importantly making it all work.
While artists have specific styles and the best of them can change them according to either the demands of the story or the publisher (cf. David Mazzucchelli and Scott McCloud), they decisively stress the importance of understanding basic human features. This knowledge, namely, extends beyond the mere appearance, since to understand a human is to understand a human in reaction to both internal and external stimuli, the personal and the social. Consequently, issues like depth perception, perspective, shading and motion become paramount to effectively conveying a story. (Unless the pictorial elements are for example extremely experimental or are confined to stick figures without background. In this case the linguistic elements have to carry the bulk of the narration for the comic to still be held in high regard.)
I’ve become more alert to the technical side of things from the time I’ve read Eisner’s and McCloud’s work, but if you’re into the practical side of comics and art in general and would like to know how it all works, there are so many (mostly good, if not even superb) works out there, it’s almost impossible to go wrong. Whether it’s a book on writing, a manual on character building or video lectures on how to create the larger world from essentially the most of basic geometrical figures, it all comes down to interest, intent and perseverance (and even then there’s a difference in comprehension and rendering). While every tradition has the potential to enthrone its own visionary way (abstract or not), it seems that Picasso was definitely on to something when he observed the flexibility of knowing the joints … I mean rules before breaking them … or merely stretching them intensely.
NEXT: FACIAL EXPRESSION
From the outset, works of art have been embedded with aesthetic appeal. They carve their very essence through the artist’s craftsmanship and insight, reflecting the ideals of form, function and greater social inspiration. I would like to think that cave paintings, the Renaissance classics as well as the modern memes at least in some aspect still pertain to the overinflating grandeur of the first sentence. To know the human condition, it helps to know the human endeavors and creative force. And art serves a purpose that very few other modes of expression can follow suit. It is a humanizing force that at least tries to adhere to the divine as well, but it also means understanding the self, its surroundings and the tying force that binds the personal and the social together … if not nature/existence altogether. And visual art (proper or not) has been the stable of our imaginatively progenitive endeavors for as long as we have made an attempt to copy, preserve and comprehend our states of mind and being.
It comes without saying that to understand a medium like comics, which centers on pictorial representation, one must become versed in various aspects of visual art. There is an obvious difference in the complexity of comics than specific art trends like surrealism or cubism for example; this, however, does not imply by any means that comics are a form of lesser artistic expression. They merely approach their subject matter differently and apply the basics or building blocks of the visual world in another way, specifically focusing and relating more to their sequential nature and narrative function.
What are these building blocks? Language fields like phonetics, morphology and semantics teach us how linguistic expression is a complex amalgamation of sound, form and meaning. To eventually understand the most comprehensive literature and complex philosophical thought, we must first learn to read and distinguish the basic phonemes, morphemes, letters and sounds which create a larger whole. In order to understand anything, we have to attribute meaning to it and essentially create a contrast between what is known, what has meaning and what is unknown (in some way seemingly bereft of meaning). Pictorial representation follows alarmingly similar principles.
To simplify things even further, you could say that understanding pictures requires knowledge of basic shapes and colors. But that’s obviously too vague a statement, so we’ll have explore it further. The area where pictorial and linguistic elements meet is semiotics. While the understanding of cultural meanings of signs and their progressive development offers vital clues into their application in a give work, there is still a measure of subjective implementation of sings both from the viewpoint of the author and the reader. To complicate matter further, there must always be a distinction between the meaning of a sign in isolation and in a particular setting. In such a way the sign + may be either a plus sign or a cross; however, in works brimming with religious imagery (such as Hellboy, Lucifer or Preacher that I’ve already touched on), cross itself conveys a much deeper meaning to different religions and cultures, not just the tradition out of which and through which the works gain strength. Arguably, we can find syncretic parallels to let’s say a Celtic cross … and that’s part of the fun, intrigue and frustration in trying to assign meaning of a specific symbol within a specific culture, specific era and consequently even specific way of reading it in that particular context. Now, there’s a lot of “relativity” here, but the point is that you have to have a feel for the subject matter and you need to understand the work you are reading or the painting you are observing (or the music you are listening, etc.), for it to make greater sense. This means that there is no absolute interpretation, because meaning gets easily transcended and often the intention of the artist can be swayed more towards popular opinion of their work, regardless if the mass got it right.
Depiction of signs and imagery brimming with not just every possible cultural form but spirituality and human life has been a long-standing tradition in all art fields. We attribute meaning to the world around us in order to make sense of it. Without it, this very writing becomes fast obsolete. While theoretically speaking markings of any kind may be artificial constructions that cannot capture the essence of life they paradoxically try to convey, we are essentially part of this planet, so our reflection of the world around us should in one way or another try to point to truths within said world that are not just arbitrary. The circle for example has historically gained a very prolific pool of meanings. Referring to unity or nothingness, the sun or the night, the sign O may be a natural choice for its many meanings, since the spherical form reflects the shape of many objects in the Universe. Therefore, while even da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man may concretely be nothing but scribbles on canvas, the meticulous draftsmanship, the form and the meaning of the picture nevertheless reflect a higher truth. For those very reasons and after half a millennium of its conception the work still permeates human imagination.
My research essentially tries to follow the principles of Euclidian geometry, inherent gravitational principles, psychological means and cultural distinctions (particularly regarding color). This, however, is at best times only a smart-ass guessing game that can quickly fall prey to scrupulous overinterpretation or gets caught between the overtly subjective worlds of either the author or the reader.
In other words, since the world of comics reflects the natural world, there is neither a uniform code of expression nor definite rules that every single artist follows. As does all art. Even the works that go against the principles of nature and physical reality are nevertheless based IN this reality; namely, they are created by the author in this world observed and comprehended through the means and senses of people in the same plane of existence. Otherwise we would not be able to comprehend them, even if only on a very miniscule level. Higher spiritual and divine realities by their very nature extend beyond the physical existence in which this writing is presented as well. Thus, such “higher” comprehension by its very nature becomes pragmatically excluded from our mundane experience.
Historically, we can observe certain visual conventions for artistic representation in any given art field. Different periods of time obviously reflect different social, cultural, ideological, technological times, but within this diversification there lays the ever-present humanizing force that seeks to show the then and future generations aspects of the visual world or of the interior world of dreams and imagination.
Genre distinctions and specifics of a particular medium govern the “rules” of a particular filed of expression. I believe it was Picasso that was of the mind that once mastered, even those rules are to be broken for progression and complexity of life to be furthered (otherwise there would be no cubism for example, while within mythological framework the work of tricksters would be likewise in vain). The comics environment is just as specific as certain artists have a tendency towards a particular composition for example (i.e. Alan Moore’s complex multi-narratives and masterful verbal coinage or Mike Mignola’s expressionistic prowess of telling more with less). A wide variety of works and compendiums can be found on the nature of symbolism and the consequent attributed meanings to specific signs. As such, it is pointless to provide a long-winded narrative on the nature of every single possible symbolic representation, because it can vary considerably and it often becomes a deconstructive pain in the ass, because very few authors actually provide an in-depth etymological account … because to put it bluntly: there’s too much painstaking work and not enough appreciation.
Look at it this way: there will always be cultural symbols and to really know them you have to study said culture. (And for the most part its neighbors as well, because no one evolves in isolation, so there’s influence galore!) Now, let’s say you have a broad understanding of how for example the circle has been represented religiously in Western Europe. Does that relate fully to the mathematical use of the circle within the Muslim scientific revolution or the “number” zero in ancient India? Does the circle divert in some way to the Daoist philosophical decree? The easy answer is that the circle does symbolizes unity, the sun, pervasiveness and fullness/emptiness cross-culturally, but the paradox is that it does so diversely in each era and within its specific playing field. So saying that something is universal is missing the point, because the formalistic hive-mind of humanity tends to oversimplify things for the sake of easier comprehension and consumption by the non-experts. (Plus, nothing is “universal” per se. It’s only on the level of “as far as we know it”.) Symbols like Pi Π or Phi Φ are used similarly. Both are either letters or essential numbers. But the number of Pi as 3.14(159…) is a simplified approximation (for obvious reasons that most people hate numbers), just as much as the golden ratio of Phi is rendered as 1.618(033…). How each is used, however, depends heavily where you stand. There’s a big different in jotting down Π just as a sign of some mathematical mumbo-jumbo, of using Φ as the spiral of life. And even that depends heavily, if you’re working the philosophical angle or are trying to disclose some would-be universal patterns … All in all, there are ample examples of use of signs of all kind. Relativity is a fickle thing, indeed.
When you are dealing with a visual medium such as comics, the meaning of a single line, its depth, color, position, means of rendering, etc., creates plentiful conversational topics to consider, because for the most part the artists have indeed considered most of those and many more. What the reader sees and reads is the product of a work brimming with details that get for the most part only glanced over, because reading is relatively fast and our ability to scan pictorial elements faster still. Therefore it’s important to know how something might work for the most part. While specific industry and production demands always create their own ideology of artistic work, it, however, behooves me to stress some principles that I have found essential for a complex, meaningful pictorial representation in general. The focus in this context will be on physiognomy, facial expressions, minimalism and stereotypes.
Just as any art form prides itself on its particular rendering(s) and consequent reception, the understanding of comics also relies on the medium-specific elements. Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith propose a system of comprehension of images within the comics pages, which is essentially tripart: distinguishing between sensory and non-sensory diegetic images and hermeneutic images. Sensory diegetic imagery refers to aspects that can be perceived by the senses: pictures and words portraying characters, objects and the environment of the story (i.e. dialogue). Non-sensory diegetic imagery depicts aspects that would normally be unnoticeable, such as emotions and sensations of the characters, but the visual nature of the comics given the reader insight into the characters (i.e. thought balloons). Hermeneutic imagery, on the other hand, is placed outside the story world, yet influences the interpretation (i.e. psychological images, visual metaphors and intertextual references). All of these perceptual elements are, nevertheless, under the influence of personal and social stimuli that may result in inattentional blindness, hence inadvertently limiting the response to the work.
Reception of comics depends heavily on the complexity of a given work. While various guiding traditions of narration, image-building and techniques exist, every comics panel is as unique as every written work is exclusive. Despite the fact that theoretically the vast majority of words used in a novel are for example available in dictionaries (unless you’re Shakespeare, of course), words are nevertheless used and described there in isolation. Equally, some of the charm of the imagery used in comics is its very appeal and recognition; yet, it is the newly created world where these pictures and words are given the platform to interact with where the ingenuity of authors comes into play. Together with the comprehension of the readers, the work is taken to the final level of recognition, where it is taken through a tailspin of interpretative grandeur by the numerous ways of readings, providing the ultimate interplay of the individual and the social.
Before the reading process becomes too idealized, it must be stressed that there is always a degree of confusion (noise) and deviation in the interplay of author’s creation and reader’s reception (the interplay between intended and perceived meaning), varying from the beliefs and technical abilities of the author to the expectations and willingness of the reader to perceive the work as a whole. This, however, is true to all art products, since they are inherently an individualistic expressive design. Suspension of disbelief thus becomes a prerequisite for the enjoyment of not just every work, but is part of life’s perception as well, pertaining both to subjective views and objective representation. As we suspend disbelief to not see the drawings as merely colored lines on paper and to perceive images on a screen as anything but hyperrealistic binary code, we are doing so inherently. We do not perceive the world through its components; like general shapes or atoms to be even more precise. In the latter case we are physically unable to see at such peering close proximity, just as much as we can’t see radio waves because of the limitations of our perception of the visual field. Similarly as our brain transforms two images from each eye into a united whole, we take reality as a complete image as well – like a board with chess figures of life that require our undivided attention in order to play the game right.
Pragmatically, the suspension of disbelief is the essence of our whole existence, since even growing and learning demand of us a certain degree of “blind acceptance”, either from what our parents teach us or what the texts we read try to point out. We can become critical and learn to evaluate things only after we have gained a certain amount of knowledge of ourselves, the world we live in and (crucially) their interaction ... And, to complicate things further, this doesn’t mean that all of a sudden everything becomes clear and you can comprehend life to the fullest. No. That’s an ongoing process. Call it a kind of hermeneutic cycle of life experience.
The reading process requires us to understand spatial relations within every comics page and apply temporal notions, creating the illusion that the work is animated and comes to life. We do the same when watching film (connecting the frames to form continuous action – but in this case most of the work is already done by the creators) or reading a book (creating images in our mind from the symbols we read, making the subject-matter of the work come to life in a fascinatingly abstract fashion).
Picture 1 (P1) reveals a spatial location with the characters walking along a path in the forest. The illusion of time is created by reading the words; namely, as you read, you imagine the characters walking along. The panel ends by capturing the moment in time as we walk off to the next panel. In such a way, as we begin reading, the position of the characters (were they not standing still) may have been more to the left. Therefore, what the picture reveals in the final frame is the animated process that occurs in the gutter between the panels and in the panels themselves.
P1 (Mignola et al. 2008b: 25)
Arguably, panels can be static as well, especially when using a silent (wordless) panel as an establishing shot, where building a scene itself is more important than reflecting on its temporality. The reader, however, applies motion and time to the scene (in film this would be achieved with a zooming effect) because we know the world is not static but brimming with life and movement. Paradoxically, a complete comics image is immediately followed by the gutter and the following panel(s), further stressing the momentary aspect of reception and consequently emphasizing the astonishing ability of the human mind to comprehend complex meanings and depictions in a matter of moments.
The final words in a panel generally reflect the final depiction of events. In this process every spatial and temporal element in the panel beforehand leads to that final moment when the complete image is perceived by the reader. If we look at P1 again, this means that when you read the text that ends with “against his”, that’s when the time freezes essentially and that is what the picture shows. The picture is just the final representation. I say just, because as you begin reading the text that begins with “you’ve heard of him”, time passes for the reader and as well as the perceived events in the panel, which means that at the beginning of the text, the characters should ideally have been on the left side of the panel. This creates the illusion of movement as much as it is the illusion of “turning back the visual elements”. Plus, the more back-and-forth dialogue you have between the characters, the greater the disparity and the potential for either confusion or just logical pictorial oddities. Coincidentally, this is why Eisner was such as big proponent of using one panel to show one scene, not prolonging action (even if it is just dialogue). This is why the dialogue in comics is often “relegated” to medium shots and close-ups to avoid (drawing) background noise, to place more emphasis on expressions and to create a sterile environment, where the reader is for example focusing only on character’s encapsulated timeless facial demeanor.
When pictorial and verbal elements are at temporal odds, especially when the action depicted is more crucial for the development of the story, the reader’s suspension of disbelief can be shaken. P2 is clearly meant to be the final frame, since the creature’s hands are about to engulf the protagonist. We notice the picture right away; however, as we begin reading, we are actually taken back in time, forced to imagine the hands ever so slightly moving forward before reaching the apex of what is actually portrayed. Since visual experience is a process of space and time, this creates a spatio-temporal distortion that is common in many comics and can result in the “grip” of the narration to be loosened.
P2 (Carey et al. 2013: 203)
The reason for this “awkwardness” may be twofold: Lucifer was created in the mainstream comics environment, which means that individual issues of the comics ware for the most part “relegated” to 24 pages, in which case the authors were physically unable to divide the panel into two, with the first for example focusing on the dialogue and the second on the danger element to achieve a greater shock value of the scene. On the other hand, the panel may have been intended as such to create the lingering effect of impending danger even as you read the dialogue. The fact that the dialogue is spread on the right side of the panel and the hands appear on the (more immediately seen) left indicates that this might be the case. Although time per se in not a quality of vision, semblance of time is presented visually (cf. P2 and P3), while the interplay of space and time becomes a prominent factor both in comics as well as art, not to mention our constant daily struggle to fight off the proverbial hands of time.
If we consider the dual aspect of de Saussurian logic, reading comics is both immediate and gradual. The latter notion is probably the more obvious one. Reading comics for the most part follows a panel-to-panel progression, similar to a sentence-to-sentence stricture. Jumping from one panel to another, the reader is gradually revealing the overall picture that the comic is urging us to complete. The path of reading is directed by the author who constructed the design (like a successful chess player needs to calculate numerous moves ahead of time), but the response from the reader can be anything but linear and straightforward (as the other player uniquely responds to the position on the board). Immediate reading, on the other hand, refers to the fact that we notice pictures at a moment’s notice, since action precedes words, so the dialogue for example takes generally more time to devour. Every observed page in a comic is immediately scanned in a sort of top-down approach, moving from the most noticeable elements on the page as a whole (such as strong outlines, color, contrast and striking, unexpected shapes) towards individual panels where detailed (gradual) reading follows in greater detail.
P3 (Mignola et al. 2008b: 38)
Taking the above page for example (P3), the strong contrast is immediately achieved by the color red, which is noticed at once and especially because of the rest of dark, blue, melancholic tones. Upon gradual reading, you are drawn in further by the two smallest middle panels that act like the glue that keeps all but the last panel together both visually and thematically. Symbolically, the first six panels play off of the visual metaphor of the watch in the central panel by acting like a clock, moving from one element to the next. By striking midnight, the watch symbolically marks the end and a new beginning, reflecting on the dead body coming to life. The beauty of the layout is evident in the fact that we can actually read these panels in any way we want, since they all lead to the final long shot panel, where the hands of the corpse (through light contrast and position) lead the eye out of the panel into the next page. Since this design is pictorially dominant and the transitions are masterfully done, the reader can generally read through the page quite fast, but the “loop” of the two smaller red panels and the strong contrast makes you linger on these details (more and more through each rereading).
Reception is obviously a complex principle that works on the most extreme subjective levels of any reader. To those for example not acquainted with Mignola’s Hellboy and distinctive expressionistic style, let alone not versed in reading comics, this page might seem merely a gritty, verbally-sparse product that you can go through quite fast. The crucial element why the page reads fast, however, is due to excellent pacing and mastery of Mignola’s craft. Misconception clearly breeds unappreciation. The followers of the Hellboy canon not only carry an unprecedentedly larger amount of emotional investment in the work as a whole, but can notice intertextual references. On a personal level, it is beyond rewarding to notice such grand elements of structure, composition and comics mastery in relation to what a newbie comics enthusiast can for example feel, but not quite understand. Rereadings, attention to detail and love of the subject matter can thus broaden one’s horizons beyond words … I would say beyond pictures as well, but it would seem counterproductive and too cheesy, so scratch that.
Anyway, even art enthusiasts can for example more readily notice the spatial technicalities that are conveyed on the above panels of P3. In other words:
for visually oriented readers, the art tends to dominate the initial attention, whereas prose readers not accustomed to the comic book form tend to move from one block of text […] to the next, and often miss important visual clues in the process. (Duncan and Smith 2009: 119)
Perhaps the greatest attribute of reception is the fact that we can distinguish so many nuances and convey such a wide array of readings. The interplay between author and reader in comics is arguably subject even to interpretations that may or may not have been intended by the author. Over-reading can be always pesky, especially when you’re analyzing works and authors that are close to your heart and mind, but it goes without saying that when you do get it right it’s a jolt of positive energy that reaffirms your hard work was not in vain.
Affective visualization allows authors to create elements that are less clearly observable (whether through subliminal elements or references to other works and the like). In such a way, the complexity of the narrative is further increased and the hermeneutic cycle propitiated. The reason for this is because pictorial portrayal varies (with author’s style the most). Mignola for example does not have a specific way to write SKELETON, or even of writing about or describing a skeleton (he does not have to), but he draws a distinct, unique skeleton that is immediately recognizable and unmistakably his. Reception of comics thus becomes an intimate process, uniting the two players like no other game. As every chess game can be played differently, more complexly forever again and again (as you adapt to the tactics used), so are comics a well of everlasting interpretive levels, since the spring of readership constantly renews and enriches its (mythic) potential.
In closing this chapter of readership, the general assessment of comics as imagination-stirring objects, which has to a large extent carried over from its satirical, easy-going origins, refers back to comics as pure and simple being fun. It’s extremely pleasurable to allow your imagination to run wild with possibilities … when visualized in comics, that much better. Either through promise of an escape into more exciting, peaceful, fair, different worlds or enhancing the present world through factual means and insightful imagery, comics elucidate the human condition in a startlingly similar way as myths do. And that’s what you can call the eternal game of chess.
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Wolk, D. (2007). Reading Comics. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
No form of communication is merely a one-way street. You always have at least two participants: the author and the reader. In the case of comics, a more personal, intimate art form, the approach towards readers is much more than obvious and becomes a shared relationship. Reading (any work of art) thus becomes a cooperative process of adding layers upon layers of comprehension and depth of a given work. The more renowned a work, the more it will partake in the conversation of public domain and the more nuanced its role in the “public unconscious” will inevitably become.
Reading is the process of interplay between (at least) two participants, even somewhat resembling a chess game, a game of what the author means and what the reader reads, a game of what is envisioned in a particular way by the writer, of what gets depicted in that exact way by the artist and of what gets understood appropriately by the reader to whom (for the most part) the work is made. To continue with the chess analogy, if the author is the grandmaster who starts with the white pieces (reflective of the author’s unique position of having the upper hand in the making of the comic), your reaction is a response to his or her move (simultaneous displays not excluded), playing a continuous exchange in a game of one-upmanship until checkmate or the conclusion of the last page. The reader matches the moves of the author by his or her awareness of the position of the pieces on the board (i.e. the panels, the transitions, the characters, the plot). The subsequent handshake, however, does not indicate the end of the game, since revision and analysis (interpretation) follow in chess as well as comics.
Reception of comics is obviously a process that depends the most on visual literacy. Once the reception theory or reader-response criticism opened the door to a previously unseen factor of readership, the paradigm shifted to what author’s work means specifically beyond itself and beyond the author’s perspective. We have to also take into account that the participant in any art form is exposed not just to that field of expression, but to various other mediums which in one way or another influence each other and affect the reader through artistic stimuli. The respective artistic environment creates a transference of experience beyond any single artistic exposure. This means that your method of playing the game is subject to the rules of said game AND thinking outside the (narrative) box, which can result in deeper awareness of the tactics in play.
For the purpose of my research, reception essentially coincides with interpretation … as observed by the theory of hermeneutics, whose original philologically theological origins evolve into philosophically existential meanings over time. Essentially, all of this brings together the three major methodological paradigms we discuss through interpretation and analysis; the author, the work and the reader (reception). While it may seem quite obvious, the consequent result is not merely (a better) comprehension of the work, but actual communication with it. Any given work is inevitably the product that will forever be the crux of any research and the key factor in social comprehension of it. Even if you’re a genius like da Vinci or Shakespeare, it’s still your works and your output that carry your legacy.
Within the pervasive hermeneutic sphere, specific focus needs to be placed on the notion of the hermeneutic cycle, which postulates that the understanding of a given work gains more concrete and specific meaning(s) with every (re)reading. The more you read, the more you know? No shit, Sherlock! But the hermeneutic meaning still differs a bit. The implication of a potentially endless frame of interpretations becomes more than just a possibility. This paradox of the (hermeneutic) cycle as an endless, conceivably meaningless loop of possibilities that cannot be factually grounded and finalized may seem scientifically daunting; yet, we must remember that such academic work is always relevant within its time-frame. Any kind of hermeneutic research offers an interplay between the past and the present. Both theoretically and pragmatically, reception (of mythology in particular) uncovers veils of understanding of the analyzed works and enriches them with a temporal dimension which renews its (endless) life and meaning.
(Because once we stop reanalyzing Plato, reevaluating Dante, forgetting the great artistic, expressive nature of humanity, which spurred our understanding of ourselves and our world, we lose the connection with the past, we become lost in our present without even enjoying that elusive present moment and the future becomes a cycle not of positive reevaluation, but forceful rediscovery. While the very commercially and passively oriented world of today may not care about the greater value of Nietzsche for example, the internet as the great virtual library of our Being or even electricity as its conduit become a different matter. Intellectual and pragmatic works are as intimate as are science and religion, as they both stem from the same expressive potential and desire for comprehension that we have formed from our basic instincts of survival and reproduction.)
Comprehension of specific parts of a given text depends on the understanding of the work as a whole, yet the work itself relies on the understanding of the individual parts that it is comprised of. This again seeming paradox echoes not only the Daoist unity of the individual to the whole, but stresses the interaction of the personal and the social in general. The importance of numerous readings may be very pragmatic, scientific and psychological, since humans for the most part do not possess instantaneous storage of information without any memory leaks, but on a meta-level each reading of a work is further enhanced through the growth of the reader and deeper realization of what we might already know about the text. Relating these observations to visual literacy, “hermeneutic mastery” of a particular work, the world in which it was created and the consequent world it further creates and exenterates, we can speak of a specific kind of literacy here as well, since expertise of a given subject matter becomes the only real proficient means of further evaluating its content.
I’m sure we have all had the soul-sucking experience of having to labor through a book in school or college that was deemed “enlightening” by the powers that be, but we either didn’t see it (at that time) or couldn’t have cared less. Life experience comes into play as well, of course, but mastery of a given subject matter often has a funny side effect of sometimes suddenly beginning to put those pesky puzzle pieces together and seeing the bigger picture … I mean seeing the position on the chess board more clearly. I can personally acknowledge this hermeneutic comprehension through my rereading of for example Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Having first read the work at the outset of my mythological research, numerous facts and cultural details flew by me. When returning to the text a few years later, however, as my research enhanced my understanding of mythology, the seemingly nonsensical details and nuggets of stories exemplified by Campbell, more profoundly echoed through my mythological subconscious, uncovering new layers of his work and intertextually tying various loose end. And the beauty of all of it is that Campbell’s work in general echoes the depth of mythology itself, so rereadings become the norm and the necessity (especially if you’re really trying to make heads and tails of sometimes convoluted myths). Not necessarily just for the totality of your comprehension, but for the social transference of that knowledge … so you can apply a given move/position on the board in future plays.
Despite the more religious, literary background of hermeneutics, this kind of analysis can be readily applicable to comics as well, since (unlike the passive experience of movies) the reading process of a comic is active (as with literary works). This means that the reader is in charge of the “consumption” of the work in front of him or her, becoming the co-director in the interplay of intended and perceived meaning. Of course taking into consideration pacing and the flow of a comic for example, since the story may be designed to be read fast (indicating action) or with a more conservative pace, which can be reflected in both the greater amount of pictorial detail (on which the reader lingers) and more extensive (or more philosophically demanding) linguistic elements which by their symbolic nature demand greater attention from the reader.
Humans have a specific ability of taking even the most outrageously different elements and trying to find a thread that allows us to connect them, again in a sense constructing a puzzle. (This echoes Kant’s philosophy of having to artificially construct the reality around us, with which we struggle, since all the information constant whizzing all around as can often feel like ideological bombardment … and is further incomplete, because of our inherent incapability of focusing on every single element around us.) To a large extent, this puzzle solving is exactly what the experience of comics can be paralleled to. Such “reading between the lines” is less obvious in writing alone, since the reader is more meticulously guided by the author, who has to describe everything the reader is to observe and construct into an image during the process of decoding the linguistic symbols. Comics allow for a more fine-tuned approach: subtle realization through the pictures, as opposed to being directly steered by the words: in other words being concisely “fed” every word, phrase and sentence. We can call this dramatization: the ability to depict information through action. This is a powerful tool that allows interestingly complex interplay between pictures and words such as intentional conflict, as will become clear further on.
I should note that understanding of any given occurrence that is not directly connected to our personal being and to which we have no intrinsic power over, is crucially rooted in empathy. Empathy in this sense will not be seen as compassion per se, since this implies a degree of patronization, or in the words of the great Buddhist philosopher Shantideva as “sloppy sympathy”, which merely reflects one’s personal ego and sees the social sphere as subjugated to false/forced, uncommitted misunderstanding. I see empathy as part of larger social understanding and social undertaking. We can find parallels in the psychological theory of mind, the capacity to interpret the emotions and actions of others. Empathy thus becomes the necessary factor, or rather ability, to comprehend any kind of activity or work not merely through our default personal expectations and beliefs, but extending the subject matter to a broader, social sphere.
Empathy can be thus extended beyond personal means to art in general, through which it paradoxically refers back to understanding the author and in turn his or her artistic creation. While the connection to the first methodological paradigm is quite obvious, this principle also prominently relates to the work and the reader itself. Thus, the reaction to a given work becomes more complex and holistic, since we are able to understand the complex web of social interactions better by applying our own personal views as part of the broadest possible context.
TO BE CONTINUED …
This will be just a general overview of some of the differences between comics and picture books, so take it with a grain of salt, because there’s plenty of material for a more comprehensive examination, but for the purpose of clarity and further brainstorming this forthcoming morsel will have to do. But since the carrot-dangling isn’t over quite yet, I want to extend the last post about comics language/medium into this one. We’ll see how Frankensteinian it gets…
The reason for this extension is that the comics/picture books dichotomy is kind of susceptive to the grey area of comprehension and classification that we still get with comics and literature. Generally, we still don’t really know where to cut the line between them and where one begins to morph into the other. Now, the (false) classification of comics within literature has been a common trend since the outburst of the graphic novel and its attempt at (forceful) earnestness and adulthood of comics, but that’s too big of an aside in this context. I would even say that the book form has been the bigger common factor in the comics/literature pairing than the linguistic elements themselves, because essentially the symbolism of letters, numbers and markings of all kinds is an inescapable norm in any art field. Just as much as scripts and storyboards have to be written down, tragedies are firstly enacted on (digital) paper and music notes are jotted down, etc. … Even drawing styles and techniques have to be inevitable viewed in textbooks (along with their explanations), regardless of pure talent and auditory teachings. Hell, if we’re technical, or rather sneaky, an artist in the comics business has to be literate, because someone has to write the script and someone has to further render it into the pictorial counterpart that’s the essence of comics.
Will Eisner and Scott McCloud remain the main proponents of comics as a distinct field, as a form of visual communication. Their desire to uplift comics from the status-quo of mediocrity (a genre of a literature at best that speaks only to a juvenile audience) was supported by their respective analyses of comics itself. In turn, they ushered in a new era of comics appreciation and greatly contributed to the conscious self-awareness of comics.
While the importance of both Eisner's and McCloud's work can be measured in transcended terms, they should not be safe from critique. The problem with Eisner is that he discusses comics as a literary form, as being part of literature (albeit in his time and position you can understand why). The elevation of comics as part of literature is still somewhat paradoxical. It may seem a positive step forward by those who do not understand this artform to say: “Yes, comics are now so good, they can be accepted as literature”, but the real observation lies in the distinction between the two modes of expression, as I’ve stated numerous times in my blogging blasphemy.
Now, McCloud, on the other hand, at times tries to elevate the medium too much, to the point of placing “comics value” to hieroglyphs for example or just placing too much emphasis on the best of comics and forgetting that not every product is a masterpiece. Again, completely understandable from his position of opening people’s eyes to the richness of comics. I’ve fallen into this trap of reading only the “best” comics as well. (Quick rule of thumb: if you want to start reading comics, but don’t know where to begin, check the list of Eisner or Harvey Award winners and the like. But be wary of name notoriety and catering to prominent authors, like in the case of Saga over The Unwritten in recent years. Are you kidding me?! But that’s what you get with fan-based voting.)
Nevertheless, the broad scope of possibilities of the medium entails both the simplicity and the complexity of comics. They can thrive as one-panel caricatures as well as be critically acclaimed works worthy of a Pulitzer, such as Maus. This dichotomy of subject matter may not be seen as flattering to comics as a serious, auspicious artform; however, this dual aspect and the relative, social nature of the “good” and the “bad” creates a unity and in turn makes comics a viable exponent of any idea that may come to pass. As such, comics can be liberal and conservative, artistic as well as purely marketable. As with all forms of expression there seems to be a reciprocal relationship between appeal and value, or commercial success and pure artistry (or comprehensive storytelling).
Somewhat related, we can talk about pure/fine art and commercial art, the first reflecting a more personal, “artistic” work, and the second a work-for-hire approach, where mass consumption comes center stage. It should be noted in this context that there is no clear distinction to these terms; all of the old Renaissance masters had patrons for example, so their transcended art had both a personal as well as a commercial value. Further, in mythic terms, this disparity is between finding and following your true calling, as opposed to working and living vicariously just to make ends meet, thus denying one’s true expressive potential. This idea is, however, continuously at odds with the demands of capitalism.
Now, with this interlude of sorts out of the way, let’s get into comics and picture books. Of course, this vague categorization can be observed in relation to myth and folktale, as well as myth and religion. In many cases, the works may be very similar either in nature or form and can bridge the gap between respective categories. Not to concede to the easy answer that categorization is generally arbitrary, but such similarities are a prime example of interconnection between different modes of human expression, hence complex understanding and a holistic approach prove paramount. Or, if all else fails, know your subject matter and your field, along with your potential audience … and wing the rest!
In the last couple of posts I talked more about what comics are, but there is still a lingering question of what comics are not or at least should not be mistaken for in either technical or ideological means. Specifically, (and by now quite obviously) I have in mind children’s picture books. While an untrained eye may not see any real difference that would place them in a distinct fields, since both forms make use of the verbal-linguistic pattern, the material itself is arranged differently. Picture books generally take the approach where one picture equates to one panel, while comics thrive in the interplay and narration of various panels on a page, where everything from panel transitions to shot selection is extremely important. Verbal elements in comics are more directly and intrinsically arranged than in most picture books where for the most part words are placed under the full-page picture (in the old-school comic strip format). This means, that comics convey a more complex connection between the linguistic and pictorial elements, whereas pictures in picture books generally convey the same meaning as words … for the obvious pedagogical reason of strengthening the reception by reinforcing mutual verbal and pictorial meaning, with it aiding to the understanding of younger readers.
By no means am I implying that words in picture books are arbitrary or obsolete; yet, they nevertheless play a minor role as compared to most comics. The irony of this observation is manifold; if you want to submit a story, you’ll need to write it down first, so the “words” part takes center stage, while the illustrations come only after. In many cases the publisher chooses its own illustrator with his or her own style that may not necessarily always fit with what you as a writer would have envisioned in the first place …of course, on the other hand, an experienced illustrator can exponentially add to your verbal story. However, because the pictorial impact of illustrations is so extensive and immediate, they can overshadow the relatively sparse words accompanying them. And because pictures are a “visual” response to the already written story, they tend not to show something differently to what was written. Now, there’s plenty of complexity, nuances and levels of reading in children’s picture books, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find intentional conflict like you do in the best of comics for example … unless it’s been envisioned by the writer a priori. (Although I’ve written articles about intentional conflict, I’ll make a future post here as well, just so clarify things a bit more,.
In either case, the creation of a children’s story is intertwined with pictorio-verbal cooperation. Now, the dominance of pictures over words in some picture books raises the question of where exactly should they be placed on the literature/visual art scale or what exactly does such a pictorial work have in common with literature per se (apart from the title and additive linguistic elements). The book (again) form seems to be the governing factor, hence the reason why libraries – as traditional guardians of scripture – have more and more prominent divisions for picture books and graphic novels, which share the book form with all genres of literature.
The biggest difference between comics and picture books, however, is the readership. Correspondingly, the picture books market is catered to children (and their parents … two birds, one stone type of ordeal), while comics have consequently more liberty to explore more complex and “adult” themes. Nowadays, the complexity and artistic beauty of modern picture books is not a rarity, paralleling the fact that great comics storytelling has become expected as well. As much as comics have started as publication for children, picture books are trendsetting the boundaries and becoming fascinating reads for adults as well, who have consequently already read them for the sake of the children. Of course comics can and do cater to specifically younger audiences and of course picture books can find a subtle adult niche as well. Just go to Google’s all-seeing eye and type in: Do you want to play with my balls?. Such stories surely can’t stiff you … Ahem.
All in all, the approach to writing and drawing comics differs considerably to writing picture books … lovely oxymoron. Detailed comics scrips (have to) offer everything from the broadest possible description of the scene, character traits, visual details, shot selection and of course text itself. They have to do so, when the writer is not the same as the “illustrator(s)”, so the story, its intended visualization and meanings are properly rendered. While the same styles of either writing or drawing may be used in both comics and picture books, the approach is very different, as is the intended means of reading. Distribution is another matter, because that essentially depends on the publisher (and obviously demand and common denominators of subject matter and themes), especially in Slovenia, where there is no mainstream comics industry to speak of, only talented fledglings of one sort or another. This means that it’s not about the choice between comics and picture books, because you can cater to both (albeit differently) and you can express your artistry and storytelling prowess in more non-linear and non-literal ways than one. More power to all of us!
Duncan, R., & Smith, M. J. (2009). The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Eisner, W. (2008). Comics and Sequential Art. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial.
Salisbury, M., & Styles, M. (2013). Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling. London: Laurence King Publishing.
Talon, D. S. (2004). Comics above Ground: How Sequential Art Affects Mainstream Media. Raleigh, North Carolina: TwoMorrows Publishing.
Communication is an intrinsic human feature that allows the formation and conservation of social dimensions, which in turn help the individual to survive and thrive in the world. The most important, if not comprehensive, mode of communication is language; a means of using a system of symbols to communicate with others of our kind, share ideas and values and influence one-another. Communicative impact directly reflects the degree of believability of words as opposed to pictures. The immediate visual might of pictures makes them more believable than words per se, since seeing is believing and “moving pictures” in more ways than one govern our daily lives.
For the most part, we understand language as a system of characters and signs that visually represent sounds and the combination of these sounds create words and higher units that we finally can use as a communicative device. Strictly speaking, from this communicative and structural aspect, comics as a medium is a language as well. Namely, it uses its specific narrative tools (such as balloons and its unique symbolism) to formulate ideas within its particular framework (of panels and pages). While languages per se use a combination of visual and auditory elements, comics is purely a visual language. What occurs in and between the panels can represent and tries to mimic or at least cater to all of our senses. However, it is our mind that transforms the wavy lines above a cup of coffee into its aroma or the music notes into a specific sound (or their respective illusory depictions) for example. While such representations are purely visual and spatial, they get transformed and perceived temporally through the reading process.
It should be noted that while Neil Cohn in his highly important structural treatise The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images provides a morphology of comics, his main objection is actually AGAINST comics as a language in favor of comics being written in a sequential visual language. In other words: he sees language as a human behavior and comics as social elements that are made up of writing and drawing, both human behaviors in their own right. In such a way, comics cannot be a language any more than magazines can be; however, comics (as well as magazines) rely on a unique structure and meaning that work as a language. This notion clearly echoes the Eisnerian dichotomy of comics vs. sequential art. Heavily paraphrasing, comics becomes the subculture of the larger world of visual imagery, just as mythology serves as the storytelling foundations of the larger religious world. Cohn’s argumentation stems from the differentiation between drawing and writing, which have traditionally been seen as a learned skill and an intrinsic ability, respectively.
To explain my argument to this claim, we have to understand the nature of humanity (as hefty as this task may seem). The proposition is that humankind has two basic instinctual aspects: survival and reproduction (something Scott McCloud also touches on). I would argue that there is one more notion missing from this (soon to be) trinity; namely, artistry in the broadest sense, or rather the expressive aspect of every individual (this for example encompasses both learning as well as creativity, both comics as artistry as well as mythology as storytelling). Evolutionary, humanity needed to adapt to the surroundings in order not to perish (i.e. survival, the personal sphere), yet our endurance is directly based on our social continuity, our existence within the so called superorganism (i.e. reproduction, the social sphere). This creates another lovely dichotomy of the micro and macrocosmos. Everything else refers to the expressive potential; the rest of the complex interactions between the individual and the social strata: from political, spiritual, religious, to educational aspects, in a sense the hermeneutics of life.
If we take pictures are indicative of aesthetics, they themselves provide identification and recognition. This consequently means that expressiveness is a natural phenomenon. We see the world and its images extend our expressive potential, as we imitate the world and live vicariously through it, both in hopes of presenting our take on the image of life and, what is more, offering a new insight into its sensory-established base. Through mimicry, reasoning, feeling, philosophy, aesthetics and abstraction we are in fact (re)shaping the world in an almost sublime dance which takes place between the micro and macrocosmos.
While we could argue that expressiveness is merely an extension of complex survival tendencies, since the ability to communicate and form communities are for example paramount in maintaining life as we know it (Are we not political animals?), current human existence has grown into a system of its own being (A leviathan of sorts.). By eliminating natural predators and essentially rising above nature itself, we need not conscientiously and consistently worry about essential doctrines of being fruitful (and multiplying) and survival as such, because we have conquered them by becoming the dominant species on this planet. The pervasive paradox of our achievements remains in our dependence on the natural world and most obviously on our planet for actual existence. The alpha-male syndrome of climbing to the top of the Earthly hierarchy is merely our ego-driven nature, where we have long ago made divinities of ourselves. (Not sure, if Nietzsche would be proud, but thus spoke me.)
Thus, expressiveness becomes the third element in our equation of life as our creative, instinctual and intellectual potential. In a very narrow sense, we can even draw a parallel between de Saussure’s dichotomy (of survival and reproduction) with the consequent culinary triangle (adding expressiveness) of Levi-Strauss or Umberto Eco’s extension of the de Saussurian dyad. The expressive potential embraces everything from the capacity to learn, artistic tendencies, to discovering and knowing who you are. In other words, artistry becomes the quintessential spark that offers pragmatic existence (rooted in bear survival and reproduction) higher philosophical meaning and forms ideologies central for cultural experience. Development of our senses themselves has been subject to the environment. We react to it and are expressed through it, just as much as we in turn (learn to) express our inner self.
Consequently, this is an issue about the organism and its place in the world around it, which is profoundly influential in its functioning. Therefore, it is this third basic element that plays a vital role in the actual growth of humanity and creates the possibility for progressive evolution beyond mere overpopulation that the other two instincts amount to. As such, my argument is that this expressive ability in its broadest sense is thus as intrinsic as the capacity for language for example. Despite the consequent arbitrariness of the symbols used in language, which presents an interesting paradox between the natural, expressive element and its seemingly arbitrary details. Arbitrariness as such is unavoidable in any complex system of thought and being (somewhat akin to governmental laws as opposed to “natural laws”), since all higher modes of understanding must be learned and mastered despite our internal capacities for them; visual literacy being the perfect example.
Archeological evidence seems to agree with this seemingly bold claim, since the earliest traces of humanity are in one form or another linked to expressiveness, emotional responses and creativity, whether we take into account cave paintings or (religious) statues. We have a predisposition for expressiveness, yet the kaleidoscopic stimulants that our eyes afford us make visual artistry central for our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit. While we may be predisposed to understand a languages we are brought up in, it comes just as natural (if not more) to understand pictorial elements (a lovely interplay between verbal and the non-verbal communication). Nevertheless, language and drawing both still need to be learned and gradually developed, as there is a profound difference between comprehending basic information, to being knowledgeable and further developing wisdom that extends beyond the initial subject matter. The point is not to answer the elusive question of what came first: the chicken (drawing) or the egg (writing); yet, there is a strong argument to be made that artistry has just as much power as language, even though writing has been the focal point of current human progression The key factor is not the separation of our expressive abilities, but their mutual implementation and cooperation. Coincidentally, by discussing artistic, philosophical or spiritual elements, which are all in their own rights perceived beyond language, we are still doing so on a language base … as least in this case. In either case, the key factor here is not the separation of our expressive abilities, but their mutual implementation and cooperation.
All in all, asking again the question of whether comics are a system of communication, the medium can definitely fit into this definition; especially through the complex, visual interplay in the creation of a given comic, the actual completed work, plus its narrative function and receptive interaction or (visual) communication with the reader. Taking Cohn’s analysis into account, you can argument both ways, essentially depending on how much you love comics or to what extent you analyze visual communication in general. Either way, it’s always good to comprehend distinctions within a seemingly single narrative, because it extends its inherently linear approach … and that’s a godsend.
“Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”
William Butler Yeats
I’ll end this tripart mythological excursion with elements that are probably not the most obviously connected to mythos and can be viewed as more general to various doctrines and theories, but for me they work extremely well in this context as well. Whether or not they are the cause of myth, vice versa or just purely go hand in hand with it. With Daoism/dualism and hierarchy, we are essentially dealing with two ideologically prevailing factors. What Daoism represents in philosophical and religious terms, the issue of hierarchy adds in a more natural, secular light. Whether you take mythology as other people’s religion or religion as other people’s mythology (arguments can go both ways), the stance between mythology and religion in this context is that of one being the aspect of another.
Daoism is a Chinese philosophical/religious tradition stemming from the 5th century BCE, founded by Laozi through his seminal work and apart from the Christian Bible the most translated written account in the history of humanity: Dao De Jing. Characterized by the eponymous yang/yin symbol, the teachings of Daoism reflect a return to natural, fluid states of being, where spontaneity is king and one’s essence becomes part of nature itself. The term Dao is as elusive and all-encompassing as its subject matter, since it can be referred to everything from meaning, method, word, god, life, principle, yet its most common translation is the Way (the true path of life). (In a perfectly paradoxical way, I use the Dao, not the Tao spelling, because having obviously had vast experience in writing capitalized Ds for all my life, it just flows more naturally that way. Wink wink nudge nudge.)
However, definitions are not central here half as much as mere understanding/feeling about the tradition is, so dwelling on the word and its possibilities means straying off the Daoist path. The complexity of either explaining or even understanding Daoism lies in a central paradox that Daoism can neither be explained nor understood per se. The very first lines of Dao De Jing deconstruct its own subject matter and reflect upon the arbitrariness of language and writing. As the Dao that can be understood is not the true Dao, the central paradox of comprehending the incomprehensible extends to many aspects of philosophy proper as well, since comprehension and the ability to describe are not always straightforward. The paradox within the Daoist mainframe is generally more a paradox to the Western rationale or at least seems paradoxical to the untrained eye. A crude and somewhat out of context parallel can be made to the mastery of a particular subject, where an art critic can for example immediately see the grandeur of a painting where a layperson cannot perceive anything exceptional about it whatsoever.
Even study of myth in an academic factuality can becomes subject to spontaneous, natural realization of either-you-get-it-or-you-do-not type. What I mean is that even if you grasp the parameters or modes of mythic/folktale survey that Jung, Levi-Strauss or Propp have come up with for example, this nevertheless tells very little about the actual depth of those stories, their cultural meaning and a somewhat natural way that they impact future storytelling. Even de Saussure’s duad comes to mind, but the parole part in terms of mythology and Daoism extends into spiritual aspects and life itself, which are about as elusively non-formalistic as you get. That’s partly why we still haven’t answered the question of what is the meaning of life for example. And who knows, maybe that’s a good thing.
Daoist influence over my research in general, however, primarily extends to the yang/yin dualism that emphasizes wholeness (of the mythic paradigm), spontaneity that reflects the natural talent and beauty (of the artistic, comic paradigm) and the middle way (Aristotelian golden mean) that urges the understanding of extremes and even contradictory theoretical approaches. The middle way symbolizes a free-flowing “doctrine” which states that life’s balance (and its consequent essence) is to be found through subduing the extremes of one’s existence; between hedonism and asceticism.
The yang/yin symbol is among the most common and widely used icons of humanity, where the circle’s unity and eternity is equally divided between the forces of light (yang) and darkness (yin), male and female, heaven and earth, etc., respectively. (Hence the reason, why yang comes first, although this doesn’t mean it’s more important.) The fluidity and transference of the two principles are strengthened by the symbol’s wave form, while the smaller circle of the opposite element within each half sphere further stresses the presence of one element within the other (in Jungian terms: each male has its anima, each female its animus). Visually, this symbol represents the perfect contrast and balance, since it reflects absolutism and void, stasis and flow. Despite the fact that for most of us the term duality implies rigid division and linear straightforwardness, Daoism embodies perfect dualism with all the bells and whistles (or just dualism galore!). Consequently, it reflects stasis just as much as it does hierarchy for example … it just always depends on context. And context is always key.
The concept of hierarchy, on the other hand, may seem out of place in this context, yet, through the (dualist) Daoist objection of Confucianism and through the view of the Indian caste system, all these elements become intertwined. Confucianism was the most dominant political, social, philosophical and national doctrine in the formation of China. It stresses correct order and social virtue; in Daoist terminology, Confucianism is the yin (society) to the Daoist yang (nature). Confucian hierarchical system is based on the perfect family unit, which extends into the ideal social order. As such, it stresses virtue and embodies the Eastern aspect of society as opposed to the Western ideal of individuality (a bit clichéic, but still pervasive). The hierarchical aspect that is most pertinent within the interplay with Daoism, reflects the ideals of each tradition: where Confucianism stresses ritual and social order, Daoism reverses this abstract position and places ritual as the bottom of the scale that follows justice, kindness, virtue and finally Dao as the highest goal. This position not only deconstructs Confucianism but myth and religion per se as well, since ritual is rooted as the central social function (inducing order) that the stories and their ideology promulgate.
Consequently, the concept of hierarchy (even as a thought system) is a necessity which allows humans to take gradual steps towards higher goals of either teachings or life in general. There is a quite pragmatic reason why a child does not start studying the English language with the complete works of Shakespeare for example. One cannot even begin to comprehend such complexity without the basic understanding of language and culture themselves, which is a huge understatement at that. Similarly, comprehension of religious thought and even pictorial language (unless one possesses innate understanding and has revelatory affinity to the subject matter) must be trained in order to dwell into come complex aspects of the traditions in question. There is hierarchy or prominence on the pictorial plane just as much as within the mythological narrative. The only question is its respective application and meaning.
Hierarchy as such becomes present even in Buddhism as the eightfold path for example reflects the higher goal of (self)understanding and consequent liberation. We can even draw parallels to the notion of masterpieces; while the Buddha’s fundamental endpoint extends beyond any connections to the human system of governing and beyond the Self itself, he paradoxically and (in)advertently becomes the highest hierarchical ideal for his followers. Further, while we can account for future bodhisattvas and buddhas, the process began with the original “masterpiece” of the Buddha. The masterpiece in any art field spurs the future development of that tradition. In comics for example, Watchmen has forever changed the game of the superhero genre, while The Epic of Gilgamesh still echoes epic mythological narrative in works today (even if indirectly). And to give probably the most famous example of how ancient concepts carry on even in the mainstream, we can look to the teachings of Yoda in the Star Wars film series, where either the Dao or the Buddhist awakening reflect the Jedi concept of oneness with the (sacred) universe. The master clearly read the Dao De Jing, said ‘nuff.
Finally, a hierarchy of thought and understanding is present is the postmodern mainstream thought as well. The central concept is dualistic and devised between unknowing and knowing. Once we take the first step towards teaching, we embark on the “threefold path” of information (the basics), knowledge (individual, internal application of what was learned) and wisdom (external, truths extending beyond the individual), each concept providing higher and higher insights of ourselves and our world. Information are the rudimentary building blocks, the crude, yet vast array of stimuli that are already in itself subject to the binary opposition of signifier and signified. The realization of this pairing, however, can only begin to form as part of learning, gaining intelligence, knowledge. Wisdom adds further layers of comprehension through life experience, understanding of the self, the social and the general spatio-temporal dimension; in other words finding peace in yourself and contributing to both the inner and the greater social reality of your existence.
This ▲ of information, knowledge and wisdom is the learning and living curve of humanity as I see it. Just like Peter Barger’s and Auguste Comte’s respective social theories for example, this model in not necessarily merely progressive. Ideally, one’s evolution and comprehension of the self and the world should maintain a steady growth (akin to constant learning), regression and stasis of understanding can also be possible. On the other hand, hoarding knowledge (even books) becomes as arbitrary as not giving a rat’s ass about anything other than yourself. In essence, you can find comfort on the level of not knowing or ignorance just as much as you can struggle with the weight of the wisdom of the world. There’s no real magic cure or path as such, because it’s all relative to your being, what makes you tick. There are just guidelines. Hence the greatest of Buddhist teachers instill lessons without words and appropriately to the level of your own self.
As observed, all of these complex philosophical notions are essentially rooted in dualism, which reflects contrast as a creative force. Among all mythologies, the Hindu tradition provides probably the most comprehensive view of the world (in all of its manifestations … or lack thereof), particularly through its open-ended, pluralistic and adaptable view of the divine. Among the most elemental aspects is a relatively straightforward incorporation of seemingly opposing notions into its rich subject matter, such as the perception of the Buddha and thus Buddhism as one of Vishnu’s avatars (a similar claim can be made regarding Jesus and consequently Christianity, but the term “stretching it” comes to mind as well). In this light, it is important to note that in many instances the Eastern religious conception differs from the Western model also from a personal pluralistic position; namely, it is not uncommon for a person to share Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian beliefs within a single lifetime as part of syncretistic interchange.
The complexity of the dual nature of the divine Hindu triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva is for example evident in their equal transcendence and mortality. They encompass everything, while equally reflecting nothingness. Vishnu is ever-present, yet dies as each of his avatars. Brahma is the all-creator, yet Shiva decapitates one of his five heads for not recognizing his greater transcendence, only to be paradoxically punished in turn. The end result, however, is the emersion of Banaras, the city of light. Mainstream (mis)understanding of the Indian gods is akin to misapprehending comics merely as childish, comical or an appendix of literature. While Shiva is certainly mostly characterized as the destroyer god and Vishnu the preserver, they nevertheless also embody creative and destructive functions, respectively. (Broad dictionary definitions in this case don’t really hold much water. Similarly, Aphrodite has been seen more as the goddess of love, instead of sexual passion, which is far more apropos. Her Roman incarnation is another matter, because as Venus, she has taken on a motherly role for the whole Roman nation.) It becomes a question of one’s belief and interest; while the Hindus have 330 million gods, the worshippers of Shiva within this tradition are nevertheless monotheists (or rather henotheists, if not monolatrists). Shiva for them embodies the totality of the life process of destruction and creation. Equally, many readers of graphic novels stay true to their belief in this particular genre, yet the graphic novel is but a form of the larger, pluralistic comics pantheon.
Returning to the issue of duality, to an extent this can be applied to the ancient Greek pantheon as well, however, in an entirely different light. The Greeks’ dual nature is evident in their embodiment of natural forces and their personifications; Aphrodite is thus not only the personification of sexual passion, but IS sexual passion as well. (If you ever wandered, why Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants – or under his toga – now you know.). Hence, the modern observers’ apparent contradiction of how to view the ancient gods was entirely mitigated during their heyday. Further, understanding that the Olympians typically embodied both sides of the coin, it is easier to comprehend how Apollo could for example be the healer as well as the harbinger of death; both notions represent the extreme positions of life and the sun god’s power appropriately extended in both directions.
I briefly mentioned the Indian caste system before. It reflects the hierarchical nature that is not merely present in every aspect of human endeavor, but the world itself. Humans are mere cogs in the social system, in the greater wheel known as the Earth, which is a plain rock in our Solar System that occupies a small edge of the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn is a mere spec in the galactic supercluster called Laniakea that is of course a tiny part of the known Universe (whose possible boundless state perplexes the understanding of the limit-driven worldview of humankind). We play our roles in one way or another, whether or not we are lucky enough to have an occupation that defines us, so we can live a life that fulfills us. Just like humanity in general plays a role in the natural world, heroes play their roles in myths, which in turn are central human communication devices. The only difference is that human aspiration for (self-imposed) greatness has put us on the trajectory to escape nature and rival the divinities that we have speculated and worshipped ever since we first marveled at the lighting in the prehistoric sky. The reality of the universal hierarchical system is based around a generally weak and simple, yet, extremely pervasive process; gravity, through which the transference of energy shapes the order of things in the cosmos. As such, bodies with bigger mass attract smaller objects; what the hierarchical pyramid typically represents in a two-dimensional model, is essentially a spherical, cosmic dance that the rich Hindu tradition has postulated for countless generations.
To end this post in more cosmic terms, we are quite literally made of star stuff, remnants of dying stars that exploded a long time ago and spread their material into space. What one of the mythic theories about the conception of Being describes as divine semen or celestial fertilizer, becomes through the workings of modern scientific insights the poetically perfect menagerie. The modern profane-based cosmological theory – the Big Bang – essentially presupposes a beginning from a single starting point and expresses a massive expansion, which in the long run implies a reversal in the so called Big Crunch, where all information reverts back to the singularity. (At least that’s one theory. And if parallel existence is a fact, things get complicated even further.). The consequences are twofold: the state of being in the Universe seems to be in constant motion, plus the information (essentially energy) as such is always conserved. From the perspective of the philosophical/religious traditions of the East, we can transcribe these two notions through the principles of duality (the eternal yang/yin flow) and the divine breath (Atman equals Brahman, or the soul being divine), respectively. While such an idealized rhetoric ideologically places humanity within this “divine” cosmos, we are both nevertheless physically and conceptually dependent on the greater cosmic hierarchy and not the other way around. Like in all myths, universal cosmology comes first and humanity comes last (and not because it would be the most important part).
Pragmatically, the caste that is humanity has started at the lower possible levels, before evolving into the highest caste on this planet and is now actually breaking out of this worldly system by trying to overpower the natural cycle and control nature itself; a profound reversal of the Indian caste system, where the “untouchable” Dalits actually fall outside the hierarchy. Humanity is becoming a self-consciously untouchable Leviathan, voraciously craving the divine power ... just brimming with everlasting mythic remnants … and it’s quite simply beautiful.
“One might say that Zeus declared that love and soul were one – a unit that cannot be broken.” (Foley and Banerjee 2009: 81)
This post serves two points: continuing the discussion of the essential components of mythology (at least as I see it) and somewhat clarifying a pair of terms that may have become too interchangeable in modern use (again, at least for my liking). The comics/picture books pairing is in the works, but at this time it’s a bit more juicy to poke at the myth/folktale distinction.
While folktales have nowadays become interchangeable with fairytales, I prefer the first term, since the latter has a distinct linguistic connection to stories about fairies. We could further argue that the folktale/fairy tale pairing is somewhat akin to the comics/graphic novel pairing; however, the latter case is more complex still. The term folk in this case reflect better the nature of these stories (their social, cultural influence), their origin and consequently their original adult nature, where the fairy aspect has become distinctively suited more to the Disney generation of cuteness, princesses and happy endings.
The most obvious similarity between myths and folktales can be traced to the seemingly universal appeal and application of the so called heroic journey, which draws heavily on Rank’s and Campbell’s monumental research of mythology proper (a topic that will probably get its own post as well in the future). The model of the heroic journey pits either the mythic or the folktale protagonist against a foe, creating a conflict that (for the most part) finally gets resolved in the end. This heavily abbreviated notion is, however, where the similarities between myth and folktale end, since mythological storytelling reflects greater uniqueness and severity of the mythic narrative. The ideologically greatest difference that can be (paradoxically) because of its intrinsic nature most frequently overlooked is the worldview in which a particular hero lives. For each folktale hero, who achieves a local, microcosmic success, there is the mythic hero, who transcends on a more global, macrocosmic level. While the folktale hero is localized to the point that the world revolves only around his or hers microcosmos, the mythic hero is the transcultural power that affects the macrocosmos itself.
There is no denying the entertainment value of folktales and transcultural symbolism of myth, but the two characteristics are much too intertwined, so this alone cannot be the distinguishing factor between the two traditions. As much as myths can be used for the purposes of entertainment, so can folktales touch upon universal issues of upbringing and its consequent phobias. Nevertheless, the mythic figures of cultural importance still cast a longer shadow. Therefore, Cinderella’s predicament shapes only her own existence, while Heracles is the Pan-Hellenic hero whose actions liberate the (progressive Greek) world from the savage surroundings.
While myth provides a particular hero with particular traits, we typically find more general, “stock” characters in the realm of the folktale. There is only one mythic Heracles (Hercules, for the borrowed Roman version), yet, there are plenty of Jacks (of all trades) in folktales. What is more, sometimes the protagonist is relegated to merely a position or a title, such as the king or the princess. The second main difference can be seen, is the use of magic in folktale as opposed to skill in myth. While both traditions make use of helpers and guides (essential figures in the heroic model), the Cinderellas of the world rely more heavily on the magic-wielding fairy godmothers and their unparalleled beauty. Staying in the Greek mythic world, the Hellenic tradition was especially wary of extremes of any kind; hence the “two commandments” at the Delphic oracle: nothing in excess and know thyself. Consequently, extreme beauty that is the main attribute of many of the folktale heroines becomes a burden in the mythic world. At least for the originally (beautiful) Medusas of the world, who get raped and transfigured into monsters … or you can call them obstacles for the heroes to overthrow. (This, coincidentally, is a profound reversal from those demons such as gargoyles, which have been turned into guardians.)
The two Delphic instructions especially refer to the mortals in connection to the Olympian gods. Knowing oneself is not the modern mantra of actually knowing yourself in hopes of bettering yourself. Back then this was NOT the idea that you should be all you can be, a common (and quite big a) mistake that people still make ... in hopes of connecting the great thinking of old to the modern individualism. Greeks were a lot of things, but they were still political animals. No, knowing oneself refers to knowing the limitations of mortality and consequent lower status as opposed to the gods. Thus, the mortal should not dare to rival them in any shape or form, or they will swiftly deal with such blasphemy. You had to have known yourself, so you would keep your ego in check and not fuck up … like Niobe for example, whose fourteen children ware struck down by Apollo and Artemis, since the mortal woman was too brass to point to her self-imposed greatness as the mother of more than just two “mere” twins of the goddess Leto. The Niobe example is particularly striking, since she exhibits hubris (excessive pride), another principle not to be trifled with, as well as breaking the nothing in excess rule by having her litter and raving about it.
Interestingly and despite its underlying superficial character portrayal and the deus ex machina resolution, the folktale approach to storytelling seems nevertheless as popular (if not more) than myth. Where myth is labeled as fictitious and fake, the folktales are more readily taken as they are. Perhaps the Hollywood incorporation of the latter has played a large role in the mainstream acceptance of the stories, yet their underlying role in upbringing of any child may prove to have an even greater role. It is easier to accept folktales (especially as fairytales) as child-friendly, while myth occupies a more adult realm and essentially caters more to adults. (It’s a similarly underwhelming issue that comics go through because of the lack of comprehension of their subject matter.)
We have to be aware that folktales as we know them now are essentially watered down versions of the original, darker stories (of the brother Grimm fame), where devourings, decapitations and mutilations were the “happy-ever-afters” of the time, representing an extreme educational and pedagogic tool that parents in the middle ages had in their repertoire. Paradoxically, myth in its truest form is precisely a story meant to teach children of the tradition of the time. Myth, however, was centered in ritual and carried a greater cultural and religious weight, so the stories were designed not merely “for all ages” but were treated extremely serious. While the original grim folktales come closer in their seriousness, the mythic narrative in its essence still desires and needs to be viewed seriously. The scientific era has, however, deconstructed the overbearing factuality of most myths of the world. While the folktale has been adopted by becoming more acceptable and “baring” to the sensitive, liberal minds of the present time, myth has in its original, ever influential form, remained steadfast in its serious resolve, which has gravely downplayed its importance (except within the original religious tradition).
From a technical perspective and bearing in mind the model of simplification for amplification, we can actually be quite precise as to why folktales are so readily accepted. While the folktale characters may be less defined, this simplification is the very driving force of appeal. Through them, the (young) readers can reflect their human nature and the story allows them to (subconsciously) incorporate basic human aspects of their development. The reader becomes the hero of the story titled Less is more that s/he tries to complete through the cooperation with the characters of the folktales, where the implementation of magic becomes the wish fulfillment and the desire of children to be at the level of adults. The physical powers and mental skills of mythic heroes serve a similar purpose. We can view them as better role models, since the stress is more on hard work and bravery than reliance on supernatural aid as in folktales … but there’s plenty of passive mythic character with silver spoons far up a certain crevice, so tread lightly.
After the mythic stage and the magic state, the superpowers of superheroes in comics represent the next stage in this development. As such, myth, folktales and comics are popular reads for the younger audience, yet superheroes share the same mythic “deformity” in trying to implement magic realism to the fact-oriented adult culture bereft of the natural affinity towards open-mindedness and imagination of the younger generations … It’s nice to day daydream, but reality tends to slap you upside the head, if you’re not careful.
The relationship between myth and folktale is a fascinating account that requires future in-depth study, since it extends many a generation and spreads through various cultures. Such an analysis is bit too extensive, but I can briefly touch upon a story that may be the purest example of the separation of the mythic boundaries and emersion into the folktale tradition; namely, the Roman story of Cupid (the Greek Eros) and Psyche, originally found in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass. (I suggest you read the story for yourself, otherwise the following analysis could be a bit dreary.)
Forbidden love in a common romantic motif that has been glorified and dispersed through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (Ol’ Will’s mythic underbelly is a story in itself.). The mythic core of the story in centered round the beauty of Psyche (a clear violation of the Hellenic “nothing in excess” criteria), Cupid’s love for the mortal girl (against his mother’s wishes in a typical Greek dynastic struggle) and Venus’ jealousy of her, because of which Psyche undergoes three Heraclean tasks and achieves immortality (an honor bestowed to only few morals). The folktale elements include positioning Venus as the wicked stepmother, attempting to trick and destroy her self-imposed younger foe, Psyche’s three jealous sisters, her succumbing to their will, her despair over seemingly impossible tasks and (magic) helpers rooted in the natural world, plus Cupid’s beseeching of Jupiter to overstep his bounds and not only reversing Psyche’s punishment after again succumbing to temptation but granting her immortality.
Despite the fact that Zeus was the most powerful Greek god, the Hellenic gods had power over particular areas and did not meddle in each other’s affairs. Further, certain rules, such as oaths and promises were considered universal and unbreakable. Roman adaptation of such notions follows suit, in this case in Jupiter, the Roman Zeus. Jupiter’s imposition and seemingly excessive use of power for the sake of love (which was virtually nonexistent in the divine Hellenic world that the Romans have adopted) and marginalization of Venus (a prime Roman goddess) seems to suggest either some Christian influence or a less serious treatment of the “old” gods.
Typically, the story places in the limelight the union of opposites that reflects the relationship between myth and folktale, soul and love, sacred and profane. A very unsympathetic reading of the story, however, sees Psyche earning everything by not only doing anything remotely worthy, but despite repeatedly failing on her “heroic quest”. Beauty, her main attribute, is held in the highest regard, while her self-perceived distress marks her as the poster child for the over-romanticized damsels in distress. On the other hand, Cupid’s unwavering love for the mortal girl is self-imposed and relates more to his own desire to break free from his overbearing mother, the divine wedding serving as the final nail in the coffin of Venus’ “vampiric love” for her son.
If the story has a moral, the combination of the passive waiting for prince charming and mistrust in him, are not on the list. The only rational explanation of the overabundance of good fortune for Psyche lies in her name – meaning soul. If the soul is immortal and eternal, its place is among the gods; however, the realization of this seemingly farcical heroic journey opens another possibility and begs the question of whether or not the soul as such transcends both the mortal and the divine. The eastern notion of the divine breath revolves around the celestial exchange and the cycle of life. However, if mortal beauty becomes sublime, the gods are no longer needed, since their divine presence resides in the human. The heroic journey becomes a mere means of experiencing one’s life; however, it is this very life cycle that can inevitably lead to immortality through one’s deeds and through art. Subtly, this story moves more towards this direction, since the Roman culture (through which the Greek myth emerges) had a more pragmatic nature, while the aspect of metamorphosis in Apuleius’ storytelling (akin to Ovid’s) embraces political and satirical tones as well.
This heavily abridged analysis of the story of Cupid and Psyche marks a clear shift from traditional Hellenic myths, whose charge was more cultural than political. While transformations were common in Greek myths as well (cf. Apollodorus), the main distinction of the story in question is not so much rooted in the Greco-Roman syncretism but in the emergence of a new genre that will forgo the gods as a supernatural backdrop for a more nature and magic based folklore elements. In either case, the heroic quest remains essentially the same, since its archetypal roots do not merely grasp the subject matter as its own source of imaginative power, but are in fact part of the human condition called life – the proverbial immortal state of constant change.
Apollodorus. (2008). The Library of Greek Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Apuleius. (1999). The Golden Ass. London: Penguin Classics.
Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Commemorative ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Foley, R., & Banerjee, S. (2009). Stolen Hearts: The Love of Eros and Psyche. New Delhi: Campfire.
Ford, C. (2000). The Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa. London: Bantam Press.
Thury, E., & Devinney, M. (2009). Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vandiver, E. (1991). Heroes in Herodotus: The Interaction of Myth and History. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Publishing.
“He is the archetype who attacks all archetypes. He is the character in myth who threatens to take the myth apart. He is the “eternal state of mind” that is suspicious of all eternal, dragging them from their heavenly preserve …” (Hyde 2008: 14)
The trickster is the most ominous figure to grace the mythic narrative. This endless buffoon, the proverbial black sheep, the ever-present, yet never-obvious force, represents the bottomless, childish, naive nature hidden in every one of us. Despite of these unflattering characteristics (or perhaps because them), trickster high relevance and culture hero status in myth may quite easily come as a surprise. While trickster is also a Jungian archetype, the position of this character should be elevated beyond linearly-viewed negative elements, since it represents an essential balancing component of the social sphere rather than merely acting strictly as a personal deceiver.
It is precisely the fringes and the extremes of a society that become the driving force of a given tradition’s (unconscious) need for change. While this change may be both positive and negative, from the perspective of the established culture it comes as a shock. The reshaping of the status-quo and its stasis is as welcomed as the overthrowing of a king or a political party (especially from the position of the ones in charge), yet necessary and “natural” as the flow of a river or the constant flux of the universe (or the Dao, as I’ll talk about in a future post). The trickster thus becomes not the buffoon, not even the Shakespearean wise fool, but a much more elemental, magnetic force that forever remains at odds with what we may think we know. The unwanted, misunderstood fool occupies a high level in a society that is by far more foolish.
Tricksters are traditionally male, reflecting the predominantly patriarchic societies from where they originated and perhaps even the masculine aspect, which the tricksters psychologically exude by their seemingly counter-cultural nature. To a large extent they can in fact be viewed as androgynous or figures beyond the gender. If the fans of Marvel’s Loki only knew of that time, when the original Norse Loki got himself impregnated in the form of a mare … for reasons, of course. We notice similar gender “swapping” and “feminization” in the greatest of heroes as well, such as Heracles and Achilles – to name the two probably most butch bad-boys of the Ancient Greeks. (I wouldn’t say that this gender swapping is the source of the current no-gender/multiple-gender liberal craze, or perhaps nonsense, but some parallels could indeed be drawn.) Androgyny reflects the initial unity of male and female, so the trickster serves as the balancing force between the two sexes/aspects of life. Trickster’s cultural domain represents the microlevel, while the gender issue reflects the macrolevel of his endeavors (and not the other way around, since gender reflects the duality found in nature, while society is nevertheless “merely” a human domain).
Albeit trickster’s methods can be obscene and antiheroic, he essentially lives in a world beyond this one, so he sees things greatly differently. Trickster should not be mistaken for a Batman-like dark hero, a Joker-like antihero or just a deceitful character that makes his way through the world playing tricks on his unsuspecting victims. I mean, trickster can indeed be all of that and can play tricks on himself as well, but his essence lies in his placement between the worlds, which allows his to see everything equally beyond conceptions typical in those respective worlds. Trickster is the god that is neither human nor divine, neither mortal nor immortal; he is the force of (un)wanted chance that swoops the world like the winds or the currents. Similar, yet very different to the hero, the hybrid who links the mortal and the divine realms.
Like the great minds of our times that could conceptualize the world on a higher level, the trickster is rooted in everything that we cannot see or understand. He is the messenger, the guide between the sacred (the world of the gods) and the profane (the human realm), for only he can transcend both forms. As such, the trickster is on a macrolevel much more important than the hero. While the hero saves the world from external forces from without, the trickster saves the world from within and from itself. The reason why the reader of myth for the most part places more importance to the prototypical hero, is because the hero is essentially still a human force, which means the hero is us, while the trickster is the global X-factor and monkey-wrench at the same time. (If this seems too paradoxical for your liking, it’s probably straightforward in hindsight, because explaining Daoism is even iffier.) This is similar to the way all great mythologies of the world begin with cosmogonies … the issue of humanity is strictly secondary. In other words we are not as important as our collective ego would lead us to believe. In the cosmic scheme of things, we are currently still insignificant specs … if and when we reach the “divine” level, we can talk turkey.
The dividing line between hero and trickster is thus (in keeping with the Saussurian model) both clear and unclear. It is undoubtedly clear that the default hero is the epitome of positive attributes and is centered in the mundane reality in order to bring achieve positive change (bearing in mind the morally questionable characteristics of Greek heroes or less grandeur, stock-value characteristics of heroes in folktales). Even if the hero breaks new ground, s/he is nevertheless still within the world or within the status quo, while the trickster’s extreme appetites and need for change in fact place him outside of this world and mark him as a force beyond what is mundane. While tricksters are more often than not “unsuccessful” in what appears to be their intentions as their trickery fails and they are caught, it is their very actions that are productive in the long run and they tend to get their way. (Like the baby Hermes forcing his way into the Olympic pantheon despite being caught stealing Apollo’s sacred cattle or Loki devising a fish trap that essentially enables the Norse tradition to survive, yet is the source of his own undoing and entrapment).
While the heroic model gives us morality and inspiration, the trickster gives us change, pure and simple. This is the very reason why the trickster occupies a higher place than the hero (whether we want to admit it or not). The champion is centrally human and reflects the human concerns and ideals, yet the buffoon is a natural phenomenon (or rather the natural phenomenon) that is part of the cycle of life. We may not like it and even if he brings death into “our” world, the trickster is the eternal force to the heroic mundane ideal.
If mythology has untold secrets and hidden gems to reveal to its readers and listeners, the position of the tricksters is where the focus needs to be placed more often. The emphasis on this shaman-like character reflects a strong psychological element that contradicts the rational and the social life, since what the trickster does, is quite simply in his nature. The trickster is part of our very nature, the child in us: the instinctual, natural and (most importantly) genuine relation we have with this world, beyond the constraints of society and even beyond our own limited worldview. The trickster is quite simply the cure for the disease-ridden existence that fails to comprehend the crux and flow of the Universe. While not God, he radiates divine presence, demands attention and draws the observer in just as he takes center stage within the mythic narrative.
The shock value of a trickster refers back to the basic human nature and upbringing; a child must be faced with a “shock”, otherwise an oedipal complex can plague their future life. Thus, you become aware of the other, darker, colder and harsher side of existence. Even more so, by realizing death, you can perhaps cope with it like the Buddha and you can find the middle way only by experiencing the positive and negative extremes of being. In essence, the trickster figure resonates deeper notions of our psyche and (in)directly affects our conception of where we are, what we are doing and who in fact we are. As the trickster stirs the pot of status-quo and ushers in changes that constantly keep the fire of diversity and progression going. He is the spark that (ideally) opens the eyes of others of the greater reality that encompasses all aspects of being.
A culture which has a trickster acknowledges its own flaws and strives to keep the scales of natural justice and order balanced by implementing this figure as the self-scrutinizing force. This seemingly inconspicuous, controversial, extremist character marks an important change in the conception of humanity, as his actions and consequent veneration point towards our understanding of the universal balance. As the forces in the universe seem to function because of a reciprocal relationship (in a perpetual cause and effect cycle), the trickster is implemented as the “necessary evil” to uproot the ruling king who may have gotten too strong or too greedy. But the trickster does not do it for himself, but for the society which is dependent on him … whether he knows it or not. While the effect is global, the consequent lesson of trickster myths is extremely personal, because this lesson is at the level of the reader (or the listener), where knowledge is to be implemented, so that wisdom can be applied on the grander scale.
Apollodorus. (2008). The Library of Greek Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hyde, L. (2008). Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture. New York: Canongate Books.
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