It seems fitting that I begin with a disclaimer of sorts; namely, this isn’t fantasy storytelling, this isn’t click-bating, this isn’t philosophical shenanigans, this isn’t self-pity and it’s not a cry for help either. This is quite simply as real as it gets, so I’ll try to be as honest as my psyche will permit at this time.
This is about depression … or better yet this is about my depression. As far as I’ve read about the subject in general, I’m fairly certain that other depressed people experience different emotional/psychological pain, but the general premise of this mood/state/disorder and the personal entrapment which it inevitably brings stays the same. The discussion of whether depression is merely a mood swing, a more pervasive state of mind or it falls into the (clinical) disorder category is kind of irrelevant for this brief insight into my mind, because when depression strikes, the formalistic explanations at that time really don’t matter anymore. Logic, comprehension, realization and whatever else you want to cite as means of “grasping reality” or “snapping out of it” don’t mean squat. When it hits you, you can’t find an adequate explanation of how you feel, because you are too crippled to have a discussion with yourself or anyone else for that matter about whether you’re anxious, helpless, irritable, tired, empty, suicidal or anything else that can become associated with depression. You simply feel overpowered … and in most cases in more ways than one.
In a lot of ways, we comprehend the world we inhabit and the beings that we are through explanations and comparisons (associations in general). I could say that I feel the weight of the demon that is my mind, the demon that is my shadow, the demon that is my self and the demon that crawls in the social environment … and I feel each of them differently … and yet disturbingly similarly. It’s hard to explain, because I’m trying to capture the essence of what I’m actually sensing, while trying to retain a level of readability and narration.
This isn’t as straightforward as for example saying that comics are to literature what MMA is to boxing. That one is easy, you can elaborate on it in logical detail and it makes perfect sense. What depression is to my mind is something completely different. The idea of sullying this attempt of a serious discussion about depression with comics (an interest of mine) may seem paradoxical to some of you or may take away from the severity of the issue, but I really don’t care.
This is how my mind works: I try to (subjectively) connect everything about me and (objectively) around the word beyond me. You can’t fight the stream of consciousness of your psyche, but you can learn to float along the current of your mental river and trying your damn hardest to get over the many rapids as unscaled and dry as you possibly can … While the demon of depression is persistently chasing you. And whatever you do, you inevitably get ensnared by the demonic traps along the way. You basically succumb to the undesirable vices and destructive desires you conjure up along the more and more rapid stream of your mental river. Why do you do that? Because you can’t just sit there and do nothing. You can’t just allow the demon to devour you bit by bit … And yet, by struggling, you are in fact making the bite marks bigger and deeper. You can’t just paddle ashore, because the oars turn into snacks that you insatiably shove down your throat, in the process making yourself more obese and even more susceptible to the taste buds of the darkness that follow you. And gluttony is a particularly tasty demonic appetizer. You can’t just yell to the person you just happen to float by to help you get ashore, because they don’t really hear you and they certainly don’t see the dire predicament you find yourself in. You are just driftwood to their stability on land. Good for them, bad for you.
The most distressing part about it is that this largely applies to family, friends and colleagues just as much as it does to blissful strangers, to whom you are merely a car wreck they just happen to witness … a shocking spectacle that at least is not happening to them. And that’s the other part of it: sometimes the demon of depression can be hidden right before your eyes, yet at other times it can be shockingly appealing like the dumbest film you’re even had the (dis)pleasure of seeing. It’s not just that someone will never see what’s happening to you, but sometimes they do, yet still can’t understand or do anything about it. It may not make sense to them as much as it may be confusing to whoever is reading this, but paradoxes are part of life … and I’m sure they are part of death as well, because overall experience of life extends beyond these basic dual extremes of being (or non-being) right here and right now.
A lot of the issues of depression may be self-imposed, at least if you’re a person like me, you will tend to take it as such and not just attribute blame to everything and everyone around you to cater to your fragile, irrelevant and ecstatically narrow-minded ego. As much as you’re being destructive in all sorts of areas: from your relationship, career to overall experience of life in general, even this is an experience of life. It may be a shitty one, but even this self-deprecation must serve a purpose. I like to say that you can’t really know life until you experience different, extreme aspects on it, so you take the good with the bad. As beautifully mythological and philosophical as this is, we are just cogs in the machine. If we manage to become experts in a given subject, we can mostly hope to make ourselves proficient in that one field. The shock factor here is that each field is just a grain of sand on the beach of life … Which means we are individually dumb as shit and complaisant as we ever were. And that is literally and figuratively depressing.
My aspirations and incapabilities go hand in hand far too often. Maybe my self-destruction and rebuilding is synonymous to the way war and peace have both respectively plagued and propelled humanity forward. Both are just temporal states and neither seems to live (or die) long without the other. A strenuous, parasitic relationship at best. Similarly, I essentially try to fight the demon within me with some sort of productivity; writing is only a minor part of it. Even if the narrative lines are crooked at best … if not torn at places. The blissfully ignorant irony here is that the damn demon is in many cases the main source of inspiration … or rather spite … not sure about that one yet. I don’t know for the love of me if ignorance of my destructive nature could in fact be called bliss, or if this dualistic comprehension of everything about me and around me has become an integral part of what I am (and cannot hope to become any more).
Before I conclude this, I have to touch on something that happened a couple of years ago that I feel wasn’t understood appropriately enough. Although received with sympathy and pity, empathy (which involves deeper comprehension and connection) nevertheless flew under the radar of perception. I wasn’t the only one who was shocked when Robin Williams passed away. His suicide was in large part connected to severe depression. I rewatched Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and a couple of his stand-up appearances. You can call it what you will, but the eyes never lie. While pausing the videos, I vividly remember getting chills in seeing some of his expressions or rather feeling some of the pain that was present there … at least in my own way, because what he felt was his alone to bear. What I felt was only an approximation of his darkness, as much as my describing the darkness within me expressed thought these letters is superficial at best.
Having rationally though about (my own) suicide, I know very well it’s hardly a laughing matter. The ultimate negativity bias. People stray away from it because it’s hard to understand why you would end “everything”, or you succumb to taking pills that dull your senses even more. While death may be the only certainty of life, to actually cut the string of life is a whole different beast. The issue is even more crippling when neither life nor death seem to be the trajectory you are on, especially when the demon is chasing you. I don’t want to call it purgatory, because if you’re read Dante that essentially implies a positive outcome … principally just a lengthy struggle that inevitably leads to Heaven (or ends there). Ideological, the shit that’s overcome me isn’t necessarily about a positive outcome. I have accepted the waxing and waning of life in general, not just personally. It’s about not fitting in, not fitting in personally as much as socially. If you know you are different, you will have a hard time in life and in death. That’s why you feel consumed by yourself and everything around you (which can be either good or bad). And again, this isn’t a temper-tantrum of a spoiled brat who just wants to be special, for me this is very serious and very personal … and the hardest thing I’ve ever written so far … despite the fact that I haven’t even gone into specifics too much, because I’m quite simply not there yet.
While all of this probably won’t change much for the time being, the only difference is that if you do find yourself is a state of mind that has been crippling you for far too often, as much as you need to find a way to live with your fear of the demon, you have to push through as times as well. When and where is up to you to act upon, if you can. Whether it’s something only you feel or whether it’s more widespread, maybe reading this diluted exposé will offer some reassurance that there are twisted people in the world … and that doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing.
Either way you take it or understand it, depression is long-lasting process. It can be very dire, but what it will become of it or what it will morph into, is yet to be seen. Thank you.
A rough outline of what I discussed in my lecture at my alma mater. Some of it is rehashing, but it’s becoming an autogenic training of how to keep it short and sweet … and still retain the depth of meaning. If nothing else, it’s just for shits and giggles.
Comics is a medium/art filed that uniquely combines pictures and words, two central modes of human communication. Pictures and words in comics are arranged (and merged) in such multi-layered ways that in the comics equation the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Comics convey a more complex connection between words and pictures, whereas the pictures in picture books for example generally express the same meaning as words for the obvious pedagogical reason of strengthening the meaning of what is being shown, aiding to better understanding of younger readers.
The comics make use of the two basic means of visual communication known to humankind: pictures and words. Since words are just as visual as are pictures, we have to distinguish between verbal/linguistic elements and pictorial/artistic elements in comics.
Comics can be called sequential art or more specifically juxtaposed sequential images. This refers to the nature of moving from one panel to another (like from one sentence to another in literature or from one frame to another in film), connecting the dots between what is being shown between two or more panels.
The basic and visually most obvious comics unit is the panel, which represents a specific area or a window through which the artists try to capture a moment in time. This is not necessarily just a snapshot, but it can imply movement. We can compare a panel to a sentence in linguistic terms. Both constructions represent a structure of smaller units.
The balloons (or bubbles) are the most striking, cartoonish elements, reflecting the original nature of comics as funny, easygoing stories. This especially holds true for the thought balloon and its gentle cloud-like child-friendly shape. While the thought balloon is used for indirect speech and inner monologue, the speech balloon is used for direct speech and general dialogue between characters. Words in comics are arranged in the process of lettering. In numerous cases they are not mechanical typefaces, but resemble handwriting, indicative of a more personal voice of either the character or the narrator.
The caption is the “narrative box” that is often used at the beginning to establish a scene. Predominantly rectangular, reflecting a more serious voice of a character, who is often absent from the panel in which this caption is placed.
While the panels can continue (bleed) one into another, they are mostly separated by the gutter, one of the most powerful elements in a comic and by far the least obvious. Gutter is simply the space between panels, but it reflects the nature of our brain, which in a lot of ways makes educated guesses and inferences from our surroundings (in light of oversaturation of visual stimuli). The “magic” of comics happens in the empty space of the gutter, because this is where the reader co-creates the story with the author. Think of it as a storytelling puzzle: the author provides some of the visual puzzle pieces, while the reader visualizes the missing ones, making the comic into the film in his/her mind. We do that with literature as well.
P1 shows two panels separated by the gutter. The text without balloons or boarders reflects the narrator, while the text in the first two balloons in the right panel (through the balloon tail) points to the character Mithras. The smaller balloon points to a character, who is not present in either of the two pictures (because s/he is not important for the story itself … apart from providing a response to Mithra’s tongue-in-cheek comment).
P2 uses a combination of speech balloons and captions, the latter used as Hellboy’s narrative voice. This means that the dialogue in speech balloons between the two characters here happens in present time, while the captions reflect future events and Hellboy’s internal monologue, so we get various levels of narrative flow.
The complexity of this panel is extended though what I call intentional conflict. Since picture and words in a panel do not always carry the same meaning, IC can be a powerful tool for narrative complexity, as it forces the reader to look closer and really think what is happening in the given panel. IC can be context-dependent, unnoticed, partial or unwanted (a dreaded mistake).
The Mithra’s example (P1) displays a context-dependent conflict, because the authors in the first panel begin describing a character that the western Christian tradition typically recognizes as Jesus. The revelation (or the joke) of the second panel is striking and conflicting with the description, since Mithras has some of the same characteristics as Jesus. IC in this case is more ideological and cultural.
P2 exemplifies the sophistication of conflicting imagery. Hellboy, the dark, visually dominating, shadowy figure in the background dwarfs a seemingly feeble older man, whose pale disposition and bowed head add to the pictorial danger he seems to be facing. The dark silhouette towers over him, reflecting the fearful unknown, while the red eyes point to unnatural, even sinister nature of the creature. Since this is the first panel in which Hellboy interacts and speaks with another character in the story, the reader is also kept in the dark (pun intended) as to his intentions, resulting in greater unease and expectations. The linguistic elements, however, suppress danger in favor of Hellboy’s respect and perhaps even awe towards the old man. Conflict achieved!
P3 depicts the most straightforward example of IC. The constrained verbal explanation of the emotional response of the female in this panel clashes with the powder keg of anger boiling inside of her. This is pictorially stressed by the angularly more unnatural, stronger, dangerous and darker lines that the reader immediately notices … and bears in mind, as s/he is reading the caption and slowly but surely discovering the visually powerful conflicting situation.
Comicana refers to the onomatopoetic expressions, sound effects and the rest of the signs used in comics: like the lightbulb over a character’s head indicating an idea, stars indicating a blow to the head or wavy lines coming from a coffee cup indicating that the coffee in it is hot. While this can be seen as cartoonish, reading comics lacking these elements can be quite unnatural or even flat … depending on the genre and styles, of course. Context is always key.
As P4 shows, onomatopoeic expressions are not just visual fillers. They can carry the story forward just as much as any dialogue can. They can reflect everything from time to space and in this case visual entrapment, creating a subtle background “noise” that carries profound emotional meaning. The captions on this page also act as thought balloons, since they reflect the child’s mental state. Because the comic in question has a more serious/philosophical theme it does not use thought balloons (as the norm is more and more).
The search for happiness in P5 is an excellent example of visual complexity that only comics can display … or at least neither pictures nor words can alone convey. The ability to pictorially erase the modality/want goes hand in hand with the shock factor of the monk’s breaking the fourth wall, since metause and deconstruction of basic comics elements such as the word balloon is not the norm in most comics. The Buddhist decree to restrain oneself from desire is clearly stated here, perhaps even reinforced by the use of the light blue color, which has strong association to meditation. The so called circadian blue is further associated to alertness and this four-panel comic can certainly open the reader’s eyes (or the third eye) both through the unique use of comics parameters as well as the interplay of psychology, philosophy and mindfulness. The two characters are immediately disassociated on many levels merely through the contrast between the orange and blue. Note also the monk’s firm stance despite the man’s outburst in the first panel. Overall very simple and very effective means, but the idea behind it, its execution and reception are anything but straightforward.
It’s nice to get shocked every once in a while. A good horror story can do just that: give you a jolt of energy that makes you happy to be alive … paradoxically apart from at least some of the characters of the story you are immersed in. The fun of reception lays in the interplay between the author and the reader though the text … and when said text is psychologically or emotionally charged as in the case of a horror story, its believability is contingent on the author’s guiding the flow of the story and the reader’s ability to suspend his/her disbelief. If both crucial points are achieved, every turn of a page becomes a cliffhanger and every depiction in and out of the panel is lovingly devoured by the voraciousness of both the story’s progression as well as the reader’s craving to see what horror looms at the top left corner of the next page. (Sight divergence between a digital copy and an old-school comic may apply.)
These are some of the broader elements that you can find in Rowans Ruin, a comic about blogging, ghost-hunting, house-swapping and mystery-solving (not necessarily in that order). It tells the story of Katie, an American blogger who changes homes over the summer with Emily, the owner of the Rowans Rise estate in England, both young ladies seemingly in dire need for some change of scenery. The trick is that what seemed to be a deal of a lifetime for Katie, who got a big-ol’ house all for herself while Emily got stuck in a much smaller apartment with Emily’s parents, turns into a creepy haunted place with ghosts and bodies, all the while the protagonist’s ideological fight-or-flight struggle unfolds in front of our eyes. What differs from the Scooby-Doo-type of mystery story is that in this case Katie has an innate ability to sense the supernatural, which in turn obviously makes the ghosts real, because what use is a power if not exploited in some shape or form (which is a lovely misnomer that also on the law of attraction). Consequently, the blood is real and the whole whodunit ordeal carries the flow of the story between the mystery solving and the jump scares.
Before I reveal who actually dang dun it, let’s take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of Rowans Ruin, of what visually works and how, because just blabbering on about a comic in verbal form alone is another misnomer that hardly stays appetizing for long.
All good works begin in medias res, right? Rowans Ruin starts with Katie’s distress call and her crashing through the window of the Rowans Rise house in an attempt to flee a seemingly ominous figure that we see in the shadowy background of the last panel on the first page. By referring to IT, we are immediately led to believe that we are dealing with something that could be supernatural. The large BARAKOOOM sound effect adds to the visually maddening scene of P1 (as Katie is trying to find her bearings), while functionally and symbolically bleeding into the gutter (of the unknown), which makes the very first page as enticing creepy.
The sound effect is repeated two pages later (P2), this time adding to its own visual and sound value as it is accompanied by the dark androgynous figure, literally jumping both at Katie and the reader. The third page in this perfectly short, strong, cryptic and on-point prologue makes an abrupt change from the blue-and-black background color of the previous two pages. The more striking red-and-black splash page only leaves the reader in suspense and visual shock as the mysterious nature of events does not allow you to think logically, since you are (through Katie) symbolically hunted and in fear of your life.
The sparse explanation given to us in the captions on these three pages creates just enough confusion and unease that the pace of reading and the pictorial flow of the story remain balanced. This could in fact be extended to Katie’s balance of fear and determination to shed light on the goings-on. Interestingly, the creature and Katie share the blueish tones, which could be an indication of their possible connection. This is of course heavily overshadowed by the direness of the scene, the creature’s unnatural red eyes, imposing presence and even somewhat freakish, monsterly depiction of the right hand, where the index and middle finger come off more as claws than fingers. (This could of course be only a matter of perspective, but when danger looms, the mind can visualize all sorts of accompanying nastiness.)
The emphasis on these introductory pages cannot be understressed, because they set the tone of the story, where the reader becomes conditioned to expect such extreme situations in the future. A stark contrast is made in the following pages, where we learn the background of the story six months earlier, where Katie wants to move for the summer for some needed change of scenery. Danger, urgency and the black gutter are replaced by lighter tones and a safer family environment … or rather an innocent one, since we learn that Katie’s parents are opposed to even the more gentle of profanities. This stark contrast can serve as the calm before the storm. When Katie finds Emily’s estate in Rowans Rise and the two young ladies chat online, the horizontal page division in P3 is a typical and particularly useful comics technique of both visually separating the characters (of events) and grouping them together. The left (leading) side belongs to Katie in her sterile (white) apartment, while the right (supporting) side is Emily’s in her more color-rich environment. Some potential unease can be felt by the thick red drapes in the background and Emily’s dark shadow, perhaps both sly reminders of the events from the beginning, while her facial dissatisfaction and loss for words further the mystery of her state and surroundings at Rowans Rise.
While we may be led to believe that the shadow in the last panel of the P3 sequence is Emily’s, its slightly more prominent brow ridge and the angle of the shadow in relation to the lighting of the room may in fact be a red herring, indicating the presence of something mysterious. (Something similar can be observed in P4 as well, however, referring to Katie.)
As Katie arrives in England, her “American” forwardness and exuberance over her exciting new experience cannot be overshadowed … apart from her entering Emily’s room (P4) which her British house-swapper has specifically forbidden to enter. This is a clear red flag of mythic proportions, because the mere mention of a secret not only further adds to its mystique but viciously entices the reader as well. As already mentioned, there is another pictorial red flag in the form of another looming shadow spreading diagonally across Emily’s room. The depiction can already be a sign of (either Katie’s or) Emily’s impending dark experience, but it may also point that the dark, shadowy presence (or the IT) from the beginning is connected to the mansion and not her. While the diagonal position of the shadow can be objectively just the product of lighting, it adds vigorousness and vibrancy not just to this particular panel, but the rest of the page. Further, since the angle is slightly tilted, the panel itself acts as both a balancing force of the page as well as the oddity that will inevitably become the norm at the Rowans estate.
Katie as a blogger/vlogger naturally has to keep her fanbase up to speed on a daily basis, so the following sequence of panels (P5, P6) provides a more raw, uncut and personal account of her new surroundings. A couple of things to point out here: the panel’s shape resembling a smart phone and the jagged (radio) balloons mark a very distinct and genuine depiction of our current lifestyle, where everything has to be (immediately) shared online. Stylistically, these two pages not only invite you into Katie’s own little (big digital) world, but also mark the passage of time through the battery indicator. While the relative fast battery consumption is a daily nuisance for most of us, in the comic this is attributed to some unknown force with a taste for electrical nourishment (not as tongue-in-cheek as it turns out). This elegantly ties the weird event of the story to real life, while the last (appropriately tilted) panel showcases the real “horror” of our current generation: the dreaded black phone screen.
The reading pattern on these two pages is the normal Z-type; however, there is a missed opportunity in making a double-page spread where the third panel that ends with the words “to the right” would actually continue to the right, so the first panel on the second page would be the fourth one in this sequence. The slight confusion is more obvious in the printed version than the digital one, since the latter (as shown here) depicts a clear separation between the two pages, while the first retains at least the potential for blockage in the reading process and consequently the flow of the story.
In either case, this marks the beginning of Katie’s more and more intense research into the less than normal unfolding events. When her mother expresses her concern about Emily seeming haunted, all of it inevitably leads to Katie’s nightmare that acts as her premonition. As stranger things must inevitably ensue in an appropriately haunted environment, Katie finds Emily’s room unlocked. An innocent peek inside reveals a plethora of tools and techniques for supernatural-overtion and ghost-prevention: from horseshoes (warding off evil) dule tree branches (associated with hangings and witches), bells and home-made booby traps under the window to the mysterious white circle under the bed. Mysterious at least for Katie, since she obviously does not find the Winchester lads appealing enough to watch Supernatural. In true 1980s Miami Vice fashion where all drugs had to have been partaken of and where every pretty-boy detective knew every type of blow [wink wink], Katie assumes the role of the charismatic investigator and naturally has a taste of the white substance (P7). Shockingly, it is revealed to be that new fad all the crazy kids on the streets like to call NaCl … or salt. Amidst her newly rediscovered supernatural sensing ability it can be seen as strange that she would not be aware that the prominent white spice has been the salty anti-demonic instrument in folklore and popular culture. Nonetheless, the overall creepiness of her situation can indeed become overwhelming fast, even to the point of inattentional blindness and saccadic suppression … or at least their mental/emotional counterparts.
As Katie goes out to the pub to find some renewed vigor and seeks safety in the social environment, she culturally, dialectically and visually stands out. Generally, such a distinction can be either extremely positive or overtly negative – especially in a smaller tightly-knit environment, where conformity and conservatism take precedence over differentiation and intrusion. In this case, we have a wonderful series of panels that appropriately culminate at the turn of the page, where Katie strikes the fancy of a local lad who visually dominates over her. The contrast in their pictorial appearance adds to the conflict, where the man leans in towards her in the first panel of the P8 sequence, fingers pointing at her, while hers are in a defensive state, as she occupies less and less space in the panel(s). The middle panels depict her verbal indifference to the man’s approach and pictorial entrapment in the two vertical panels. Further, the man(’s torso) pictorially entraps her in this series of four panels. In the last one, even the balloon placement can be viewed as a nod to Katie’s gradual ensnarement, since her balloon is also getting pictorially squeezed in by the more centrally placed double speech balloon of the man. The only sign of comfort (seemingly for the reader rather than Katie) is the strange hand reaching for the man … and even that is an indicator of further conflict.
Overall, a simple, yet powerful use of basic shapes and color to indicate intrusion, defensive position, overlapping and dynamic posture, which all effortlessly carry the story forward.
The hand in question belongs to the constable James who proves to be the knight in shining armor … in more ways than one. In a rapid jump forward, we get a very abrupt change of pace and scenery that find Katie and the policeman on a somewhat romantic boat trip. As she finally trusts him enough to show him Emily’s room, we see that their love bond is somewhat contrasted. James’ skepticism about the oddities in the house, vigilant rationale and safe line of reasoning clashes with Katie’s more head-on approach and belief in the quite literally metaphysical events (or at least struggling to come to terms with what is real and what is beyond real).
Katie stubbornly refuses to let James spend the night with her and takes her brave stance. As the use of shadows continues, they resemble more and more the creature that was chasing her at the beginning. The eeriness is reinforced by the Psycho scene of P9. At least that is what the stereotype of the hot woman in the shower (with foam or in this case the medium shot covering all her naughty parts) seems to have become. The use of the refrain from Sia's song Chandelier can be at first glance viewed as Katie letting her guard down and enjoying the rubbing and scrubbing … however, as the song actually seems to be about depression, alcohol, drug abuse and the struggle to deal with these pains, the protagonist actually lets us into her state of mind where she tries to cover her frightfulness with bravery and boldness. When the figure appears outside her shower in the decaying-green color, Katie’s suddenly outstretched fingers and eyes wide open perfectly capture the response you get when you either get scared or feel that tingling sensation, those pesky shivers down the spine. The silence in the panel is here used for greater dramatic purpose, to provide the pictorial shock that extends (and to a degree echoes) beyond words.
One of the best uses of pictures in comics is when they either indirectly or overtly depict elements that the author does not want literally expressed. The value of seeing the lurking figure thus cannot be equally voiced with words, because words would be too descriptive and would hinder the shock-value of the third panel in P9. The first panel does indeed have one caption placed directly under the dark shadow, so there is almost no way for the reader to miss it. This creates the desired element of danger, where you know someone or rather something is lurking at Katie, so you expect even greater unease, as she climbs the stairs, getting even closer to her hazard. The “reading” of the third silent (and up close and personal) panel therefore stresses the reader’s unease and expectations even further.
The final page of the first issue appropriately ends on a massive cliffhanger, as we finally get the full-size view of the lurking creature. The tilted panel adds to the dynamic, contrasting figure of the symbolically vulnerable Katie clad only in a towel, unaware of anyone behind her, and the menacing (undead) creature (coming forth from the shadow), who is already pictorially upon her. The motion lines further add to the pressing situation. Since the level of narration and awareness appropriately caters to the readers rather than Katie, we feel sympathetic towards her and fearful for her well-being.
Katie blacks out when she finally experiences the creature in full force at the beginning to the second issue. A short interlude into her childhood reveals that her apparent ability to sense the supernatural has been dormant, so the head-on collision here was a bit overwhelming for her. Since the police have found no wrongdoing, she has to resort to her own investigation of the Rowans estate in the supernatural domain of the … library. There, she finds an article about a gruesome attack by an unknown attacker on Emily and her sister Maggie, the latter being in a coma in the local hospital for 10 years since then.
As Katie tries to indirectly get some information out of Emily about any potential goings-on at the house, Emily’s blatant denial of any kind of (spooky) activity is almost alarming. (Especially now, since Katie and the reader are aware of supernatural shenanigans) When the second panel is understood in the context of the P11 sequence, it displays what I like to call intentional conflict, a technique where pictorial and verbal elements in a given panel/picture are deliberately at odds with one-another. Emily’s verbal denial is thus negated by her expression of anger/defiance/indignation, which can only mean she is hiding something. And since the premise of the story along with the recently uncovered article point to sinister, life-threatening matters, such a panel is beyond revealing for both character-building and the plot of the story.
Since the girls are skyping, the reader in this case is not the only one who is privy to Emily’s expression. A crucial element, since the (detective) Katie can see right through her and goes to visit her sister. By holding her hand, Katie unintentionally gets a shocking response from her in the form of another vision – of the attacker’s hands bludgeoning Emily into unconsciousness. This time Katie finds herself on the other side of the law, as the nurse calls the police. As James picks her up and begins to drive her somewhere, she begins to fear for her life. Fueled by the accumulation of the previous events, her feeling of being alone and misunderstood is used as a narrative plot twist … In this case a false one, because James’ intentions are pure, because he merely wanted to show her the accident site of Emily and Maggie’s parents. This scene of honesty and revelation gives Katie a chance to unburden herself and reveal (to us) that the dead man hunting her was in fact more interested in Emily. As Katie feels responsible to find out the truth and help anyone involved, the supernatural element of the story takes another twist, because the danger of the dead man is lessened in favor of the mystery of how he is connected to Emily and what she is hiding, not just what is happening at the house.
As luck would have it, (and by that I mean the uncanny burden of knowing everyone in a small town) Katie and the librarian Theresa begin speculating that the dead man could be Emily’s former boyfriend Dylan. Katie finds renewed vigor and is determined to have another one-on-one session with him. As she falls asleep with Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood in hand, we can perhaps view this as a modern shamanic ritual, where the otherworldly trance is a dream of climbing the magic tree towards the clouds of higher perception, the quite “real” perception of ghosts.
This marks another slight change in the narration, as the underlying elements at end of the second issue are more humorous than horrifying. Visually and stylistically, fear is replaced by the fervor to comprehend, as Katie dreams up or rather summons up not just Dylan, but a whole gamut of ghosts, canine spirits to boot. While they still seem to be reaching towards her with red eyes and streaks of blood, they are nevertheless depicted as human not zombie-like. The light-blue color is also more indicative of the default spiritual realm rather than the evil nastiness and, last but not least, Katie’s tongue-in-cheek blog entry alone can be enough to see that she has gotten over the hump as her plan seems to be working.
The mood gets lighter still as Katie tries to have a conversation with the ghosts, which is all in vain … Until she touches Dylan and we get a flashback from his POV. While at first seemingly obsessed with her, his love is not accepted full-heartedly by her and we get another twist, as he becomes more of an overbearing boy-toy. What is more, he neck is cut before exiting the house, the pain spiritually felt by Katie as well. Stylistically, the black gutter is in the end replaced by the red one, creating a “bloody” outline. As we only get a glimpse of the reflection of the attacker, we are still literally and symbolically kept in the dark of the identity of the assailant, while his death is clearly linked to the Rowans estate.
As Katie discussed this mysterious matter with Theresa again, she thinks Emily’s seriousness and reservations are direct results of all the goings-on in the house (from the attack on her sister onwards), which made her susceptible to spiritual attack. As Therese in P16 remarks that Katie should be in fact talking to the house, not ghosts, this offbeat or even comical comment can have a much deeper meaning. If this reference points to The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the god Ea indirectly warns Utnapishtim (the Babylonian Noah) how to survive the ensuing flood by telling the house of it. With such a mythological reading, the seemingly nonsensical comment suddenly not only makes a ton of sense, but it symbolically expands the meaning of Katie’s struggle to “survive”. Also, it is beyond fitting that this is pointed out by Theresa. As a librarian or a “guardian” of old, sacred knowledge, she preserves the connection to the Gilgamesh myth, the oldest and perhaps greatest of epic stories humanity has thus far retained. What is more, this kind of reading reinforces Theresa’s serious/stoic expression in the second panel, so the joke is that there is no joke and we can in fact take her words seriously. Further, since Mike Carey’s work is particularly flooded with (in)direct mythological references (pun intended) and he has incorporated the Gilgamesh epic in his Unwritten series as well, a reader of his cannot but help him or herself to partake of the mythological pie … with a cup of tea of course.
After a brief interlude of appropriately Shakespearian proportions, as Katie and James attend the theater, her comment of seeing the performance of Hamlet is priceless, because it is beyond obvious and thought-provoking at the same time. Saying that Hamlet reflects the human condition, when we have been (at least in the West) brought up pondering about the meaning of “to be or not to be”, is pointing to dualisms of human experience. On the other hand, this can be just a throw-away comment from someone who knows just enough about Shakespeare to realize his work is really deep and really not worth further scratching your head about what it actually means … or if the meaning expressed in Hamlet’s words and actions is actually meant to be linearly and formalistically straightforward. In other words, is it not but dreadfully relative?
From my own interlude to this Shakespearean interlude, Katie decides to get rid of the ghost traps and sleep in Emily’s room in hopes of getting to the bottom of things. While James wanted to stay with her, she would not let him. In true mythological fashion, the heroine has to face the real/final challenge of her quest alone (and what is more, she has to embrace it and not be forced into it), despite all the potential dangers (and often because of them). Her “power” and drive to combat the unknown circumstances is the central feature of cultural heroes around the world and has permeated from mythology proper into every artistic endeavor (this comic being a good example as well).
As Katie writes Emily of her plan in hopes of helping her (P18), we are left with Emily’s blunt expression of disapproval and what seems to be either fear or anger. The yellow outline of the gutter is an interesting choice that in a sense negates the element of enhanced danger, since Katie is potentially more vulnerable without Emily’s safeguards in place. Also, the last darker close-up panel of Emily’s face is inserted into Katie’s narrative and tilted to indicate a change or disturbance of sorts. At first reading, we can understand this sequence of panels quite differently (as will become even clearer further on), especially since we generally do not pay that close attention to every detail in every panel, the angles, shots and even the meaning of hues in the given context, when we are immersed in a story. This is the paradox of immediate pictorial recognition and often blind reading of also often hidden pictorial clues.
The result of Katie’s ghostly test is another plot twist, as she sees a serene collage of imagery of Emily’s parents, sister and dogs. The image (P19) is thus “disturbing” more so because it is not disturbing. Katie’s powers of perception are getting more potent as her mythic journey continues, so she is able to feel love (in this case rather than hate) from everyone around Emily. However, since Emily still feels trapped to her, Katie takes one last mystery-solving effort …
By going to the former residence of Emily’s family, she is treated with disdain, which inevitably leads her back to the library. Theresa points to Emily always curiously escaping the danger, yet this is still at odds with her feelings of entrapment that Katie felt through her “séances”. Katie hurries back to the house to search for something and she does: the dog figurine with which Maggie was bludgeoned … still covered in blood. Katie’s affirmation of foul play is immediately reaffirmed with a swift blow to the back of the head in the concluding splash page. The culprit is Emily. The sequence of panels prior to that (P20, P21) exemplifies dynamic panel movement without oversaturation or overuse of different camera angles. A couple of tilts and overlapping is enough to show Katie hurrying up the stairs and searching for the object that is eventually focused on in the central panel on the next page. The establishing shot with the rain obviously adds to the drama and together with the final panel where Katie gets attacked frames these two panels between anticipation and danger.
At this point, however, we have to let the suspension of disbelief play on and not dwell on the swiftness of Emily’s flight back to England or the fact that her blow with her home-made nailboard should have killed the heroine.
As it turns out, Emily is a psychopath through and through. The start of the final issue is the start of finally putting things together and uncovering the truth behind the hauntings at Rowans Rise. Before Emily would indeed beat Katie to death despite her offering help and trying to understand her, Katie manages to touch her, which opens the flood gates of comprehension. Emily cannot stand affection of any kind and has often found solace in literally and gruesomely removing those closest to her from her life. The destructive irony in all of this is that the love of those near her was and still is so strong that they keep showing up as ghosts, in a sense perpetuating her (self-imposed) hell in this life. The flashback (P22, P23) reveals Emily’s antisocial reality as the panels swiftly build on her anger that culminates in killing her family and even the dogs. Even pictorially, the superimposed panels on the right of P22 physically and symbolically do not fit in with the loving agenda of Emily’s family, while P23 mashes and bashes the images even further as her fit of madness and her killing spree are held together by her outbursting scream in the upper left, where “seeing red” is pictorially extended to the red outlines of the boarder and the red tones in her beyond irritated expression. Her scream is the pictorial glue for her abusive memories and compulsive action, as she deals with her pain by projecting it towards others and through others that were merely showing her love and devotion. Symbolically, the pain of comprehension is even greater, since it directly engulfs those nearest to her.
As Katie realizes in horror that Emily has murdered her parents as well, Emily’s response is a cold-blooded reaction of anger and the projection of blame … both because she has been found out and because of the overbearing emotional discharge, an energy that engulfs her earthly worldview as well as the spiritual realm from which she seems not to be able to escape.
Pictorially, P24 and P25 respectively capture the shock and defensiveness of Katie (through tears and hands) and grittiness and remorselessness of Emily (through a deathly gaze and teeth grinding). Since both panels are superimposed and Emily’s vicious look follows directly after Katie’s distress, the contrast is visually that much more striking, psychologically more emotional and quite simply effective.
Whether Katie makes use of Emily’s villainous exposé or displays the proverbial heroic fortitude, she manages to run from the room, her would-be-ripper in pursuit. In P26, Katie gets pictorially trapped by Emily’s dark figure, as her arm cuts off the panel and gives her only a narrow window of (visual) escape. While there could be some dark humor in Emily “seeing” her verbally as well as visually, since Emily is the one engulfed in shadow, the danger in this case is fixed on the protagonist, since Emily is facing away from the reader.
To keep the tit-for-tat game going, Katie herself cuff off the electricity of the house, catching up to the events at the beginning of the comic. Pictorially, this gives the authors a chance to present the reader a different view of the action, this time with greater awareness of the narrative in progress, plus an opportunity to tie up all the loose ends … particularly referring to the instances of intentionally vague depictions which served as a plot device.
Emily’s dark pursuit gets interrupted by James, who came back to check on Katie. Along with Katie’s distress call this interestingly stacks the deck against the villain, not just the protagonist who is caught between the ghosts and the murderer. After Emily swiftly kills James as well, she turns her attention back to Katie, who is beginning to realize that the ghosts are becoming more a nuisance than a threat. The real revelation comes when she realizes that the ghosts are not aware of their death and are essentially “living on” in ignorance, symbolically ignorant of their essential unwontedness (especially as it relates to Emily).
If we compare P27 to P2, we see the change in Katie’s perception and POV, as both the reader and her become to a large extent immune to the large BARAKOOOM sound effect that echoed so boldly at the very beginning. While Dylan rushes after Katie, her expression in the two moment-to-moment panel transitions gives ample evidence of the heroine’s strength and growth in the story. The first panel (second in the P27 sequence) still displays shock, but the second one (fourth in the P27 sequence) is already defying. This is stylistically stressed by the oblique shape of the first panel (reflecting Katie being startled) and the (metaphorically) grounded rectangle that is the second panel. Note also the position of the word balloons in the latter. They visually continue right after the sound effect, making it as if Katie’s stoic response actually overshadows the large noise, but the balloons themselves also slightly cover the red tones in the last panel, not completely negating the level of danger, but downplaying it quite considerably.
Arguably, the abrupt change in Katie’s expressions in these two panels can be more than enough to portray her steadfast approach, but the “hidden” pictorial details as described above add (subliminal) volumes towards immediate recognition of the intended narration and reading gratification itself.
We are inevitably led to the final faceoff between the protagonist and the antagonist … and a whole bunch of ghosts, of course. Katie’s realization of how ghosts seem to work and her power of perception make for a potent combination. Despite the fact that she is caught smack in the middle of her opposition’s home base, she realizes that the ghosts are a hindrance to Emily, not her, which leads to Emily slowly getting overpowered by them … or through her own subconscious, if we were to take the ghosts as metaphor of her own egomaniacal rage and perhaps even deeply rooted guilt.
P28 and P29 pictorially capture the process of Emily getting engulfed by her “loving” ghosts. The first panel begins her downfall, as the two-tier narration makes her realize too late what is happening, while the reader can immediately see the ghosts closing around her. At this point, Emily is still on her feet and her balloons can symbolically be the last-ditch effort to pictorially separate her(self) from her surroundings, to remain relatively safe in her own mind and thoughts (expressed in the balloons). The ethereal nature of the ghosts, however, goes beyond the linguistic depictions (in other words the ghosts don’t speak) and since she is left without her charms and booby traps, she is about to implode.
The ghostly love is clearly overwhelming for the antisocial killer and even her weapon of choice cannot help her. Pictorially, her vortex of ethereal smothering is strengthened by the light blue color of the blade alone. Since the ghosts are of the same color, she cannot hurt them either way … Where’s the salt, when you need it …
Last but not least, the non-threatening color of the panel boarders strengthens the fact that the element of danger (previously established by the red and black) has indeed shifted.
Although Katie gets a hold of the knife, she lets Emily get consumed by the spirits. As she flees the house (assumingly) for the final time, she crumbles in the puddle outside, figuratively lying amidst the horrors of the events. The adrenaline dump after any kind of strenuous ordeal is reflected in the following swift conclusion to the story. (Plus, water is a long-standing symbol of change.)
As Katie attends James’ funeral, the obligatory ceremony of the final rite of passage briefly touches on the issue of what lays beyond life (or death). Although Katie’s despondent expression in P30 can be expected as the coffin is being lowered, the message in this panel is actually more uplifting. The view from within the grave outwards reveals a U-shape that extends upwards, away from the dormancy of dirt and leads towards the sky (freedom, life), pictorially engulfing or leading Katie upwards as well, all the while the minister verbally expresses the Christian notion of afterlife. The potential for hope is clear.
As Katie prepares to leave back home to attend her parents’ funeral as well, the heroine’s state of mind remains in flux, as the motives of dread and hope continue to interlock until the very end of the comic. Arguably, her emotional agony of losing most of her loved ones is an instance is rather incomprehensible to most of us. We can imagine this as the interplay of her positive attitude as the protagonist in this story (the prototypical heroine who has overcome the physical demon) and her actual dark emotional reality as a person (the demon within her psyche still remains).
This is visually evident in her farewell to Theresa (P31), as she takes responsibility (and blame) for the death of her loved ones, yet relates a strong message of telling the truth and facing the reality of what has happened at Rowans Rise. Trying to find reason in all of it as she walks away, the bars of the cemetery gate become the bars of her psychological prison … a symbolic extension of Emily’s own (spiritual) entrapment. One final question we can ask ourselves, however, is whose prison it actually is. Who is really behind bars: Katie or Theresa (with the rest of the community there)?
Katie, nevertheless, standing tall in the end (P32) takes her final jump forward … in mythic fashion. As the heroes of old have always inevitable stood alone, because their journey was not for them alone, but for the larger social environment they find themselves in. Consequently, Katie may indeed be leaving, but she has served the community there by solving the mystery and hopefully bringing some semblance of peace to Rowans estate as well. While collateral damage (regardless of its psychological or ideological range) is a demanding necessity in the story (if not life as well), the personal progression that hopefully leads to social progress as well should always be a goal to strive towards.
The concluding image of the comic is an appropriate splash page of Katie being flanked by the ghosts of what we can presume to be her parents and James. The concluding conundrum or rather a rhetorical question of Katie’s narrow path in life (as the mythic heroine) that is nevertheless accompanied by ghosts (as the heroine’s helpers) also gives us one final nod to Hamlet and surely answers the question of who is left behind bars as stated above; namely, no one (except perhaps Emily).
The question of being and nonbeing, however, in this case takes on a different façade, because the supernatural reality of the narrative in this comic extends the fatherly ghostly motivation for Hamlet. While the prince’s execution of his predicament (tasteless pun intended) and its outcome may be quite different, Katie in the end leads the path of denouement with a paradoxically nifty turn of events. A happy ending to a ghost story? How ghastly, indeed!
If I try to sum things up, Rowans Ruin is a comic that captures some of the essence of good horror narrative: supernatural intrigue as plot device, psychological horror, interplay between the physical and the spiritual, humor, sex and (since this is indeed a comic) appropriate use of sly (if not subliminal) visualization and color. Having recently read Emily Carrol’s horrifically marvelous Through the Woods, Rowans Ruin creepily continued my current taste for the supernatural, although through different style, structure and technique.
The biggest issue might be that the story (particularly the conclusion) feels rushed at times, especially considering that the authors are obviously no slouches when it comes to deep, epic storytelling. Mike Carey in particular excels in long narrative arks where his vast knowledge of mythological backbones of modern stories shines through the mastery of ideological interpretation of current, popular and political affairs.
As the above examples show (without even mentioning the exceptional covers of all four issues), Mike Perkins’ artistry flows seamlessly, as he captures the eerily essentials of Carey’s verbal vigilance, while Andy Troy’s coloring unmistakably captures the emotional extremes (of darker red tones and gentler, ethereal blue hues for example), all to the point where the reader recognizes the narrative fluidity from the first page onwards. The shock value and mystery of the first pages lay down the foundations of this house of horror, but it is the twists and turns and continued rise of the stories of the house that is Rowans Ruin that make the reading experience beyond enjoyable.
On a personal level, my initial idea was to do to a more general review, but as I began writing, it just felt more natural to engage in a bit more in-depth analysis, in the process indulging my own voracious appetite for comics reading, while applying scrutiny and expressing appreciation for the creators and their work.
The game of interpretation is always fun to play, but the trick is in trying to find balance between structural analysis and pure fandom, where the first can lead to overinterpretation and the latter can succumb to subjective blindness. I admit I can go overboard with just such rhetoric when I get in the zone of visual analysis, however, I would like to think there is merit in trying to understand the basics of narration/storytelling and providing a (hopefully) meaningful account of the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly of the subject matter.
Hence the title of this (again, hopefully) series of enhanced reviews that will explore the ins and outs of (predominantly) comics. Just like comics were said to be the bastard child of literature and art proper, yet proved to be the heir to the visual narrative throne, I hope that How it works series will bridge the gap between academic inquiry and popculture appreciation, because comics still seem to be for the most part parceled between the two often ideologically opposing approaches. Similarly, as the Buddha’s proverbial middle way is hard to achieve, let alone sustain, it is nevertheless a valiantly potent goal to have and to share the results with.
(All picture references taken from:
Carey, M. and Perkins, M. (2016). Rowans Ruin. Los Angeles: BOOM! Studios.)
Special thanks and much appreciation to both Mike Carey and Mike Perkins for their helpful comments in reviewing this review ... for your reviewing pleasure.
We live in a world where the spread of ideas and information has rapidly changed over the last decade or two. Above all else, the rise of internet surely has to be considered among the top inventions of the past century. Invention may not be the optimal word here, since the idea of physical devices that allow transference of signals is hardly new, however, the impact internet has made on the global populous cannot be underappreciated. This is predominantly important from the relative ease of access to independent research of a given topic and the availability of more of less any type of document, video and anything and everything that can be digitized both for our pleasure and learning.
Internet is a tool like any other where you can find the worst of the worst and the best of the best. The reason for this is that the level of subjectivity on a given site is higher, so the content is potentially less critical, while on the other hand there is unbridled freedom of potentially greater truth to be found, since censorship can’t be compared to what we see and are told on TV for example (or rather don’t see and are kept in the dark). In either case, we will always be caught between the rock of what we choose to believe and the hard place of what we are actually able to conceive.
Before I turn this whole process into a relativistic smorgasbord, the point is that we are experiencing a time in which we have exponentially more and more information at our fingertips … the real issue is how to manage it. This is in true de Saussurian terms a gift and a curse at the same time. As much as we have potential quick access to just about any topic of inquiry, we are subjugated by the nature of our very being to only a few of them, because the sheer volume of the informational repository is vastly beyond the capacity of any savant to conquer in full. We are cursed to be at best temporal experts in whatever we do and anything that interests us. If I take my interest in comics for example, there’s practically no way of reading every single comic ever published (in any tradition, let alone the Anglo-American one), since the effort of keeping in touch with current goings-on is hectic enough. Taking into account the temporal, financial, ideological and psychological issues, the game of being an “expert” quickly turns into a guessing game of choices and sacrifices, because artistic totality and perfection are sadly unattainable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it. The road towards greatness is rooted in knowledge and the spread of information. In a nice reciprocal way we share the information we lean through the work/art we do … which is also the most intimate and long-lasting connection between the personal and the social sphere, between receiving something and giving it back.
How does all that relate to torrents, as the “ruthless” method of illegal sharing of said information? There’s surely some absurdity in being liberal with other people’s work. Indeed it is, but that’s not really the point. We can have an interesting ideological debate about how much for example the movie and music industries are “suffering” because of illegal piracy, when top-grossing movies and artists are making more and more money. It comes down to facts. The fact is that illegal downloading equals to stealing, but the hidden fact behind it is that by doing so you are still spreading the name of the commodity you blatantly took for your own (the ol’ catch-22 of no publicity is bad publicity). If you think that the movie industry is hindered for example by the thousands of downloads of various shitty cam versions of a summer blockbuster, you have to look at all the algorithms. The very same method of sharing makes internet a global commodity and currently the fastest and most efficient means of making your voice heard and your product visible. What’s the difference between you buying a film and watching it with five friends as opposed to them downloading the shaky HD-rip with embedded Korean subtitles? I’d say that the monetary equation stays the same. But that’s not really the whole story. We have to take into account the drinks and food that generally accompany one’s viewing pleasure, especially in theaters (and also subliminal advertising). The widespread net of net gain is so complex that we can’t understand things in isolating … and there will always be either an agenda or a dependence on sharing your product. Plus, never underestimate the value of time. The price of time it takes you to go over any product often trumps the monetary price of it. Everyone reading this blog is “paying” for it with their time, pure and simple (and it doesn’t go unappreciated :)). The level of entertainment, illumination or just pure nonsense you get out of it is secondary.
Not to condone piracy, but there’s something to be said about the range of products you can find on the “free” internet. There’s been plenty of documentaries and books I’ve come across on torrents that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. I still don’t quite understand how that’s possible, because they couldn’t have just appeared in vacuum. I though ex nihilo creation was reserved for mythology (and the Big Bang … ahem). Also, I’ve illegally downloaded books, but I bought them later on, because I’m old-school and I need a physical copy. The binary digitalized versions don’t do much to me. Plus, you give respect to the artist and creator, which should always trump everything else.
In either case, I feel that internet piracy is hardly understood … or at least it’s caught between the egoistic conservative right that would charge you for the air that you breathe and the extreme liberal left that wouldn’t pay even a cent for a product out of spite. The reality is far from either of the two scenarios. The whole Napster issue years ago about illegal music downloads turned into a broader torrent sharing service. This is in turn getting devoured by the models such as iTunes, Netflix and even online gaming of internet streaming services, where you are charged for every product, although less and less, so your loyalty towards it (hopefully) becomes long-term (insert the Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Burns laugh tracks). Such micro capitalism ensures a steady trickle-down effect and in a sly way tries to play on the morale of piracy, where the consumer is urged more towards the idea that you need that product on a daily basis and it becomes like the phone bill you get every month – you’ll pay for it effortlessly, if not somewhat unconsciously, because you need the service (at all costs).
So, is sharing caring? Yes and no. It gets hard to see beyond the monetary monster that the hard capitalism of today has become, so we can easily get trapped in the reality of our current existence, where we run around in our own little world of (forced) demands and (blind) obedience. As they say, we don’t stop and smell the roses … because they’re hard to be found in the concrete jungles and digital safe zones of our being. Internet is many things, but it’s most important attribute is its sharing power (even beyond the eyes of the big brother or the ensuing artificial intelligence gathering). The validity and meaning of information itself will always be under scrutiny, as it should be, so we don’t succumb to neither dormancy nor complacency.
I used to think that torrents have replaced sex as the taboo in our world of liberal delights, but internet porn still far outweighs them, plus the YouTube modus operandi is becoming more and more prominent. Partly because of its passive recipient approach, but that’s already been the idea behind the whole film industry from the get-go. At the end of the day(s), the information age will only get stronger, so let’s just hope the servers and back-up logs are sturdy enough at the banks, because no dam can hold the torrents of comprehension.
Knowledge is key.
The more you know the better off you should be.
Dare I even say: I think, therefore I am?
Such expressions touch on the nature of the game of human comprehension. This comprehension is essentially twofold and it correlates between understanding yourself and the world around you. The latter can be divided between your narrower and broader environment, which can (respectively) mean your family and the society you are in, or the society in general and the nature as the backdrop of your existence. We get a nice theoretical definition of the microcosmos of the self, the potential mesocosmos of the society you are brought up in and the macrocosmos of the nature/the universe that essentially gives rise to the multitudes of individuums you yourself are part of as well.
The beauty of this distinction lies in its “verification” through both scientific and metaphysical means. I won’t go too much into obvious stuff, but I have to relate this to the dualism of life. Not necessarily the often overplayed mind-body dichotomy, but more the interconnection of seemingly opposing parts. In such a way, the Hindu cycle of life corresponds to the divine breath giving life through exhaling, while your life/Atman returns to the eternal Brahman through its inevitable expiration. This essential wholeness relates to the Daoist dualism, where the central Dao is literally (and yet anything but literal) the way of being that encapsulates both nature and nurture. The symbolism of yang/yin is about as perfect a symbol as we can find in any religious/philosophical thought: [. The small patches of opposing larges black-and-white parts reflects the flowing nature of being, where a seemingly dominant notion retains a dormant opposing view, so you can’t have one without the other. In more common terms, we can say that good doesn’t exist without evil or life without death. Understanding one means comprehending the other. Knowing yourself can thus help in realizing your environment … and vice versa.
Another distinction relevant to my research and understanding in general is through the methodological paradigms that follow a similar tripart structure in text analysis. Since interpretation of art in general is quite often directly linked to the interpretation and understanding of the world, it’s wise to be aware of its parts. Text analysis is broadly understood within the frames of authorship, the work itself and its consequent reception. Arguably, the trend has been more in favor of the third and more recent part, but while there are more broad and holistic approaches to this tripart structure, the general distinction of the three elements of inquiry still persists. Apart from the freaks like me who get a hard-on for deep textual probing, most people don’t really explore the first methodological paradigm, because the immersion into a good book is for example quite enough, with or without the following personal breakdowns. However, authorship is crucial, if you want to get a peek behind-the-scenes of what you’re reading … and often even more than that. This is heavily dependent on the genre and even the medium in question, not to mention one’s reason for this inquiry. If you have a more rigorous and analytic approach in let’s say writing a scholarly article on a given work, understanding the environment in which the work was created results in a more plausible and concise game of intellectual ping-pong between what is written, what the author meant, what you actually understood and what essentially gets stamped into the mainstream (leviathan) regardless of what is “right” or “wrong”. In cases when the author sticks to a specific genre and style of writing, drawing, composing, etc., the author’s broader canon and personal leitmotifs come into play as well.
The interplay of what is meant in a given work and what is understood is an interesting phenomenon that can pose problems the older the work is and the less we know about its authorship. Essentially, we can get those high school type ordeals when the teacher is vigorously stating the symbolic meaning(s) of a given element in a poem, when the cynical teenager is sufficient with the “cigar is just a cigar” type of answer. Now, the somewhat dubious nature of artistry in general means that once you let your work into the public domain, it becomes a vessel for appreciation … but scrutiny as well … with the stress often more on the latter. The meaning of a “good” work can survive the test of time not just through its contemporary richness, but by standing the test of time. Commercial success is not necessarily the norm for quality just as much as author’s notoriety is hardly the measure for all future exquisiteness s/he might produce.
Iconic characters and timeless classics are hard to come by … they have to essentially expand beyond cultures and capture that exact pulse of society and the times. While you can be as meticulous as you want and for the most part can’t just wing it (like I’m doing here ironically) to get good results, the game of marketing and being in the right place at the right time become prerequisites for success as well. In either case, it all harkens back to the basic idea of understanding what you’re good at (so you can stress the positives and hide the negatives) and what kind of audience you’re aiming at. The interplay of the micro and the macro thus continues in more ways than one.
I’ll end this here, because I’ll talk about the duality between the personal and the social in the forthcoming posts about mythology. Not sure where I wanted to go with this one, because I have a review in the works, but I had to get hack on the writing horse after some prolonged nasty illness … just so the hamster doesn’t forget how to run on the wheel.
You can call it the wheel of life or the entrapment of cyclical nonsense, but the duad of knowing and learning will stay between what is here and what is there, what is present and what is absent … and what is written and what is read. Splendid learning curve either way.
“The great virtue of vision is that it is not only a highly articulate medium, but that its universe offers inexhaustibly rich information about the objects and events of the outer world. Therefore, vision is the primary medium of thought.” (Arnheim 1997b: 18)
Most of our daily experiences occur visually. It is said that up to 80 % of the neurons in the human cortex respond to visual stimuli, which seems to mean that we are preordained to view the word visually. While visual monopoly can be a double-edged sword, where other senses can get overlooked, which may in fact lead to a poorer experience of being, I am focusing only on visual perception and its consequent literacy in this short discussion.
Now, to stress the visual aristocracy further, our eyes are capable of decoding more variables than our ears for example, since the sound vibrations are slower than the vibration of light. What is even more striking, however, is the fact that our visual system despite its multitude of light-sensitive cells depends heavily on inferences, making our involvement in the world quite literally a guessing, puzzle-making experience. In light of this, it is also important to note that both our brain structure and functions can change according to what we do and how we approach our subject matter. The process is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Our vital organ essentially becomes a muscle that can get strengthened through knowledge and experience or can deteriorate by lack of stimuli. The same way as we train our visual coherence, we train our brain according to our lives and undertaken actions. Thus, it would seem that greater comprehension of for example visual images that comes through learning, repetition and inherent interest, is not evident merely through philosophizing and interpreting prowess, but leaves a quite vivid neurological stamp as well.
In fact, our photoreceptors are relegated to noticing only a quite narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Not only is our vision subject to clear, relatively close imagery, but the vast majority of informational content of visual sensations can get lost from the eye to the brain. The rationale here is rooted in our evolution, in the so-called negativity bias, where we had to learn to distinguish between the imagery that indicated danger (a lion) as opposed to the more neutral shapes (a rock). Essentially, the negative stimuli are cognitively more powerful than the positive ones; perhaps the reason why a single negative occurrence overpowers the perception of the numerous positive ones. Although cognitive bias has a positive equivalent in for example the halo effect, we have evolved and essentially survived because of safety and caution, mistaking the rock numerous times for a lion, so we would never mistake the lion for the rock, since it is far better to process the visual information slowly that falsely … unless you’re completely selfless and feel pity for the poor lion, of course.
Our central (visual) means of experiencing the world is thus paradoxically extremely fragile. Despite the ability of immediate recognition of the focused elements, perception as such is generally actually fairly unreliable, easily succumbing to abnormalities and illusions. This may in fact reflect on the human state as a whole, our fragile nature and general capitulation in light of cognitive, hormonal and emotional stimuli that govern our daily lives.
Despite this seeming self-deconstruction of the visual dominance, the perception of visual imagery requires the understanding of various factors. This is the paradigm of visual literacy. We perceive literacy as the condition of being knowledgeable of a particular subject, this generally means the ability to read and write. Consequently, visual literacy is the ability to comprehend visual imagery, which in itself demands a appropriately equipped perceiver. While comics fall under this definition, we should note that imagery in this context applies to body movements and gestures in general just as much as it concerns pictorial representations. Strictly speaking, linguistic elements are visual imagery as well; however, there is a prevailing distinction that separates words from pictures, since the first are perceived more as sounds than imagery, while the latter are visual imagery par excellence. Further dichotomy between both visual components is evident through the fact that words can be rendered as images and pictures become textualized and read accordingly. A similar distinction can be made with the term art. Although in the broadest sense it refers to every human productive effort, it practically excludes language and writing. As such, an artist may be a painter or a sculptor, yet products of language are the works of writers. This may be an arbitrary distinction, but artistry nevertheless needs to be considered in its broadest sense as the creative force it is.
As defined here, visual literacy can be viewed as a form of fluency (of pictorial elements) and expertise on various structures. Such fluency is essential in understanding not only the visual interplay in comics, but the world around us. Our perception is heavily influenced by a wide number of stimuli, ranging from personal (in)abilities and expectations to social factors, stemming either directly from our environment or indirectly from the laws and regulations of the superorganism that is our society. Consequently, visual recognition may be hindered by the phenomenon called inattentional blindness. If your attention is fixated on a particular task or you are skimming through panels in any comic, you may overlook a specific detail. We may not perceive a particular visual image, despite looking at it (in)directly. Since our mind has been programmed to a particular undertaking, we do not bother with any other detail (or we are grouping together so many images our eyes and brain have to choose what to illuminate and what to skim over). While linguistically skimming through a text for a particular goal results in a similar lack of detail or other specifics, this issue is pictorially more shocking, as it results at looking at a picture, yet not really seeing it, while words nevertheless require more decoding. Unless we employ extremely close reading, we expect to miss a particular detain; as opposed to instantaneous recognition we have learned to expect of looking at pictures.
Consequently, this is why the hermeneutic circle works wonders and why rereading any type of work can literally reveal new worlds … We become better equipped in not only seeing the forest for the trees, but actually noticing how many branches a particular tree has and what type it is (this may be a stretch, but the hyperbole is clear). Needless to say, the focus on mythological imagery also falls under the dangers of such a lack of mindfulness, since it may result in looking for God within the panels and missing the divine in the characters or even the reader as the ultimate observer/participator. Because of this, the holistic approach to any type of research offers a very pragmatic net, with which to snare the most comprehensive analysis.
In either case, visual literacy is a prerequisite in the current multimodal, technical culture where imagery is semi-divine. Visual literacy serves as the beacon for the ensuing profundity of visual studies. Comics is a perfect form for expressing and becoming knowledgeable of imagery which is part of our daily lives, since all the elements integrate into a visual text that (like myth) requires a holistic approach, where one trains intricate visual reading and becomes more observant of details and the broader cultural context at hand. In other words, visual literacy is paramount in understanding especially allegory, metaphor, allusion and non-literal content, all of which reflect the complexities of our very being.
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Icons. The world is full of icons. They can depict a religious savior, they may stand for a pop culture star, they can have a purely marketing purpose or they can be the building blocks of pictorial/visual depiction. Although we will surely be subject to all of these uses or icons (if not more), the latter is what I would like to focus on a bit more.
Icons are part of the vocabulary of comics, the essential ingredients in any type of comics world the authors envision and create. The word icon stems from the Greek word εἰκών meaning image. An icon in comics stands for a variety of images: from characters and things to places and other (more abstract) notions. The richness of expression within panels is both hindered and enhanced by the authors’ creativity. From the viewpoint of perception, resemblance is possible, when we understand what pictures represent and how they are connected to their subject-matter.
The origin of the idea of icons in contemporary times goes back to the theories of structuralism and semiotics, both covering the study of signs. With his dualistic approach of langue and parole, Ferdinand de Saussure ushered in a new understanding of language by pointing to the arbitrariness of signs it uses. The sign is comprised of the signifier and the signified, the image and the meaning, respectively, where one cannot exist without the other. This theory extends beyond language use: we can draw parallels to the dualistic approach in myth and religion (yin/yang) and even point to the fact that most of our conceptions of things and even perceptions of color are culturally specific. What something represents and how this came to be is intricately connected to the environment one belongs to.
Charles Sanders Peirce is one of the theorists that enhanced some of Saussure’s theories. The concept that is most important for this purpose of this post is the three-part structure of a sign as icon, index and symbol. All three concepts embody the notion of a sign as something that stands for something else.
An icon resembles what it means. Pictures for the most part fall into this category. Therefore, a picture of a specific comics character stands for that character, because that is what it resembles.
An index causes or indicates the meaning in something else or the presence of something else. From the perspective of mythology as the backbone of religion, we can say that myth in an index of religion (depending on your perception and the depth of each of these two rich disciplines).
The meaning of a symbol, as the most arbitrary or abstract element of this triad, depends on shared conventions between the sign and its meaning. Rudolf Arnheim in his visual theory points to a similar structure of a sign, a picture and a symbol, distinguishing the images by their level of abstractness. This further stresses the paramount role of conventions in the distinctions of these elements.
While most pictures are icons, most words typically appear at the other side of the spectrum as symbols, to a degree depending on the level of your perceptual skills, as visual literacy makes abundantly clear (more on this in the next post). The arrangement of letters G-O-D stands for the idea of God/god because of conventions, not because it would actually resemble or indicate the deity (I’ll discuss the sacrality of sounds such as om/aum in a future post). The issue of the word GOD actually standing for either gods of old or God (Yahweh) as the omnipotent entity can be further disputed from the theological standpoint. While science may factually argue the existence of the ideological God, believers and agnostics cannot (yet) grasp this (seemingly) eternal concept through any limited human means either.
In de Saussurian terms, another relation of the sign is its consequent mutability and immutability, in other words: its nature to change and its relative unchanging nature. This concept is paradoxical in comics as well, since a color scheme may be fixed, as in the case of red generally signaling danger and fear, specific context and cultural differences can affect its use. In such a way, red was seen as a protective color in the Anglo-Saxon times, while in Hellboy the readers soon internalize the protagonist’s red skin and demeanor as neutral and not dangerous, despite the underlying implication of his demonic nature.
A slight deviation of de Saussure’s dualistic approach can be applied to pictures as simultaneously direct and indirect, precise and imprecise. A picture is directly observable, perceptual, since it (or rather its author) reflects the nature of the world as our mind perceives it. The concept of image-building seen from Kant’s phenomenological perspective actually denies any direct observance per se, since our eyes (senses in general) become a relay between the actual world and the “images” we perceive through complex decoding in our brain. The question can thus be raised about our rational and empirical capabilities – between our inherent and acquired knowledge – and their consequent accuracy/factuality. Even if we may not truly know things-as-such in themselves, what remains is still the division between our personal self and everything else around us. Such a dichotomy between the personal and the social also plays a prominent role in mythological narrative – the interplay of the macrocosmos and the microcosmos.
Pictures, however, can be indirect as well, either depicting an element in the background or showcasing abstract notions. Pictures allow direct portrayal with indirect intimacy, in other words: subtle pictorial metaphors can speak volumes in the same way as pictures have the power to convey meaning “silently”, in a sense becoming more striking than words. The pictorial satire expressed in caricatures for example has a distinct effect of being direct, as it is pictorial in nature, yet indirect as well, since the artistic style is not a direct representation of an actual person or events taken under scrutiny (hence a caricature). This is the power of pictorial use and why caricatures and (witty) visual metaphors still have great appeal.
Keeping all or this in mind, the crucial (McCloudian) aspect in the understanding of comics lies in the perception of pictures as received information and words as perceived information. More specifically, we might distinguish between a pictorial image as a whole as (for the most part) opposed to a linguistic step-by-step process of comprehension, where the meanings are build more gradually. This means that our brain immediately (or at least much faster) processes the image of a picture without the need to decode it. Words, on the other hand, by default demand a more thorough analysis, since, as we have observed, they are abstract symbols that we cannot attribute to any visual object in our world.
There is of course a wide range of possibilities where for example more abstract pictures require greater amount of perception from the observer, while more direct (ironic) pictures are perceived faster. Our brain, therefore, needs to decode the images of letters (into sounds) and find appropriate, culturally agreed upon meaning(s) for them, before they can be grouped into even larger units of meaning. Without such a process, a discussion of the meaning of life in a foreign language can for example enrich your life as much as the noise from a vehicle passing by (although the latter can extend it, if this alerts you to the danger and consequential prevention of being run over). Linguistic reading is, therefore, a much more arduous process than pictorial reading, which in turn seems more natural and straight-forward.
One of the reasons why pictures have been more frowned upon than words lies in this perception of the two. Because we primarily experience the world visually, we take for granted the barrage of images that our brain needs to process at any given moment. Most people can identify a multitude of objects (governed by immediate notice of color and shapes) just by taking a glimpse of a picture, while a mere glimpse of a text does not convey any meaningful information (apart from a large, short word or number for example). Pictures are a representation of our world, a world that is dominated by visual stimuli. For this reason comics are relatively easy to understand; however, mastering their meta-language is akin to comparing the ability to read English and grasping the intertextual mythological meta-world stressed in Shakespeare’s work. Quite often, those are two completely different worlds.
While languages require a (set) number of symbols that are transformed into meaning, drawing is both more personal and obvious, because it reflects the world around us. The language/writing system as we know in the West is as arbitrary as it is complicated, with the exception of pictograms and ideograms which inherently began as representations of the natural world and human ideas (the Chinese character for a tree resembles an actual tree: 木). If the vision is not impaired, it becomes quite obvious to observe a tree, because trees are present everywhere and have an inherent value by provide us with oxygen, paper and shelter. Writing about trees, drawing an image of a tree or typing the word TREE, however, become much more personal, unique and even potentially painstaking tasks, especially when having to provide a realistic, nuanced image full of visual and intertextual detail.
To close the branches of this woody discussion, the image of a tree (or even its bare idea) carries lots of mythological weight as well, since most cultures recognize the world tree as the(ir) life source. The portrayal itself can, however, imply various meanings: the mere placement of the tree in a picture or a panel (or tree as a background with branches as panels or separators) creates a relationship to the surrounding objects or lack thereof, while the use of color adds volumes to the power of the image. But for appropriate recognition and appreciation of this we need some visual literacy …
Myth may present a world that was observed in the older (once upon a time) days, but it also alludes to the sacred reality behind this observed world. Essentially, we get a series of “lies” telling the truth. It is easier to tell such a “truth” through a story, through a medium that allows you to participate in the experience (pertaining both to myth and comics). The power and meaning of a story go far beyond its factuality. Stories are living through each and every one of us and are giving meaning to something otherwise meaningless.
To make a parallel to the notion observed in dealing with art, it is crucial to know the rules before even attempting to make a sharp contrast from the general point of view. Reductionism works the same way; that is to say, it is inherently an attempt at only a single perspective on any subject. It refers to the traditional one-sided methodological approach, where for example the research of religion would only be scrutinized through the lens of anthropology or psychology, as each respective discipline would be perceived as sole exemplar of the analyzed subject matter. The product is thus reduced only to a particular position. As they say, when all you have to work with is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail … and hammering down very narrow linear paths can only get you so far.
A more holistic attitude tries not to be ensnared by neither a biased approach nor the consequent absolutism it entails. Reductionism is a substitution and simplification for the sake of “clarity” and especially the ease of understanding a more complex subject matter. Arguably, the system of education we live in depends on simplification and a “crash course” in all aspects of life – hence specializations and higher education where crucial details of a particular field are further uncovered (often to the degree of where you are able to swiftly deconstruct the conventional stance on your subject of choice, since you essentially comprehend all the aspects of that subject: the good and the bad). It is only specialization and inherent interest that propel the individual towards the depths of understanding … and this obviously refers to life in general.
While those fast Google and Wikipedia searches and consequent brief explanations save time and provide useful information (on the go), this can even become disinformation due to the lack of depth. (I like to use the comics series Sandman as an example. While you can easily “summarize” it as a familial squabble of the Endless, this essentially tells nothing or it rather robs you of the true depth and grandiose reality of the story. And this can be applied to myths as well.) We need to be aware that the advantageous nature of summarization has a detriment: we are never really motivated to truly learn or internalize information on subjects, since it is perpetually present on the internet, not in our minds. (We are often far removed from the bard tradition of old, when memorizing myths or epic poetry and readaptating them for specific audiences was a sign of artistry and cultural heritage.) Single-theory reductionism traverses a similarly dangerous line of thought. Its absolutism reduces other theoretical possibilities and may distort the greater reality and complexity of the subject in question … like a passive recipient who reads a sentence on Wikipedia and automatically becomes either an expert on the subject or a proponent of the single-theory perspective. The whole process is further elongated through the ego-driven impulses that social networking thrives on. In one way or another we are all subject to this … it’s up to every single individual who you broaden your horizons.
Taking a popular critical stance of psychology, it is alluring to think of mythology as part of religion as mere neurosis, only an illusory product of the subconscious and consequently myths as mere stories that falsely fabricate and permeate out existence. Once Freud let this proverbial cat out of the bag and pointed towards the falsity, imagination and artistry of the myth and the sacrality of religion became obsolete, while his mythbusting stance became popular. I do not propose that psychology is a wrong analysis of mythology, since no perspective is “wrong” in the strictest sense of the word, as it is pertinent to its own methodology and its own perspective … and since myths are human fabrications, they should of course be under scrutiny through the layer of human behavior. Psychology itself, nevertheless, is inadequate (as are all theories) … merely a perspective, a tool in the much larger toolbox that the complex study of mythology requires.
The debate between the validity of a particular theory can be quite arbitrary and heavily reflects on temporal appropriateness, especially the deeper you traverse into the rabbit hole. Questions of absolutism have long been central to human conception of being (albeit integral to our unquenching desire of knowing everything about us and around us, the microcosmos and the macrocosmos, respectively). Whether it is the clash between empiricism and rationalism, religion and science or picture and word, all of these apparent oppositions are part of essentially the same unity of meaning and understanding.
(If I make a personal aside here, I’ve always been fascinated by the great thinkers of old. While reading their works and theories on them, I’ve never prematurely succumbed to deconstruction, but have tried to understand their assessments through their own eyes and times. To take two subjective examples, I’m a big proponent of Jung, but have always had an indifference to Lévi-Strauss. While Jung has for my taste a very holistic approach to the comprehension of mythology, I would never consider myself a Jungian nor take his word as gospel, no matter how compelling it may be. On the other hand, I’m well aware of the contributions to mythology Lévi-Strauss has made in his own fields, so to dismiss a proponent of a certain theory because of a personal bias would relegate my own aspiration to have a wide range of worldly comprehension. The point is that both authors need to be understood in their own way … how you adapt their thought processes for yourself is another issue altogether.)
While the study of myth can indeed be viewed through only a particular theory and examined through only specific methodology, this is nevertheless limited – only a single lens. The awareness of other lenses (like those of a microscope) is thus essential to discovering different, specific depths they inevitably uncover. Likewise, if a telescope only has one depth setting, you are subjugated to the limits of its view and its spatio-temporal position … not to mention the fact that this is passive observation though a very limited electromagnetic spectrum of visible light. In essence, a plural, multifaceted approach to the subject matter is key … and that’s why real research of any topic is difficult at best, so it helps to have a liking to the subject matter.
My default stance is between the extreme positions of myth as a false tale and myth as a sacred story, since the first indicates a patronizingly blind perspective from the outside, while the latter becomes a narrow-minded point of view from within a culture that may not understand that “their” myth is a world myth. Something similar can be said about comics: when done poorly, they can be regurgitated trash, but when you get your hands on a masterpiece, the phrase best thing since sliced bread comes to mind.
The inherent paradox of mythology can be summed up by an equally applicable observation about art by the great Picasso, when he poignantly professed that “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Paradoxes in this context and in myth in general are not philosophical nightmares, but reflect the unity of the system in question … like that of Daoism and the interconnected yin/yang pairing. The mythological “lie” is part of the “truth” of being, like the human imagination is essential in the practice of science – the Wellsian imaginary time machine working hand in hand with the current plausible concept of spacetime bending. Without foresight there is no insight, just as much as we need to get out of our comfort zone once in a while to expand our horizons. Consequently, constructive criticism functions the same way.
The discussion of lies and truths is closely connected to the formalism of science. Apart from its modern position of the divine savior (pun intended), science is not the most obvious notion when discussing either mythology or religion. However, myths have also been taken to represents accounts of proto-science. Stemming from the Tylorian model, the anthropological and sociological paradigms of primarily the 19th century pointed towards mythic accounts as reflecting primitive understanding of the world. Labeling a traditional society as primitive or mythic is an arbitrary, egoistic construct of the predominantly Western ideology, a globalizing force, which views the world only through its lenses of mass-acceptance and applicable (modern) means. Like the ancient (aristocratic) historic accounts that serve as “objective” truth, such a perspective screams of miscomprehension, disrespect, narrow-mindedness and especially hypocrisy. The latter is evident through the ridicule of traditional religious rituals, rites of passage and mythic notions such as the Chinese Mandate of Heaven; yet, every single culture that has graced this world has traditional, religious roots that still prevail. Just as marriage is a ritual and upbringing becomes a social rite of passage, the “royal” families in current societies still retain their mythic, divine ancestry (i.e. Japan), not to mention how the secular and religious nature of global politics are almost interchangeable (i.e. religion-based court testimonies or war on terrorism that is essentially a religious conflict, in effect a continuation of the Crusades … or if you want to go back even further, the clash between “Greece” and Persia).
Don’t say I didn’t warn you about going off on a tangent …
New/better/current science can not only deconstruct myths as false tales and religions as based on unlikely accounts of reality, but science constantly – and perhaps unknowingly – deconstructs itself as well, since its subject matter in theory does not depend on political or social perceptions, but are constantly evolving, voraciously devouring all of the factually wrong or inadequate past theories and perspectives; even its own, “sacred” Newtonian theory to boot. Consequently, the Big Bang theory, still the most accepted theory of the beginning of our Universe, is nevertheless just a theory. It is a temporal account akin to the mythic cosmogonies. Like the ancient Chinese myth of Pangu and the creation that lives on for centuries, our current scientific position follows in the same footsteps by proposing a new position of creation. All of this is part of a long-living tradition that has always attempted to understand Being itself. As much as we currently know about our position in the known Universe, we must never forget that the adjective known is central, since humanity is still in its childhood stage of evolution and comprehension of life. Our scientific hubris has made us arrogant in thinking we know so much more than our “primitive” ancestors, yet our conception of life is and will be forever based on their knowledge and wisdom that has been passed on to us (in a mythic beehive of trial-and-error and interconnections). Whether myths teach us lies or truths, we (should) still learn from them either way. The shoulders of our ancestral giants support a heavy burden indeed.
The intrinsic perception of religion (i.e. “finding God”) reflects the way we (and especially children) inherently appreciate color and shapes. In such a way, myths and rituals associated with them become alive and sacred. Science takes away the pure experience – this unfiltered imagination of a child. It breaks the illusion and faith of the sacred world beyond this profane realm. It acts like a filter, a parent who must dispel the illusion of Santa Claus after playing along until a certain age of the child, who is eventually forced not to suspend the disbelief of higher reality any more. The child symbolically bursts out of pre-conscious existence and is faced with a threshold akin to its birth and future life events that will come to pass. Thus, Santa Claus stops to descend the sacred tree of life that is the chimney, bearing divine gifts for the hopeful youngster from his Perseusian sack of endless size and imaginary possibilities – the Gorgonic head obviously representing the conquering of one’s fears and symbolic adulthood. Instead, as even hope, belief and faith get meticulously dissected by factual means in order to find the Truth of life at all costs, Santa Claus becomes a distant star, a mythic dream keeping us in touch with the archetypes of old, or the ancient king bearing gifts for his land to prosper and spread the seeds of humanity throughout the world. From a scientific perspective, the belief in Santa Claus is akin to the belief in any kind of supernatural being, (any) God of course not excluded. Nevertheless, the game of believing in one or another is unimaginably different. Similarly, belief in Yahweh as opposed to Zeus is subject to both a living religious tradition (as opposed to dead, mythic Paganism), as well as generally speaking the outgrowth of polytheism. One world government? Perhaps, but that always seems to inherently apply centralization and suppression before differentiation and multitude … not to mention institutionalism, the crux of conservative religion.
I would argue that the imaginary and the factual world exist simultaneously, so their interplay depends on mutual understanding and respect (a kind of dualism of spirit and matter). Otherwise the complex equation of one plus one equals three becomes not only unattainable, but actually unimaginable. The latter fact is much more consequential, since it is akin to understanding how fire works without having even seen a spark before, as opposed to observing the flame and trying to determine the light and find illumination. This is by itself a difficult theoretical outlook, but in practice it takes on even greater barriers of understanding. That is why the Way of the Daoists requires comprehension beyond oneself, why the Buddha’s noble path traverses though suffering and why Jesus walked a narrow path on the road to Heaven. If the struggle of life were easy, none would appreciate it and the dark forests of the mythic journeys would be lifeless parks of passivity. Perhaps ultimate understanding is hardwired in everyone’s psyche, but finding the keys to unlocking it is a whole different kettle of fish. If science gives meaning, religion and myths (if read correctly) open parallel doors to its factual counterpart and point to Meaning itself. This is the stage when knowledge becomes wisdom. And holy hell, how succulent it is!
To return to the discussion of variations of myths, once the original story is taken through the whirlwind of especially ideology in the generations to come, myth in its original context can be literally turned upside down and used not as a teaching tool or for entertainment purposes, but as political doctrine (I would say dogma, but that edges even closer towards religion … more on that later). Arguably, every myth, every historical account and every discovery are in one way or another subject to political ideology.
Examples of this can be found in the works of the great Athenian tragedians Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, who did not write myth per se, but incorporated renowned myths into their new quasi-mythology and social commentary. Ironically, their work nowadays is more known and accepted in mainstream culture and schools as true myth rather than Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology for example, which is a real mythological thesaurus.
Further, it must be stressed that ideology per se is subject to each individual (sub)culture, as a means of interpreting the world and identification with its inhabits. As such, ideology can embody not merely economic “ideals”, but political and globalizing doctrine as well. Consequently, we may in fact say, that the western world is living vicariously and indirectly through the remnants of the Greco-Roman ideology that has been passed through syncretic means.
Incidentally, the meaning of ideology has been subject to a similar treatment as has the word myth. Both have been downplayed or have taken on a more negative connotation, perhaps because their seeming straightforwardness is taken as gospel. As much as ideology nowadays is understood a negative, forceful, insular cultural viewpoint, myth in the mainstream is a mere lie, a fabrication. It’s time to dispel the myth of ideology! The so called scientific worldview we live in has become fixated on the facts and formalistic notions, rather than the richer, deeper meaning behind and beyond a specific term. Coincidentally, even the comics are subject to this, just as words like dictator or barbarous, the first originally referred to a person, who took over the reins of leadership in the time of (military) crisis, while the latter was used for peoples that did not speak Greek. Now, arguably, it always seemed to have been a sense of sarcasm and self-righteousness with these two terms, but it’s the modern adaptation of their meanings that have gradually become more negative, if not turned upside-down.
How does this differ from readapting the meaning of myth as I seem to be doing as well? First of all, I try to understand all aspects of the word, before it has been historically remastered or is currently (mis)used. While the meaning of myth as a false tale has become perfectly acceptable, I still cringe at its use. There’s something to be said about reinterpretations and reuse of terms that can be easily overplayed and in Baudrillardian terms come dangerously close to the final simulacrum stage … Honestly, given the fact that most (if not all) stories in any type of medium or art field at rooted in mythology, it’s kind of hypocritical and severely narrow-minded to refer to the essence and depth of what myth is as something merely false.
Maybe that’s a pet peeve of mine, but I’ve always understood the original meanings of theories or philosophies better than all the following reinterpretations that inevitable shape the popular worldview. Buddhism for instance is a perfect example. What this philosophy of life originally meant in India, has been readapted in China and transfigured in Japan in the potentially immediate epiphany of Zen, which was a perfect fit for the emerging bohemian lifestyle of the American West Coast, especially with the rise of capitalism and its immediate gratification …
As much as history as we know it is largely an account of those in power who had the resources, tenacity and temerity to do what they envisioned for themselves, heresy also played a profound role in human development and was consequently responsible for the scientific (r)evolution (or its slow progression in the Middle Ages). Why should myth be so sacred not to be affected by wider cultural changes, if it is in fact a cultural construct? Objectively speaking, it should not; however, the point I’m trying to make is that myth in its true essence is a cultural backdrop, a sacred cultural story that serves a deeper, psychological, metaphorical cause of constantly keeping any culture and its future generations connected to the original meaning, the original beauty of the story (of life) that binds traditions. While differences in any singe myth might serve as puzzle pieces of a larger cultural setting, I believe that myths are timeless in themselves, since they echo human nature at its purest, beyond political games or gains.
It is for this reason why scholars like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell have seen myths more as sacred stories than mere fictitious narratives. The sacrality of myth may be quite an elusive subject to try to discuss in any type of analysis, especially since it is directly linked to the spiritual nature and power of mythology. This, in turn, is the bridging element between mythology and religion.
In the realm of religion we have to be wary of formalism and labels. Religious terminology can be delicate to say the least. Not as much from a dogmatic perspective but a more practical one, since labels such as religion and Hinduism have long been a western invention. Hinduism is a contemporary tem that has only recently been accepted by the “Hindus”, similarly the way Christianity was labeled by this term and described by others, until the name consequently stuck. This not only implies the arbitrariness of the (western) terminology, but, what is more, perhaps reflects the inability to cover the wide range of meanings denoted by the term. Similar observations can be made with the westernization of names and notions – what has been for example accepted as Confucius (i.e. Master Kong) and the Way (Dao), respectively.
So, what is a sacred story? This phrase can functionally only be understood from inside a culture, from inside a religion or as Campbell has eloquently stated that mythology can be defined as other people’s religion. This statement embodies the connection between religion and mythology; namely, referring to stories (that are at the heart of both) as either sacred or profound, respectively. Such a perspective in fact denies the sacrality of myth in the strictest sense of the word and proposes that a myth/story only becomes “sacred” when it develops into the doctrine of a religious tradition (perceived from within) as opposed to just a mere fictitious story (when viewed from outside the sacred society). Campbell’s perspective encapsulates the connection between two traditions that may at first glance seem unconnected. However, in light of current scientific obsession with facts, this statement should be (in a Marxian-like reversal) turned upside-down. As the information craze and global communication of our generation has taken hold of our lives and has desecralized the mainstream, religion has in fact become other people’s mythology.
If the perception of myth can be seen in reference to the religious environment, there is a second possibility of myth being the child of time and tradition; meaning a past story that embodies aspects relevant to the present events and mapping out the future. However, if the passage of time plays a vital part in establishing a myth, a potentially big issue of what a contemporary myth actually is emerges. In other words: is a living myth only a myth? Myth seems to become a mythic after self-cultivation and cultural acceptance that echoes many generations and is not merely a popular trend. Perhaps the current cultural trends of passivity, immediacy and hedonism (in light of seemingly divine scientific know-it-all) are the reason why less importance is being placed on myth as a teaching tool and more on its falsehood, not the original, true meaning of myth as a meaningful, if not eternal story.
Bearing this in mind and returning to the myth/religion dichotomy, the second most fundamental difference between myth and religion is directly linked to the acceptance and spread of religious belief throughout history. Religion as such is for the most part seen as “living” religion, religion that is not only still in practice, but takes center stage in human lives globally – the great monotheistic religions, such as predominantly Christianity and Islam (and the many forms). Myth, on the other hand, is relegated to a “dead” religion, practices that have been preserved through artistry and culture, but have fallen out of favor of modern believers. The most obvious example is again the Greco-Roman tradition. It is, however, impossible to truly claim that a particular religion is “dead”, simply because it would fail to gather believers. Someone may still worship Zeus and I don’t mean in a misguided or quasi-rebellious Pagan manner for the sake of being “new-age”, but for the most part Greeks have long since accepted Orthodox Christianity. Zeus, however, will forever live in infamy through the splendid art he is featured in and has consequently inspired. Thus, every minority religion like Bahaism for example is globally less “alive” than the great Olympian gods of old. There’s an underlying hypocrisy of modern monotheism (or rather henotheism) in light of more polytheistic beliefs, but that’s a topic for future discussions …
If we take the premise of Auguste Comte that the development of religion followed a model that began at a fetishistic stage, continued through polytheism and evolved into monotheism, this position essentially leads from diversity into absolutism. Further, such positivism essentially foregoes myth for a more factual positive science in the long run. The Victorian anthropological school also advocated religious (cultural) evolution, such as Edward Burnett Tylor finding the ideological starting point in animism – attributing spiritual intelligence in natural phenomena. This model, which culminates in the predominantly monotheistic practice of the majority of the religious people today, implies that monotheism has survived because it offers a more “evolutionary” complete religious experience. This view, however, is centrally western as the stress is placed on the individual and absolutism as opposed to the communal practices and the stress on nature as present in eastern views (at least traditionally speaking).
(From such a perspective, Akhenaton’s attempt at a monotheistic revolution in ancient Egypt should have been more successful, while Hinduism as one of the oldest and richest polytheistic or rather pluralistic traditions would have long ago been left without such a devoted following. Nevertheless, all of these basic religious positions must take into account the influence of syncretism and the religious cooperation of cultures today; for example the amalgamation of Indian Buddhism and Daoism in China, its influence on Japan, spread to America and consequently the rest of the Western world, despite the fact that the original Buddhist tradition has been uprooted from India. Equally, the presence of myth as still living, active storytelling or mere remnants of the long-gone traditions still shapes our present worldview.)
We can only view the world in this very moment. Just as we can only really conceptualize what we do right now, we place more emphasis on temporal concepts of our existence – religion being the prime example. Religion is alive now because its rituals and rites of passage are still practiced at this time (baptism is a current reality, while the Delphic oracle is a mere remnant of a now tourist tradition). Accordingly, myths are present in this time because they are essential ingredients of any (sacred) tradition that has been brewing our imagination and potential for ages, exemplifying human life stages, change and the universal struggle between order and chaos. I would go so far as to say that there is no religion without myth, because every sacred tradition has a story of its foundation(s) and its development … whether they are to be understood as fables, satire, metaphors or literal is another matter.
I understand myths as stories that are inherently part of a larger tradition, either cultural or religious. Consequently, a specific mythology represents the quintessential body of work of a society, stories that transcend any given culture, since they reflect basic human nature. Because of this inherent connection between myth and religion, I tend to treat the two traditions equally important and may blur the lines where one stops and the other one begins. I don’t claim that myth equals religion or religion is merely myth, but the subject-matter of these respective disciplines cannot be analyzed separately. Whereas religion carries a greater socio-political value, mythology is part of its modus operandi. Pragmatically, religion can be seen as a system that provides doctrine to myth.
Plus, it’s always fine and dandy when thing go hand in hand and can be appreciated as such … like the cooperation of pictures and words in comics. There’s thick underlying sarcasm brewing between these lines, so I’ll stop here before it gets out of hand.
To be continued …
Given that this blog has a somewhat elusive name, it wouldn’t hurt to say a few words about its conception and meaning. The term Elysium refers to the Elysian Fields, the concept/realm/afterlife of the Ancient Greeks. Typically, it would denote the place where all the great (super)heroes of old would find lasting peace, prosperity, fame and all that good stuff. The name had to have been mythological in one way or another, because my research into the stories and traditions of old has opened my eyes in more ways than one … coincidently, it’s fitting that I also enjoy dabbling in things of visual nature, as the previous posts might have hinted at. I would have chosen Hyperborea, but it’s a bit less sexy and probably more obscure for most people, while terms like Valhalla are a bit too much on the nose. While these names/lands are hardly culturally interchangeable, for me Elysium embodies the positive approach to writing and a hopefully useful venue for discussion and sharing of information, knowledge and (hopefully inspiring) wisdom.
The logo of this blog depicts an owl with an “infinite” gaze and an unfolded scroll, all symbolic and mythic elements in one way or another. The general idea was to create something, chic and immediately recognizable, but with intricate meaning as well.
The sly if not ideological beauty of all of this is that I’m taking an ancient emblem like Elysium and transfiguring it, the same way as older myths were (and still are) used and reused by later generations. But before I go off on a tangent, which happens far too often, I’ll use this as a cheesy segue, so I can dwell into the complex world of myths.
For the etymology of myth, we obviously turn to the Greeks as one of the most dominant and influential mythic traditions of the western civilization as it exists (and persists) today. Their word μυθος (mythos/muthos) means a story, a tale. Myth is therefore a culture’s recollection of their legacy, origin and principles. We seem to have always told stories as a means to make the harsh reality of our lives easier. Myths are cultural stories about what the society tells itself in order to understand itself in the scope of the world or higher reality. On the other hand, mythology represents the “canon” of myths, a collection of stories in a particular society.
The question of the source of myth bears strong similarities to the question of the origin of humanity itself. We can consider theories like diffusion and parallel origin, the first reflecting the distribution of some central myths through contact among different cultures, while the second presupposes a common origin of myths, since human development and the stages of life have essentially remained the same. I mention these two processes merely because the principle of diffusion embodies the notion of syncretism or religious borrowing, which is the dominant aspect in the study of comparative mythology, since it influences a wider trans-cultural socio-political situation, whose effects can span centuries or even millennia in the case of Hinduism for example. Syncretism is best understood in the very conception of Greek myths … or rather Greco-Roman myths, since the Romans were notorious for engulfing the conquered nations and adapting their tradition for themselves (if it suited them). On the other hand, Greekdom and Hellenism are strongly contrasted by individual myths of various peoples in different poleis. The multitude of myths within a specific environment (which can in itself be culturally very diverse) is consequently contrasted with specific details that emerge as the most widespread motifs. Originality and borrowings seem to go hand in hand or at least their codependence demands cooperation of researchers from different fields pertinent to the subject matter.
Despite ongoing archeological and geological research, precise assessment is constrained by obvious lack of factual proof and even miscomprehensions of the traditions and times myths originated in. The answer to the question of whether diffusion or parallelism (in mythic terms monomyth or social environment … more on that in later posts) should be prominently accepted surely lies closer to aspects of both theories; while human existence is essentially bound to similar stages of life, each cultural narrative follows its own trajectory and is subject to its own space and time.
This brief discussion already alludes to the magnitude of some of these stories, which can be seen as either morality tales, traditional teachings or proto-scientific observations. Thus, definitions of myth may vary according to the position we take: a more philosophical one (myth as the inquiry of the world), phenomenological (myth as divine truth), psychological (myth as the internal struggle with the outside world), etc. From traditional tales of a society’s beliefs to sacred narratives and accounts of cultural gestation or greatness, myths have long inspired human imagination and aspired towards grandeur.
Nevertheless, what all of these positions have in common and what for the most part myths share with comics in general is that they are stories. Myths in their original sense refer to oral stories that were passed down from generation to generation and consequently written down as writing took hold of human development and progression of civilizations themselves.
The dichotomy of oral and written storytelling is quite profound and directly affects how myths are presented and perceived. Traditional societies such as the Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and many African and Mesoamerican tribes have been the basis for anthropologists to understand the enactment and legacy of myths. The bard tradition has a rich history and is not merely a remnant of old ways, but represents a personal, active enactment of stories in front of a live audience.
The distinction between oral accounts is twofold: on the one hand, oral stories represent a more intimate, personal account of the subject matter; especially in the case of stories referring to a particular familial legacy or a city state, such as the local myth of Theseus as the Athenian hero. On the other, oral stories were always in flux, reinterpreted and adapted in order to have a better effect on the crowd. While the latter issue represents the richness and range of myth as subject matter, it can be the source of frustration in study of mythology as well. Oral storytelling is consequently never fixed and nuances are constantly added or changed as generally every live performance of a story flows naturally, reflecting the natural mythic current, reminiscent of the Daoist symbolism of ever-changing, constant stream of water. Nevertheless, the overall meaning of the myth is mostly retained. The tradition of retelling the labors of Heracles for example features numerous variations: regardless if the Hydra he defeats has nine heads or fifty, his unmatched heroism is retained in all accounts, since Heracles is the quintessential Greek hero, who ushers in the Pan-Hellenic age, the age where Greek culture subdues the wild nature in its vicinity.
Once the story is written down, it becomes a permanent imprint, a “fossilized account” of the natural oral tale. This may nevertheless be invaluable for the modern scholars, who depend on actual accounts and records of past traditions. In ancient times, long before Herodotus wrote his Histories, record keeping was far from essential (especially considering the information craze of the current age), so any kind of clue we get into the lives of our ancestors is beyond precious; but those are nonetheless mere morsels of factuality that we base our consequent interpretations on. Like anthropologists discovering bones of dinosaurs, historians and linguists can deconstruct a story like Homer’s The Odyssey in numerous ways; yet, they can never truly decipher the essence of the myth, since it is invariably linked to the tradition of its time, plus its rituals and beliefs that may not be present in the story itself. In other words: while the bones may ultimately reconstruct the whole figure of the ancient creature, its essence can at best be speculated upon.
In the case where different written accounts of myths have survived, they can be easily taken out of context, downplayed or misunderstood, if the reader is not aware of the whole mythology of the culture in question. We have to understand that these stories were widely known and sometimes the author would make a strong point with a mere allusion to a particular myth (or not even mention something profound, because it was obvious to the listeners/readers); the message, however, not only fails to resonate on an equally high level with the modern reader, but the reference can actually be completely missed.
There is a reason, why the study of mythology is a life-long process …
Let’s take another look at Picture 2, but this time from a more nuanced mythological perspective. The connection between Spartans and Heracles goes far beyond the mere equation between this historic city state that embodied honor and prowess in battle and a mythic character that is synonymous with the whole Greek heroic age. The reference implies not just mere power and supernatural abilities, superhuman strength or fearlessness, but stresses the hero’s conflicting nature as well (as the spiteful goddess Hera caused his madness).
Psychologically, Heracles was tormented for his own killing of his family, while the Spartans were torn from normal upbringing and family life in favor of their overtly military culture. While this “inhuman” upbringing called agoge forced the children to fend for themselves in the wilderness to become better fighters, it also instilled unparalleled love for the Spartan polis; resulting in a quite natural comparison with Heracles, whose first act of valor was strangling two snakes in his infancy.
As the Spartans faced the historically unparalleled force of the Persian army, quite literally stopping the Eastern force from taking hold of all of Europe, Heracles took on tasks that were beyond human, scarifying himself like the Spartans did for the glory, freedom and future of Hellenism (which was undoubtedly the most influential concept in the evolution of the Western world as it still persist today).
Despite the fact that both the Spartans and Heracles were nowhere near chivalric or exemplifying moral goodness, they achieved immortality through their actions of bravery and remembrance through myth. Thus, the sentence: “The old ones claim we Spartans descend from Heracles himself” (Miller and Varley 2006: 73) carries with it a powerful message that requires understanding of myth, history, politics and Greek culture itself. From a strictly pictorial perspective, the cited sentence is almost subversively inserted into the battlefield in the panel. Amongst a barrage of arrows and the loud cry for death, the reference to Heracles can be easily lost, since the pictorial elements seem to indicate the ferocity of battle. Nevertheless, understanding the historical situation and close reading prove that the verbal elements carry their own interpretive weight beyond the obvious dominance of their pictorial counterparts.
To be continued …
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …