From the outset, works of art have been embedded with aesthetic appeal. They carve their very essence through the artist’s craftsmanship and insight, reflecting the ideals of form, function and greater social inspiration. I would like to think that cave paintings, the Renaissance classics as well as the modern memes at least in some aspect still pertain to the overinflating grandeur of the first sentence. To know the human condition, it helps to know the human endeavors and creative force. And art serves a purpose that very few other modes of expression can follow suit. It is a humanizing force that at least tries to adhere to the divine as well, but it also means understanding the self, its surroundings and the tying force that binds the personal and the social together … if not nature/existence altogether. And visual art (proper or not) has been the stable of our imaginatively progenitive endeavors for as long as we have made an attempt to copy, preserve and comprehend our states of mind and being.
It comes without saying that to understand a medium like comics, which centers on pictorial representation, one must become versed in various aspects of visual art. There is an obvious difference in the complexity of comics than specific art trends like surrealism or cubism for example; this, however, does not imply by any means that comics are a form of lesser artistic expression. They merely approach their subject matter differently and apply the basics or building blocks of the visual world in another way, specifically focusing and relating more to their sequential nature and narrative function.
What are these building blocks? Language fields like phonetics, morphology and semantics teach us how linguistic expression is a complex amalgamation of sound, form and meaning. To eventually understand the most comprehensive literature and complex philosophical thought, we must first learn to read and distinguish the basic phonemes, morphemes, letters and sounds which create a larger whole. In order to understand anything, we have to attribute meaning to it and essentially create a contrast between what is known, what has meaning and what is unknown (in some way seemingly bereft of meaning). Pictorial representation follows alarmingly similar principles.
To simplify things even further, you could say that understanding pictures requires knowledge of basic shapes and colors. But that’s obviously too vague a statement, so we’ll have explore it further. The area where pictorial and linguistic elements meet is semiotics. While the understanding of cultural meanings of signs and their progressive development offers vital clues into their application in a give work, there is still a measure of subjective implementation of sings both from the viewpoint of the author and the reader. To complicate matter further, there must always be a distinction between the meaning of a sign in isolation and in a particular setting. In such a way the sign + may be either a plus sign or a cross; however, in works brimming with religious imagery (such as Hellboy, Lucifer or Preacher that I’ve already touched on), cross itself conveys a much deeper meaning to different religions and cultures, not just the tradition out of which and through which the works gain strength. Arguably, we can find syncretic parallels to let’s say a Celtic cross … and that’s part of the fun, intrigue and frustration in trying to assign meaning of a specific symbol within a specific culture, specific era and consequently even specific way of reading it in that particular context. Now, there’s a lot of “relativity” here, but the point is that you have to have a feel for the subject matter and you need to understand the work you are reading or the painting you are observing (or the music you are listening, etc.), for it to make greater sense. This means that there is no absolute interpretation, because meaning gets easily transcended and often the intention of the artist can be swayed more towards popular opinion of their work, regardless if the mass got it right.
Depiction of signs and imagery brimming with not just every possible cultural form but spirituality and human life has been a long-standing tradition in all art fields. We attribute meaning to the world around us in order to make sense of it. Without it, this very writing becomes fast obsolete. While theoretically speaking markings of any kind may be artificial constructions that cannot capture the essence of life they paradoxically try to convey, we are essentially part of this planet, so our reflection of the world around us should in one way or another try to point to truths within said world that are not just arbitrary. The circle for example has historically gained a very prolific pool of meanings. Referring to unity or nothingness, the sun or the night, the sign O may be a natural choice for its many meanings, since the spherical form reflects the shape of many objects in the Universe. Therefore, while even da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man may concretely be nothing but scribbles on canvas, the meticulous draftsmanship, the form and the meaning of the picture nevertheless reflect a higher truth. For those very reasons and after half a millennium of its conception the work still permeates human imagination.
My research essentially tries to follow the principles of Euclidian geometry, inherent gravitational principles, psychological means and cultural distinctions (particularly regarding color). This, however, is at best times only a smart-ass guessing game that can quickly fall prey to scrupulous overinterpretation or gets caught between the overtly subjective worlds of either the author or the reader.
In other words, since the world of comics reflects the natural world, there is neither a uniform code of expression nor definite rules that every single artist follows. As does all art. Even the works that go against the principles of nature and physical reality are nevertheless based IN this reality; namely, they are created by the author in this world observed and comprehended through the means and senses of people in the same plane of existence. Otherwise we would not be able to comprehend them, even if only on a very miniscule level. Higher spiritual and divine realities by their very nature extend beyond the physical existence in which this writing is presented as well. Thus, such “higher” comprehension by its very nature becomes pragmatically excluded from our mundane experience.
Historically, we can observe certain visual conventions for artistic representation in any given art field. Different periods of time obviously reflect different social, cultural, ideological, technological times, but within this diversification there lays the ever-present humanizing force that seeks to show the then and future generations aspects of the visual world or of the interior world of dreams and imagination.
Genre distinctions and specifics of a particular medium govern the “rules” of a particular filed of expression. I believe it was Picasso that was of the mind that once mastered, even those rules are to be broken for progression and complexity of life to be furthered (otherwise there would be no cubism for example, while within mythological framework the work of tricksters would be likewise in vain). The comics environment is just as specific as certain artists have a tendency towards a particular composition for example (i.e. Alan Moore’s complex multi-narratives and masterful verbal coinage or Mike Mignola’s expressionistic prowess of telling more with less). A wide variety of works and compendiums can be found on the nature of symbolism and the consequent attributed meanings to specific signs. As such, it is pointless to provide a long-winded narrative on the nature of every single possible symbolic representation, because it can vary considerably and it often becomes a deconstructive pain in the ass, because very few authors actually provide an in-depth etymological account … because to put it bluntly: there’s too much painstaking work and not enough appreciation.
Look at it this way: there will always be cultural symbols and to really know them you have to study said culture. (And for the most part its neighbors as well, because no one evolves in isolation, so there’s influence galore!) Now, let’s say you have a broad understanding of how for example the circle has been represented religiously in Western Europe. Does that relate fully to the mathematical use of the circle within the Muslim scientific revolution or the “number” zero in ancient India? Does the circle divert in some way to the Daoist philosophical decree? The easy answer is that the circle does symbolizes unity, the sun, pervasiveness and fullness/emptiness cross-culturally, but the paradox is that it does so diversely in each era and within its specific playing field. So saying that something is universal is missing the point, because the formalistic hive-mind of humanity tends to oversimplify things for the sake of easier comprehension and consumption by the non-experts. (Plus, nothing is “universal” per se. It’s only on the level of “as far as we know it”.) Symbols like Pi Π or Phi Φ are used similarly. Both are either letters or essential numbers. But the number of Pi as 3.14(159…) is a simplified approximation (for obvious reasons that most people hate numbers), just as much as the golden ratio of Phi is rendered as 1.618(033…). How each is used, however, depends heavily where you stand. There’s a big different in jotting down Π just as a sign of some mathematical mumbo-jumbo, of using Φ as the spiral of life. And even that depends heavily, if you’re working the philosophical angle or are trying to disclose some would-be universal patterns … All in all, there are ample examples of use of signs of all kind. Relativity is a fickle thing, indeed.
When you are dealing with a visual medium such as comics, the meaning of a single line, its depth, color, position, means of rendering, etc., creates plentiful conversational topics to consider, because for the most part the artists have indeed considered most of those and many more. What the reader sees and reads is the product of a work brimming with details that get for the most part only glanced over, because reading is relatively fast and our ability to scan pictorial elements faster still. Therefore it’s important to know how something might work for the most part. While specific industry and production demands always create their own ideology of artistic work, it, however, behooves me to stress some principles that I have found essential for a complex, meaningful pictorial representation in general. The focus in this context will be on physiognomy, facial expressions, minimalism and stereotypes.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …