I’m not click-baiting, stereotypes really are essential in comics comprehension. This refers to (over)emphasis of specific character traits, which is to an extent quite evident in caricatures, where exaggeration is inherent, apparent and in for the most part instantaneously recognizable. This notion may seem in conflict with previous examples of visual art (staying true to human anatomy and keeping exceptional moments to a minimum); however, stereotypical depiction in comics equates neither cliché nor absurdity. There is an obvious distinction between a cliché used as an escape route, a mere narrative element, weak plotline or even an offensive characterization of a particular class, gender or belief for example. However, stereotypes as comprehensive storytelling devices are not used to offend neither the conservative nor liberal types.
Stereotypes don’t hinder the work, but enhance it because of the strong, deliberate characterization. They pictorially stress specific features for them to be immediately recognizable. In such a way clarity is achieved through the use of recognizable character traits. We can correlate this even to pantomime, professional wrestling, drama, and film as well, where you often have to exaggerate and go over the top in order to get the desired effect (again, context matters). In comics, the artist for example has to stress the visuals of a character or a scene in general for that very matter, so the linguistic elements are free to carry their part of the narrative without having to describe the character’s features in great detail. Writing in comics is specific, since the writer is restrained by the amount of text that goes into each panel, so they have to be more precise, distinct, clear and resourceful in their phrasing. Speaking from many years of experience, this process can to a large extend be compared to translating … subtitling in particular. The translator like the comics writer “suffers” from the visual constraints of either the subtitle or the balloon, so their respective inventiveness, adaptability and creativity are constantly tested in order to be able to express an idea sometimes in more than one way (especially those writers in the limited 24-page comic books of the mainstream publications).
The principle of stereotypical depictions per se is predominantly used (and abused) in cartoons, where the hero has for example been traditionally portrayed as handsome and broad-shouldered, while the villain’s visuals are sharper and s/he is typically clad in dark clothes. Eisner offers an excellent old-school take on this notion, which stays evergreen (still applied to wrestling as previously mentioned). Running can for further example be overemphasized to the degree where the character may have legs extended beyond the capabilities of even the best ballerinas, gymnasts or contortionists, while the expression of shock on the face can be drawn with mouth and eyes open to a realistically absurd degree.
Comics have to adhere to similar principles, even if the approach is more “realistic” or the theme of the work more “mature”. An argument can be made that the most realistic portrays manage to step outside of the principle of stereotypes, since the material mimics the natural world to the extent that exaggerations are not possible. Especially with stylistic photorealism and with the xerographic technique for example, where actual photos are used and manipulated into creating a story. As the comic seems and feel more real, the stereotypical representation (if deemed necessary) transfers to either the ideological or the metaphoric level. So it helps to look at it as stressing the essentials and choosing the appropriate panel, in which the artist “stressed” a specific posture or scenery as opposed to another, because you want the reader to get your work and feel it without overthinking and overanalyzing every picture. Unless that’s the point of the comic … but that’s very rare.
Suspension of disbelief is always the crucial element that enables the reader to for example take Spiegelman’s anthropomorphic animal creatures in MAUS as humans (which coincidentally creates even greater shock). The language of comicana is the perfect example of such “stereotypes”. The signs on paper or on the screen reflect senses (such as smell and hearing) that cannot be achieved otherwise. Stereotypes, referring to the previously discussed aspect of simplification, reflect the basic human nature of labeling and organizing elements into a more or less coherent whole; the discipline whose roots are surely the most entangled with this principle is history proper. The Hellenistic age and Renaissance are arbitrary labels that modern thinkers have placed on specific traditions that were realistically neither restricted to their respective time-spans nor can objectively be viewed only through what they imply. Consequently, this is as arbitrary as setting the birth of Jesus as the starting point for counting years. Hellenistic age semantically implies the rise of Greek – Hellenic – culture, yet it actually marked its final demise through the Macedonian (Greek) and later Roman dominance. Renaissance on the other hand literally means renewal, yet for rebirth to occur the tradition of Greco-Roman-inspired art would had to have been completely forgotten (an ideologically semantic dispute, I know), which was and still is hardly the case, since the whole model of Western civilization consistently remains the remnant of Ancient Greece.
Last but not least, stereotypes in comics can be seen as mythological archetypes, images that reflect the basic human nature. In a medium suffering from economy of use and density of information they can thus be easily recognizable. Humanity has a tendency to understand and simplify matters so they can be easily understood, yet their true nature is far from straightforward (Jung be proud). Comics (and even more so myth) is an exemplar of this notion: while it is fairly easy to explain the medium, its complex nature and beauty reach far beyond the oversimplistically obvious word-picture interplay.
Either way, this concludes the four-part series on the comics-related essentials of visual art. If another principle worth stressing pops up, I’ll include it in future posts, but for now I’ll continue slogging along with some more basics about shapes (and color) and probably a review or two, because there’s plenty of comics that beckon analytical attention. I know the last post about minimalism (and maybe this one as well) went a bit all over the place and away from artistry proper, but the fun and beauty of art in general is its pervasiveness in making itself the conduit of comprehension and perception of our very being. The thing is that I tend to see connections between let’s say certain philosophical notions and natural phenomena that are often not necessarily thought about together. When I try to make sense of this, I far too often connect them way better in my head than it ends up on (digital) paper. I dunno, it’s a gut feeling as much as it is research-based. I like to consider these allusions and connections of different subject matter (that I’m sure a lot of you find ridiculous or nonsensical … not because you wouldn’t be able to get it, but because I fail to convey them optimally) an attempt to understand my own mind and comprehend the larger reality that has invariably shaped this noggin of mine. If at least one person gets it, I’ll be more than happy, because that will mean I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass, but am in fact trying to put in perspective things I’ve come across in my research and life in general.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …