BY RONNIE SCOTT
Hello. My name is Ronnie and this is the story of how I failed to draw a comic. Throughout this process, I tried to illustrate various colours, shapes, and lines. What I ended up illustrating is a trio of clichés: those who can’t do teach; it’s harder to make than to criticise; and scholars tend to be somewhat divorced from their research topics. Please, make yourself comfortable and watch a grown man drown before your eyes. I sometimes get to work as a comics critic, which I love: it’s Chris Ware who said that comics is the only art form where you have to explain the medium’s history before addressing a single one, so I often get to editorialise and soapbox and opine before digging into the comic at hand—usually a big no. Meanwhile, my doctoral thesis, which I spent four years of my life writing, was basically an attempt to redefine comics as an art of space, rather than an art of time. It was the kind of supernerdy, fine-grained study that only its author could love, but one detail is germane here: I don’t believe my own argument; it’s an opening gambit, a bargaining position, a thesissy point of departure, one that allowed me to get into the guts of why comics is uniquely itself. Comics’ engagement with space and time, how it messes them both up, is different to the dimensional engagement of any other narrative form.
This thesis is how I ended up teaching for a semester in Australia’s first and only postgraduate-level comics-making course. Since the course, which is run at the University of Melbourne, involved a steep learning curve, many of our workshops were run by luminary practitioners who were brought in to help a room full of creative writers—verbalists—learn to tell stories visually. I sometimes participated shyly in the guest lecturers’ drills, but more often I pretended to shuffle my papers and look seriously at my attendance grid: “Yes, this student really has shown up to many classes indeed.”
This is because when trying to draw I feel like a baby, and I’ve grown very accustomed to feeling like an adult. I’ve never had a single moment of career-centric ambivalence in my life. I don’t know when I decided to be a writer, but I must have been young, young, young, and it’s not necessarily because writing is fun; writing is embarrassing and isolating and dull. It’s because someone told me at an early age, possibly my mum, that I had a reasonable grasp of words and sentences, and I like doing easy things. Most of the time, writing feels like pulling teeth out of your eyeballs, but it’s the path of least resistance compared to maths or lifting stuff.
It’s also a good excuse to better understand things you don’t understand very much, which can feel rewarding when the poorly understood thing is also something you love. That is how I ended up writing about comics so much. There are many pages of comics that give me a feeling I can only describe as sublime: you’re close to the artist’s hand, an artefact of craft, but also close to their thinking, which has built a sort of architecture on a two-dimensional page which is calibrated to direct your attention between multiple spaces and multiple times, asking you to consider them separately and at once. It’s physical and intellectual, both bodily and smart.
Most things I write about never inspire me to leave the comfortable parameters of the words themselves—but imagine being the kind of person who’s able to draw that stuff. A good page of comics requires a knack for observation, a sense of compositional balance that really is mathematically precise, and basic hand-eye coordination skills. I would dearly love to present to the world the impression that I possess any or all of these things.
But I don’t, and so I looked for cheats. I mainly write in my thesis as a narratologist, which means I use long-established frameworks to study what narrative is, how stories are put together and how they work and why. One of the biggest differences between narrative media, like text or art or film, is their varying engagements with fake and real spaces and times. Text exploits a verbal track with fixed space and variable time, whereas a ninety-minute film takes just that long to play for anybody: so far, so obvious. But once you have stated such obviousness, you can go ahead and explore how some instance of narrative media takes an imaginary, posited world and works to convey it to an audience. Both the conveyance, and by extension the world supposed by the act of conveying, are determined by the capabilities and limitations of the form.
Comics is interesting because it uses the same breadth of page-space to convey aspects of space and aspects of time; the same two-dimensional plane often does double-duty showing time that progresses in the story and fixed instances of space, with infinite variations on how these four fake dimensions are combined. It’s very easy to geek out over this if you’re interested in understanding how to create effects like stasis and simultaneity and order and speed, which are all riffs on the process by which the phenomenon of narrative itself comes to exist.
One good definition of narrative is just “change over time”—the illusion that something is caused by something else just because it happens afterwards, the deliberate confusion of consecution and consequence. That’s why some definitions of comics call it “sequential art”, and why others call it “narrative art”, because really a page of comics causes things to happen both separately and at once. It’s both sequential and simultaneous; constantly reshuffled and weighed up.
And when you think about these things long enough, you can start to believe that structure is the main reason comics is interesting at all. This is where the cheating comes in. If you can strip comics to the basics and expose its DNA—privileging context over content, leaving just time and space themselves—then maybe it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw very well. It seems elaborate, but to give you an idea of how bad I really am: one of the terrific workshops in this Graphic Narratives class involved veteran artist Bernard Caleo showing everybody how to make flexible and essential icons of themselves by using variations on the letters in their names. For mine, I drew the letter R; tilted it; and flipped the page, so my movement was limited to falling over and lying flat on the ground.
So I began thinking of an Ellsworth Kelly show I saw at MoMA this year: the Chatham Series, fourteen paintings each made of two monochrome canvases joined in the shape of an “L”. For a New York Times critic, “the best of them are so perfectly made that we tend to forget about their physical nature, concentrating solely on their visual effects instead. Their perfection creates an aura of eternal newness”. My response was to buy a set of Faber Castell connector pens.
Rather than an aura of eternal newness, what I ended up with were several large blocks of colour that combined to create for the reader no experience at all. I’m not saying there weren’t patterns; I’m not saying there weren’t lines. But inventing a purpose for these items which I may or may not have drawn is too difficult for a writer as comfortable as myself.
If you’re going to expose an artwork’s structure, which is what I tried to do, you’re taking so much of the pleasure the audience usually expects, so you have to offer back something equal or preferably greater to make up for the absence of characters or events. Really good work that exposes itself is more additive than not; ultimately that’s the way time works as well. Every option you take pushes you further away from others you might have taken deeper in the past. Consecution really does have consequence; the past really is gone. But in exchange, you get experience—in this case, enough to realise that my Faber Castell connector pens will look good for a long time if I don’t grubby them up too much in service of making terrible art. I’m better writing than doing. But also, how nice to shut up and let yourself be dazzled by undoable art—tricked into believing that it isn’t very hard.
Ronnie Scott is a frequent contributor to The Believer, Meanjin, the Australian, and ABC Radio National, and editor of The Best of The Lifted Brow (Hunter, October). Visit him at www.ronalddavidscott.com.