Thursday, September 05, 2013

Comic creation expertise and theory building

When I first started entering into discussions about visual language research, the fact that I actively created comics seemed like an important point that I would often stress. While I am a little more forgiving about non-creators doing theoretical work these days, I think there are some interesting trends that fall out of whether a person actively has created comics or not.

People who create comics, especially at a professional level—like Eisner, McCloud, and myself—tend to focus on the fairly normal, banal, and ubiquitous elements of the medium. This research usually emphasizes regularities, showing how things are systematic in unexpected ways, and/or providing taxonomies to better understand the pervasive and everyday elements of this visual language. 

On the other hand, people who do not actively create comics tend to theorize or discuss about the exceptional, unusual, and "rule-breaking" aspects of comic creation. They discuss the most artistic and poetic creators, and their examples usually are the most "interesting" ones out there. They are also the most likely to disparage the idea that regularities do exist in visual sequences.

This distinction makes sense to me. To people who are not actively immersed in the visual language, the things they find most interesting are the things that break the rules. Normal, ubiquitous elements of the system are just that: normal. They are less interesting because they are commonplace and less noticeable. These people also have less intuitions for the nature of the regularities, being unable to manipulate such structures in their own minds (thereby giving the illusion that no such structures are there).

For actual creators, the banal is highly interesting, because it allows us to understand and articulate the basic process and the intuitions that we have while creating. Our scholarship can be informed by how we actually think, as opposed to just what we see on a page far removed from the creative process. The medium is not a static, received thing, but rather a dynamic, created process.

I feel that this distinction is fairly important. As I've said before in my "advice to aspiring theorists," there is a danger in placing too much focus on the exceptional examples. Exceptional examples can be useful for revealing what makes them exceptional—and thereby highlighting how they contrast from the normal. However, building a theory entirely around the exceptional will leave out the normal, and it will ultimately be left unable to deal with the most basic aspects of the medium.

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