Adventures in Nomenclature: Literal, Liberal and Freestyle

Posted by on January 31st, 2010 at 8:16 PM

Whenever I hear comic art described as “realistic” or “cartoony” the first thought that comes to mind is that there has to be better ways to describe these things.  Realistic seems to me a poor term for comics that are scarcely realistic,  I once tried the term “romanticized realism,” but that doesn’t seem to cut it either.  As for “cartoony” it seems to me to be used 90% to describe the kind of comics the user doesn’t like, which seems a bit prejudicial.  Besides the pejorative connotation, it seems like the kind of words you use when you can’t think of the word you want:  (“It’s, I don’t know, cartoony.”)

I propose replacing “realistic,” with “literal.”  Literal cartooning attempts to show what its world would look like if it existed in life, even if that world was idealized or romanticized.  If you saw the Incredible Hulk on the street, he’d look like that.  The literal cartoonist is not portraying reality but creating a synthetic reality.  Characters are drawn in natural or naturally unnatural proportions, backgrounds are either detailed and accurate or believably generic, and devices such as speed lines, eyes that turn to exes to denote unconsciousness or figures that leap into the air when surprised are eschewed.  I would replace “cartoony” with “freestyle.”  The freestyle cartoonist on the other hand is completely liberated from the laws of nature and obeys only laws of communication.  He is free to use caricature, fantasy, stylization, abstraction and any conceivable device to engage the emotions of the reader.  If we were to construct a spectrum of literal to freestyle we would find on the far right the absolute literalism of Alex Ross:

Ross has achieved something readers of superhero comics have always longed for, to in effect take a camera to the superhero world and return with photos.  I must admit I’ve never read an Alex Ross story, though I’m intrigued by him.  What I’ve looked at has the appearance of fumetti, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what I’d think of as “good comics.”  On the other hand, I know for a fact my 14-year-old self would have loved the living daylights out of it, and anything that fulfills the longing of a readership has value.  Unlike the reams of lifeless literal cartooning on the market it has the virtue of being uncanny.  On the extreme left of the freestyle end of the spectrum you find a purely abstract cartoonist like Andy Konky Kru:

to be found in Abstract Comics, published by those commercial whores at Fantagraphics Books.  This far out on the freestyle spectrum you are sacrificing communication, as much by eschewing narrative as by eschewing representation.  You are also getting into the realm of fine art, a term which means “things R. Fiore does not understand,” and I will plead nolo contendre to a charge of philistinism to anyone who wants to bring one.  In more practical everyday terms the spectrum is defined on the literal end by Alex Raymond:

and the freestyle end by Carl Barks:

Most of the expressive potential of the medium lies in the freestyle, and if you take into account newspaper comics and gag cartoons the most widely popular comics are to be found there too.  The realm of the commercial comic book, at least from the 60s onwards, ruled by the literal, and by the folk belief that skill is defined by the ability to draw realistically, and that the freestyle is the refuge of those who lack ability.  Leaving aside the arguments that are merely foolish though, the literal cartoonist does gain something for the expressive tools he sacrifices, and that is conviction, the feeling in the reader that real things are happening to real people.  This is an especially useful quality in adventure comics.  It takes the skill of a Carl Barks to get the same kind of conviction in freestyle cartooning (a skill that makes Barks the freestyle cartoonist with the highest acceptance in the literal-minded adventure comics reader), but even there Barks creates the conviction that real things are happening to a real character, not a real person.  To take another example, Roy Crane, particularly in the days of Wash Tubbs, was about 70% a freestyle cartoonist:

but could shift effortless into a literal style to create conviction:

It is to a large extent the literal elements of the cartooning of Herge or Uderzo that gives their work conviction as adventure stories.

I speak of freestyle cartooning as if it were a set of techniques, but there is another aspect of freestyle cartooning in which the cartoonist’s way of drawing is simply a personal language.  The great New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast once referred to her drawing style as her handwriting, and there are a lot of freestyle cartoonists like that.  Jeffrey Brown is one, Joe Matt is another.

When I first floated this idea as a trial balloon in the Comics Journal message board years ago, the cartoonist Ayo argued that “naturalistic” made a better replacement for realistic than literal.  Naturalistic had the advantages that (a) it doesn’t require an explanation and (b) as an art term it has a connotation of eschewing stylization, and to be honest I’ve made more use of naturalistic in my own writing than literal.  Nevertheless, I’m attracted to the term literal because it leads to another useful concept, “liberal” cartooning.  Originally I was going to use liberal instead of freestyle for alliterative reasons, but I discarded it as excessively.  Then I thought of something else liberal could stand for literal cartooning that incorporates freestyle elements while still giving a literal impression.  The truth is that almost all literal cartooning is liberal to some extent – it would be lifeless if it didn’t.  The line from literal to liberal is crossed when the freestyle elements cease to be disguised.  The classic liberal is Will Eisner:

Farther out on the liberal spectrum while still staying just this side of freestyle is Jaime Hernandez:

If we imagine our spectrum with literal at the right and freestyle on the left, liberal cartooning isn’t at the center, it’s right of center.

Drawn & Quarterly’s recently released collection of John Stanley’s Thirteen Going on Eighteen is an object lesson of the proper uses of freestyle versus literal cartooning.  Those reading the first two issues drawn by Tony Tallarico will be wondering what all the excitement is about:

Aside from being utterly leaden, the overly literal artwork fixes the younger character’s too concretely.  Val is not thirteen going on eighteen, she’s a little girl, and doesn’t look at all look as though she’s ready for dating.  Clearly Stanley saw that this would never do, and took over the artwork himself.  Here are the same two characters when the series in full stride:

The artwork is filled with character because the character is in the lines, and the age of the younger girl has the ambiguity of the title.  And it’s perfectly stunning.

I just got around to reading a rare example of a freestyle cartoonist successfully adopting a literal style you can look to Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner.  Knowing that his natural freestyle cartooning wasn’t appropriate to the subject matter of a slave revolt in antebellum Virginia, he created a freestyle version of a literal style:

Thus combining the expressive qualities of freestyle cartooning with the sense of real things happening to real people.  In narrative technique it’s closer to a Lynd Ward-style novel in woodcuts than a comic strip.  Incidentally, it also answers the question he poses in the beginning of the book, which is given that slaves were physically fit and greatly outnumbered their overseers, “How does a weaker minority dominate a physically stronger majority?”  What he wants the answer to be the enforced illiteracy of the slaves, but what he illustrates with crystal clarity is the absolute futility of a slave revolt.  While the slaves at one plantation could overpower their overseers, they couldn’t coordinate revolts at several plantations at once, but had to go from plantation to plantation, organizing a new revolt at each one.  In the meantime, the slaveholders could gather their forces from around the countryside and concentrate them against the rebels, who would soon face an enemy that was better armed, better organized and on horseback.  But the overriding problem was simply that even if a revolt could be organized and gather forces, in the United States there was simply nowhere to go.  To find successful slave revolts you have to look to South America, where there was a possibility for fugitive slaves to band together for self-defense.  A fugitive slave colony in Palmares in Brazil held out against the Dutch and the Portuguese for nearly 90 years, mounted, organized and armed however they might have been.  But I think the real impulse behind Nat Turner, revealed in its remorseless depiction of the savagery of the revolt, is to see the slaves take the direct revenge against their oppressors that they were mostly denied.  In this it’s reminiscent of the work of Kara Walker, who seems to despise white abolitionists as much as the slaveholders, for usurping a struggle that ought to have belonged to the slaves themselves.

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