The Use of Sequential Art

Posted by on February 9th, 2010 at 10:24 AM


In Comics and Sequential Art (1985) – more specifically, in the chapter titled “Application (The Use of Sequential Art)” – Will Eisner offers the following insight:

In general terms we can divide the functions of Sequential Art into two broad applications; instruction and entertainment. Periodical comics, graphic novels, instructional manuals and storyboards are the most familiar vehicles. in the main, periodical comics and graphic novels are devoted to entertainment while manuals and storyboards are used to instruct or sell. But there is an overlap because art in sequence tends to be expository.

I’ve long admired the confident didacticism of this passage, which pushes “instruction” ahead of “entertainment” and assumes that “manuals and storyboards” are among “the most familiar vehicles.” Eisner’s agenda, of course, is to awaken the reader to the medium’s remarkable expository potential. Technical Instruction Comics! Attitudinal Instruction Comics! Reading between the lines, it seems apparent that Eisner saw these comics as the wave of the future. After all, what better means is there for “conditioning an attitude”?

Another instructional function of this medium is conditioning an attitude toward a task. The relationship or the identification evoked by the acting out or dramatization in a sequence of pictures is in itself instructional. People learn by imitation and the reader in this instance can easily supply the intermediate or connecting action from his or her own experience. Here too there is no pressure of time as as there would be in a live action motion picture or animated film. The amount of time allowed to the reader of a printed comic to examine, digest and imagine the process of acting out or assuming the role or attitude demonstrated is unlimited. There is room for approximation and opportunity for specific performances which the reader can examine without pressure. Unlike the rigidity of photographs, the broad generalizations of artwork permits exaggeration which can more quickly make the point and influence the reader.

It’s not difficult to imagine Eisner making this same pitch to Proctor and Gamble or Pan Am execs, trying to sell them on instructional comics as the way to reach consumers and employees alike. His long career as a visual propagandist – for a certain conception of comics as well as for specific companies and causes – remains an underappreciated aspect of his life and work as a whole. There is definitely a sense in this chapter that he is trying to seal the deal, both intellectually and commercially.

Eisner recognized that the line between instructional and entertainment comics is fuzzy, of course. A detective story might include instructions in how to open a safe, for example, while an illustrated manual might include visual gags. But he nevertheless assumed these were the only options. A particular comic might combine the two elements in some novel way, but the possibilities of the medium were bound up with these two categories.

I’m not convinced. At the risk of sounding picky, I wonder if there is a third category – comics that neither “instruct” or “entertain” but play with abstract ideas. Which category does Richard McGuire’s “Here” fall into, for example? Is it an “instructional” comic? Is it “entertaining”? Well, kinda, but neither term quite captures its detached, cerebral, dare-I-say-it “philosophical” quality. It’s a comic of ideas, as it were.

Another example of non-instructional/non-entertainment comics is provided by the work of Tom Kaczynski, who has been contributing to MOME for the past few years. In my next post I hope to reproduce the conversation Tom Kaczynski and I had on stage at last year’s MoCCA Festival. To make the wait more pleasant, here is a page from Cartoon Dialectics, Vol. 1. Instructional? Entertainment? Neither term encapsulates the ruminative, inquisitive and open-ended quality of Kaczynski’s best cartooning.

 

 

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2 Responses to “The Use of Sequential Art”

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    ———————–
    Kent Worcester:
    …It’s not difficult to imagine Eisner making this same pitch to Proctor and Gamble or Pan Am execs, trying to sell them on instructional comics as the way to reach consumers and employees alike…
    ———————-

    As the “Comics-style magazine ads” thread ( http://archives.tcj.com/messboard/viewtopic.php?t=3949&start=0 ) over in the TCJ message board shows, for targeting consumers, comics were hardly a new idea.

    But, are most of these comics-style ads “infotainment”? They routinely try to manipulate attitudes like any propaganda would…

    ———————-
    … At the risk of sounding picky, I wonder if there is a third category – comics that neither “instruct” or “entertain” but play with abstract ideas. Which category does Richard McGuire’s “Here” fall into, for example? Is it an “instructional” comic? Is it “entertaining”? Well, kinda, but neither term quite captures its detached, cerebral, dare-I-say-it “philosophical” quality. It’s a comic of ideas, as it were.
    ———————-

    Certainly! But I dunno if at the time of the book Eisner conceived of such a thing…

  2. ethanyoung says:

    Infotainment sounds like a description of effective propaganda.