January 28, 2008
Posted by: Mark Siegel
Categories: :01 Stop: Watch
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[From the desk of A.B. Sina]

Absina

The first comic book I ever read was Tintin’s The Black
Island
in a Farsi (or Persian) translation. I remember the cover perfectly – a
boy and his dog on a small motorboat heading out across the choppy waters
towards a dark castle in the distance with blackbirds circling ominously
overhead. Everything about it said ‘Adventure’ and I could easily imagine
myself as that boy, all eager and determined. My dog was pretty smart too,
though his name was Igor. When I looked at the cover again recently to confirm my
memory, I realized that castle from afar looks very much like the citadel in
the Prince of Persia graphic novel (rendered perfectly by LeUyen and Alex),
except instead of a body of water, our citadel is set apart by a desert, a body
of sand. This was not deliberate at all. It had something to do with memory, of
course, but I also suspect Adventure has its own structures, its own visual
forms and traditions.

All of Tintin’s adventures had been translated into Farsi,
but thanks to a number of comic book stores and westernized outlets we also had
access to a pretty wide range of comics in English. Two of our favourites were
Asterix and Lucky Luke, which happened to be French but which we read in
English translations. I also remember reading the American comics, everything
from Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich the Poor Little Rich Boy to The
Green Lantern
and Captain America. Aside from the characters, I remember two
things very distinctly about those Marvel and DC Comics books. First, the
smell. They had that mulchy smell of new paper, unsullied still by the sweat
and scent of human hands, but thanks to the cover they also smelled like
plastic. They smelled the way they looked: glossy. The second thing I remember
was the repetition of those odd ads inside every cover. The little strip of the
scrawny boy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face and then, thanks to
the Charles Atlas body building manual, taking his revenge on the bully and
walking off with the bikini-clad girls. It was the storyline of all the
superhero comics in a nutshell; it also summarized the motives of the audience,
perhaps a little too well. Then there were those mail order sea horses. Drop
some dry stuff into water and you get real live sea horses in your own bowl.
Those Americans could do anything. But what I could never forget were the
Twinkies, the cream-filled lusciousness of those Hostess cakes. I’d go to bed
dreaming of twinkies and their creamy insides. Imagine the disappointment when,
on a visit to the US, I first unwrapped the artificial and ignobly uncreamy
bars.

So I had my little comics collection, but it paled before
the stacks my cousin had accumulated. His budget was clearly more generous.
Whenever I went over, I was sure to find two new, knee-high stacks of comic
books in his bathroom. I’d go in for Number Two and emerge three hours later
having travelled to Egypt, outer space, suburban America and back, the small
matter of Number Two long forgotten. That was where I got my real potty
training. Or rather, that potty was where I got my real training – where for
uninterrupted hours, my imagination learned how to take flight and just go
elsewhere.

‘Elsewhere’ is a pretty good place to head for if you are
going to write anything, but especially if you’re going to write graphic
novels, because their horizon of possibilities is so limitless. What I didn’t
realize until much later, was that while I was reading all those foreign comics
with all their obvious elsewheres in foreign lands, I was also being exposed to
another source, an older source, of inspiration. I was lucky enough to be
exposed to a small family collection of old books which included lots of
manuscripts with miniature paintings. Iranian miniatures may be considered some
of the earliest versions of the form we have come to call the graphic novel.
They were originally drawn in order to illustrate episodes in epic or narrative
poems. That is, they were made for books, for the art of the book, hence their
size and their attendant label. To be totally accurate, the first miniatures
were drawn in the 9th and 10th centuries to illustrate scientific
books, books on plants and mechanical instruments. Depicting people was still
deemed too idolatrous. For about 4 centuries after the Muslim armies swiftly
defeated the Iranian dynasties and began to administer the land, images were
pretty much banned. As with the Jews, the Muslims took their ban against graven
images quite seriously. Slowly, things loosened up. The first things to be
‘imaged’ were, as I said, plants and tools, pretty harmless stuff that did not
give God or the prophet much competition. Eventually a few human figures were
smuggled in, standing next to plants or rotating as a piece of some mechanical
calendar. The next step inevitably was a hero with a sword from an old poem but
made more or less in the image of the current ruler. By the end of it, from the
14th century on, you had elaborate networks of workshops and
employees – perhaps not unlike Marvel, say – full of masters and apprentices
churning out book after book, inlaying the throne with gold leaf and smearing
the sky with crushed lapis. These medieval graphic novels were for private
consumption, usually made for members of the court, commissioned by a prince or
a governor. It is not clear how exactly the books were ‘enjoyed’ or circulated.
Were they read quietly before bed time? Did they get passed around with the
opium pipe? Were they used to seduce the new harem girl? Were they stacked up
in the bathroom like my cousin’s comics?

Like all hardcore imperial cultures, Iranians like to claim
to be the best or the biggest or the first at something, even everything. I’m
not really trying to claim anything like that – I’m not saying we did it first,
way before Macmillan. In fact, a whole bunch of people did it before the
Iranians. Miniatures were really a form that developed out of east asian
painting. After the ban of images, there was no real indigenous tradition of
figurative art. So most of it came from China – check out the clouds for
example – and some of it from India. If you look at old Chinese and Japanese
scrolls that unfold, or rather unroll, into a narrative, you are looking at
even earlier versions of graphic novels. And one could go back little by little
all the way to Egyptian hieroglyphics which were the first narrative
illustrations, the perfect union of text and image, or of language and image.
Each representation, being itself an image, was performative and figurative at
the same time. A speech bubble would make no sense, which is why the joke –
Egyptians with hieroglyphic speech bubbles – in Asterix and Cleopatra works so
well. Or we could go even further back, before text, and consider the Lascaux
cave paintings as the first illustrated stories. Mom and Pop Neanderthal
telling Junior a good story on the cave wall.

All I’m trying to do, really, is to think of the development
of my own imagination relative to the form (graphic novel) and then, more
importantly, to think about the form itself, think about some of the elements
of this form through a kind of genealogy, as maddeningly arbitrary or uselessly
expansive as it may be. I think the most interesting art is always art that
kicks formal butt. Good stories are everywhere, stories well told are hard to
come by. For it to be well told, it has to consider the technology of its
telling. So by ‘formal’ I don’t mean just good craft, but something that
considers the essence of the craft, of its medium and context, and then breaks
or innovates or maximizes or echoes or ironizes. Every art has frames,
structures, traditions, and a particular technology or medium which allow it to
be good or efficient in only a couple of important ways. For example, one could
say pigment is a medium of painting, as time is a medium of video, the cut is a
medium of film. I think the page is the medium of the graphic novel. No other
form has the page as its essential medium. This is not news to graphic
novelists of course. But thinking about it genealogically, makes me think of
the page differently.

What constitutes a page? One could start thinking about the
evolution of the ‘page’ for example, from cave walls to Internet Explorer, via
the story of Jesus on the walls going around the church. But our concept of the
page is also influenced by our experience and memories of what a page is.
‘Reading’ the life-sized panels of Jesus’ story as a believer in the setting of
the church is a very different experience than reading it on a page on your
lap. Ditto for Iranian manuscripts with their minute attention to detail and the
single, rather than sequential, image. Yet, I can’t help but think of these as
also ‘pages’ and ‘panels’ that bear a relationship to graphic novels, that can
be incorporated, to use Church terminology.

Similarly, one could also ask: are the Charles Atlas ads or
twinkies ads, which were definitely a big part of the experience for me, a part
of the medium itself? I myself thought a lot about the breaking up of the page
as I wrote Prince of Persia. At what point, for instance, did we develop a
tradition of breaking up pages and what does that allow us to do? Iranian
miniatures as well as early European religious paintings contained different
time-frames within one spatial frame, thus substituting space for time. So, for
example, the whole history of St John would be contained in one frame, but he
was young and fishing near a river on the left while he was getting beheaded
down on the right at the bottom of the hill. In other words, the frame – the
space – remained unitary. In fact, the sanctity of space was often emphasised
by a heavy frame that contained it, that prevented it from breaking. Iranian
miniaturists paid a ton of attention to the frame – to designing, decorating
and gilding it – even though it was part of a book and not designed to hang on
a wall. But some very good Iranian miniaturists would occasionally get
heretical and break it open, letting a tree or a rock or even a person or horse
to step over the frame, to reveal (and thereby also emphasize) the very conceit
of ‘a page’, of unitary, framed space. In the comics I grew up on, unitary
space did not exist. It was panel after panel, each panel containing its own
time and what mattered was the arrangement on the page.

It was through thinking about these kinds of issues that I
got interested in including some of the ideas into the graphic novel – by
referencing the book itself, by bringing miniatures in as an integral part of
the form (again, the illustrators Alex and LeUyen did an outstanding job of
this), by playing with space and time on the page as well as in the story, even
by having a prince spend hours sitting on the ‘throne’ – by doing all this I
wanted to incorporate (and hopefully expand) the full range of formal
possibilities, the full range of memories and experiences that made up my sense
of a graphic novel. I just couldn’t fit in a Twinkies ad.

[UP NEXT WEEK: TRANSLATOR ALEXIS SIEGEL]

One Comment on “ A.B. Sina on Comics ”

  • Moncler Billig | December 2nd, 2011 4:21 am

    Good stuff as per usual, thanks. I do hope this kind of thing gets more exposure.

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