East or West, or Whatever Your Fetish

    It’s not too far-fetched to say I’m maniacal about comics. I grew up with them, and at the moment I pretty much live and die by them.

    So when I explain my passion to curious onlookers, I’m always a little surprised when they tell me they’ve never read a comic book before. The reasons are always diverse: For some, it’s that comics are daunting — the moment they read a page, they’re overwhelmed by visuals and don’t know where to begin. Others find the content immature, or the emotional conflict within superheroes silly and unrelatable.

    Whatever the reason, I feel it’s a big misunderstanding. Since I am of the opinion that comics can be just as fulfilling as any other storytelling medium, I want to use this opportunity to discuss the fulfilling ways one can approach and interact with comics.

    Assuming you’re reading from a physical Guardian instead of the online version, I encourage you to walk to the nearest bookstore (UCSD’s included) and cozy up to the comics/graphic-novels section. If this is your first time ’round these parts, there’s a good chance your eye will immediately fall on the shelves of Marvel and DC compilations — or a large body of books with numbers on their spines.

    Say ‘Hello’ to the two biggest entities in comics: Western superheroes and Japanese manga. Take a moment to get acquainted. Now, grab a comic that catches your eye and continue reading this column before glancing back at said comic. Are you ready?

    At first impression, the comic page is indeed daunting. There are lots of images and words, both large and small — trust me when I say I understand your pain. But if you’re still with me, I’m here to help. First thing to note is that a comic page is a lot like a poster, only a fourth or eighth of the size. Accordingly, you should read the page as you would read a poster: from top to bottom.

    Now, depending on if you picked up a Western or Japanese comic, you’re either going to be reading from top left to bottom right, or top right to bottom left, respectively. But it’s OK — the method of reading rarely changes.

    The way you interpret a comic, however, depends entirely on the way it’s presented. Comics, like every other medium, come in a variety of genres. For example, Dave Gibbon and Alan Moore’s groudbreaking Watchmen mostly used a 9×9-panel page layout — reflective of the familiar yet objective tone of the comic. It’s not hyper-stylized nor glamorized; the grotesque nature of the comic is presented in the most informational manner as possible.

    In a popular Japanese manga like Naruto — which, unlike Watchmen, is highly fantastical — the comic is presented playfully, as is typical of other, similarly lighthearted mangas. There are even comics like Scott Pilgrim, which contain young-adult subjects like work and dating, yet are presented in fantastic styles so as to make the reading accessible and fun.

    There are, of course, more left-field comics like Prison Pit — wherein the content and presentation both reflect the chaotic, psychotic and disturbed nature of the comic. If you’ve picked up something this wacky, then — for the purposes of this walk-through — I encourage you to put it back on the shelf and pick up something a little easier to follow.

    Once you’re finished, sit back and take a moment to reflect. Whether or not you realize it, you’ve actually gone through a bit of work. See, in a comic, you invest a certain portion of your own imagination — as opposed to, say, a film, where you simply receive and interpret what’s being handed to you. A comic is interactive and subtly different for everyone, despite the fact that we see the same images and read the same texts. This is because images, by their nature, are emotional stimuli. They evoke visceral responses. And words, by nature, are logical stimuli, interacting with your sense of reason. The combination creates both harmony and conflict, because emotion and reason — though intrinsically linked — rarely go hand in hand.

    Let’s say that, in one panel, a woman is slowly brushing her hair, and immediately in the next panel exists a single bubble that says, “Hi…”. Given these two panels, we could say that the woman is seducing someone with the brush of her hair and the trail of her word.

    Or, we could say that she’s just woken up and is brushing away her ruffled hair to say hello sleepily to a friend. Or, maybe these panels mean absolutely nothing, and are provided merely to place context of a given situation. Point being: Image of the woman provides context by invoking a particular emotional reaction, and the text will provide a translation for said reaction. Because everyone’s experiences differ, the reaction to the comic will be different for each reader. Assuming you’ve read the comic properly and its actually somewhat decent, you should be feeling something.

    Now that you’re familiar with the comic, notice that comics, like every other medium, come a variety of genres. Everything from noir to indie, to musical to social and political — it’s all there. You can find a comic on anything, so long as you look properly. Some are easier to read, some more difficult. It really depends on the artist. But in general, a worthwhile comic book should feel natural. It should be grand or intimate, or even both. A good comic book should leave you feeling fulfilled. If you haven’t experienced any of this, you’re reading a crappy comic. Pick another. Enjoy.

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