On text, and text in comics

Recently, I received a back issue of the Dorchester Review[1] that contained a short essay by the critic and Ontario comics writer Randy Boyagoda on comics. In it he characterizes the experience he had teaching Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, Illustrated,[2] as part of an introductory freshman English course as a “spectacular failure.” He starts the essay with the rather harsh conclusion that, “no one actually enjoys reading graphic novels... [W]e absolutely love the idea of them. But we don't actually enjoy reading them.” Boyagoda’s critique stung me. Of course in my heart I was rooting for Crumb, but a guilty part of me worried that Boyagoda might have a point., that Kim Deitch’s opinion that Genesis, Illustrated was “the greatest thing [Crumb] has yet done,”[3] might be wrong. Crum’s 2009 book did not hit bookstores yesterday, but bear with me here: while I do think Boyagoda might be taking a deliberately provocative stance, I don’t think he’s merely being grumpy.

I should get a few things out of the way. First is my bias: I am predisposed to root for the “legibility” of comics as they have been in my reading life since I was a little kid curled up in a reading nook at the West Vancouver Memorial Library with a copy of Hergé’s Les Cigares du Pharaon. I am predisposed to root for Crumb because his comics totally rearranged my brain in high school. Stretched out on my stomach on the institutional carpet of my friends’ [U2] dorm room, I obsessively read back issues of Robert Crumb’s anthology Weirdo. I could feel my doors of perception stuttering on their hinges. Of course, I was stoned. But even as a sober adult I cannot help but be impressed by the calibre of cartoonists that Crumb anthologized: off the top of my head (and without so much as a Google) I can think of Charles Burns, Julie Doucet, Peter Bagge, Kim Deitch, Joe Sacco, Raymond Pettibon, and Joe Matt. But I also looked forward, in those pages, to Crumb’s contributions. He possesses a style that somehow weaves the crosshatching techniques of seventeenth-century Dutch engravers with oily skin, pre-Mouse Factory Disney, and that hairy lint that one finds underneath sofa cushions. His is a landscape populated by people who smell and sweat. Everyone slouches, everyone is a jerk. I loved it.

A last item to get out of the way is about Crumb himself: whenever one praises Crumb, one also should acknowledge that some of the things he created are vile. I am perfectly serious about this: I challenge anyone to wholeheartedly embrace the misogamy of The Snoid[4]. At the time it seemed to me that he was showing me the filth of his heart as an act of complete and honest confession. “Aren’t there things this bad in your heart too?” these works seem to ask. But that doesn’t make them any more acceptable. To cite but one example from the history of human creation, while the diaries of the British designer Eric Gill make it clear that he possessed an unsavory character[5], few who have seen a copy of the Doves Press Bible [U3] would disagree that it is one of the most beautiful books ever printed, period. The work of art can transcend the acts of the man, though in Crumb’s case the confession is to some extent the art. But still I love him the way I love Hokusai and Dürer.

Fortunately there is nothing even vaguely Snoid-like in the pages of Genesis, Illustrated. Sex, murder, and yes, death, but those things are in the biblical text. As many critics noted at the time, and not without a note of disappointment, that Crumb does not milk these moments for shock.

The tone of Boyagoda’s critique suggests that there is something structurally wrong with comics for, while they promise to be the most accessible of all media, “the actual reading experience is ... unexpectedly demanding.” We, as hip folk, acclaim this art form, which is emerging into serious discourse like photography did twenty years ago, but in our hearts we don’t get it at all. Our appreciative noises are, in some sense, hypocrisy.

I would suggest that the popularity of comics in France (where they’re bandes dessinée or BDs) and in Japan (where they’re Manga) point to the possibility that some of what Boyagoda was feeling, and the feeling from his students, was to some degree cultural. But maybe not entirely. And what I find interesting is that Boyagoda says his students had difficulty talking about, and interpreting, Crumb’s book; he expected this reaction in himself, but not them.

Comics, standing as they do between images and text, can do seemingly anything. If the image can’t do it, surely the words can explain. But like all other mediums, comics have their limitations. One of the primary ones, and one that is surprisingly overlooked by many of the critics I ran into after I read Boyagoda’s essay, is the interrelation between text and image that is at the heart of comics. Text and image, as W. J. T. Mitchell nicely put it, are radically incommensurable[6] . I don’t intend to be essentialist here, either about comics or about the rôles[U5]  of painting and poetry, but as a graphic designer I come up against the boundaries of what images can do, and what text can do, all the time. I find it useful to think of the text/image boundary using an adaptation of an analogy made by the theorist Nelson Goodman: language is a scale with distinct notes, image is a continuity, a fingerboard without frets, without defined notes. (Goodman used graded and ungraded thermometers.) The text mode is “digital,” and the pictorial mode is “analog.” This distinction has some basis in our neurological makeup: reading, even at the level of individual characters, is processed through an entirely different pathway in the brain than images are[7].

And although language is a medium of communication, it can also act as a barrier; this is not the case with images. You can get a lot out of Möbius’s Incal series even if your French is middling. 

Douglas Wolk, in Reading Comics[8], observes, “[Image and text] are two different kinds of information on [the] page ... drawn images and written words. They’re vastly different things, and they work in different ways, and comics require them to be jammed together constantly.” Commenting on Simonides of Keos’s dictum “poema pictura loquens, pictura poems silens,” echoing Goodman, Wolk observes that, “Poetry ... has the advantage of relatively fixed meaning and the disadvantage that it’s limited by the boundaries of vocabulary and language; painting has the advantage of infinite shades of variation and the disadvantage that any kind of perception that's not visual is much harder to communicate with it.”

Just because they aren’t the same doesn’t mean that text and image can’t be put together. In fact, there’s strength in hybridity. And it’s possible that the two modes have a natural affinity: we are all familiar with that zoned-out state when, after one has been reading for a while, we start seeing the characters in a novel, or possibly even unrelated landscapes as we read something like philosophy. The text –when written, edited well and typeset properly– disappears, even as we’re still actively reading it. And we can also be trained to operate in more than one mode: consider the case of subtitled films.

Comics are an emulsion of text and image: whisk oil and vinegar and it becomes dressing. But, just like a good dressing the balance between elements is the key. This interaction is also explored extensively in children’s books (and it’s no wonder that D&Q carries a lot of exceptional examples in their wonderful Mile End store). In kids’ books, you’ll come across ones, usually for older readers, where the balance is tipped in favour of the words. This is pedagogical to be sure, but one finds oneself simply reading the words as the kid in one’s arms looks at the pictures. And if the balance is off in a comic, this division of labour is internalized to some extent when reading on one’s own. With tons of text (or if the text is poorly written or boring) there are two paths: read the pictures, dashing through a piece in seconds that literally took months or even years to produce, or be stuck in the words, saving the pictures as treats.

When the mix is right it works like a well-choreographed dance: as an example, in Chester Brown’s Riel[9] there’s a beautiful scene where Sir John A wakes up from a drunken slumber in his hotel room with the idea that will save the C.P.R., which was –at that point in the story– in trouble. The words set the stage, then part, leaving MacDonald to have his revelation in silence (and in a context where the reader will scrutinize Brown’s drawing of his face) and then text comes back into the frames to pick up the story.

There’s also a difficulty that I alluded to earlier that is medium-specific. In Mastering Comics, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden suggest that narratives for comics be “atomized,”[10] meaning one needs to break a story into its visual units, its atoms. Each atom is a frame. “But what happens when you write or want to adapt a scene with a lot of interior or expository information, something prose excels at? ...As David Mamet would say, ‘You can't film that? How do you film it? ...It can't be done[11].’”

Before he took on Genesis, Crumb illustrated other long texts, such as Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, and James Boswell’s full-text [U6] London Journal, but in both cases he took pieces of the texts, usually (of course) the dirty bits. He jointed these texts like an expert anatomist, to show us just what he wanted us to see, and at the pace he wanted us to see it. Crumb was “atomizing” his text. And, as much as he could, he atomized Genesis for his version. If you’ve read the book, think back to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; here the text parts somewhat, like in the Riel example above. But Genesis is sacred scripture; it’s the first book of the Bible, and the first book of the Torah. As the project expanded Crumb felt compelled to keep every word in. Thousands of years of tradition dictate that a newly-lettered Torah scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added or deleted. Perhaps Crumb felt this weight of tradition? Or perhaps he was being fair, or insulating himself from criticism. In his introduction, he says that he, “didn't want to monkey around with such a venerable text.” It’s a noble idea, but it’s also the central problem with this work; if Crumb can’t control the text he’s doing a marathon in a potato sack.

Crumb also hobbles himself by writing all of the text, as is both his wont and comics convention all in caps. For short bursts of dialogue this is surely fine, but think about reading all fifty chapters of Genesis IN TEXT LIKE THIS. Putting long texts in upper-case does the reader no favours. Lower-case characters aid with readability, which in turn encourages the physical quirks of the letters to disappear for the reader, and for the reader to sink into the text. As in most things, Seth has this right[12].

Crumb’s inablility to edit or control the text exacerbates the difficulty that comics sometimes have in expressing internal emotional states. It’s not that he didn’t try to surmount the problem. In a very sympathetic review in the New York Times[13], David Hajdu points to a scene where the soon-to-be Abraham (then Abram) offers his wife Sarai (later Sarah) to the pharaoh of Egypt, “Crumb shows us Sarai at first baffled — in the grammar of comics, a question mark appears in a thought balloon beside her — and, in the next panel, distraught, a tear trickling down her cheek.”

But even Crumb could not overcome this fundamental medium-specific problem. I think that Boyagoda and, more interestingly, his students, sensed this. Boyagoda chalked it up to the tone of the images. “The words,” writes Boyagoda, “so profound in and of themselves, felt too often adjuncts or pretexts for illustrative expressions,” that recalled the funny papers of his youth. I suspect that this is a red herring. Even if Crumb’s drawings harkened back to Medieval representations, the whole would have still lacked something. The text would still be the same, but, in the context of the comic form, no matter how it’s drawn, it necessarily needs to cede some of its power. This is the nature of the medium. And it makes it seem like something is missing from the work even when, quite fairly, nothing is left out. Hajdu, at the end of his review says that Genesis, Illustrated, “for all its narrative potency and raw beauty ... is missing something that just does not interest its illustrator: a sense of the sacred.” I don’t think this was Crumb’s failing however, it was the difficulty in getting the balance just right; when he couldn’t control one of the elements, that undermined the project itself.

In the end the problem here is not Crumb’s lack of feeling for God, nor really in the medium of comics itself, it’s a problem of adaptation. Comics get beat up all the time when the movie machine in Hollywood thinks that those panels are really just frames in a storyboard, when in actual fact movies and comics are different media, with different rules. The same, unfortunately even for a grandmaster of the form like Crumb, applies with biblical text and comics.


[1] Boyagoda, Randy. “Graphic Novels and the Burdens of Enjoyment,” The Dorchester Review Spring/Summer 2011: 75–77. Print.

[2] Crumb, Robert. The Book of Genesis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.

[3] Deitch, Kim. “Robert Crumb and Genesis.” Mineshaft #25, May, 2010. Web: “I believe that it is, without question, the greatest thing he has yet done and I have utterly no problem in saying that Crumb’s Genesis is the greatest comic book I have ever read.”

[4] Crumb, Robert. R. Crumb’s Snoid Comics, 2nd ed. Wisconsin: Kitchen Sink Press, 1986.

[5] MacCarthy, Fiona. Eric Gill. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.

[6] Taken from Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976. Print. Goodman quotes from Mitchell, W. T. J. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986: 67. Print.

[7] Like Wolk I disagree with Scott McCloud that the differences between text and image are minimal. See McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow, New York, 1994. If you’re interested in this neurological difference (and in the neurology of reading) I would recommend Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Viking, 2009; Changizi, Mark. The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010; and of course Sacks, Oliver. The Mind’s Eye. New York: , Knopf,  2010.

[8] Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. New York: Da Capo Press, 2008. These observations appear in Chapter 5, Section 2 of the digital edition.

[9] Brown, Chester. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2003.

[10] Abel, Jessica and Madden, Matt. Mastering Comics: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures Continued. New York: First Second Books: 26-30.


[12] See his use of text in Seth. Clyde Fans Book 1. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2004.

[13] Hajdu, David. “God Gets Graphic.” The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 2009. Web., ,

 [U1]Footnote numbers aren’t sequential on my file right now. Might be a glitch. Should be an easy fix.

 [U2]Is it one friend or two? If two, leave as is. If not, it is “friend’s.”

 [U3]Sentence implies that Gill worked on Doves Press Bible. My research says he didn’t contribute to it. Did you mean his The Four Gospels?

 [U4]I rearranged this footnote to say that Goodman is quoting Mitchell. If this is incorrect, let me know and we’ll clarify.

 [U5]Are you using the sociology term? If so, let stand. If not, make it “roles”

 [U6]If text is fragmented in other non-Crumb editions, let stand. If not, delete.