This Groensteen paragraph is perfect for Finder: Voice. You can find it in the coursepack on page 77 (essay page 127). Groensteen’s ruling out a definition of comics that depends on “the presence of a recurrent character,” and this is his fifth counter-example:

The character as a recognizable individual dissolves when all the characters resemble each other, ruining the very idea of identity. Within a population such as that of the Smurfs, the physical marks of individuation are extremely rare (initially reserved for Papa Smurf, Brainy Smurf, and, of course, Smurfette). Here, the process of naming (under a form of qualified epithet: Grouchy Smurf, Poet Smurf, Jokey Smurf, etc.) allows the story to adapt to the state that Bruno Lecigne has precisely baptized hyper-twinhood (hypergemellite). Certain stories by Francis Masse or by Florence Cestac have also come close to the total indifferentiation of the body.

(Above: image source. Below: my scan.)

The face of another

As we read Maus, it will be useful to keep thinking about icons. Spiegelman laces his comic abstractions with specific non-comic references: early on there is an allusion to the film The Sheik, and the book contains photographs both drawn and real. These outside references promise a certain foothold for our understanding of characters, but they turn out to be many-layered and complex: Rudolph Valentino is an Italian actor playing an Arab, and the photograph of a woman is the drawing of a photograph of a mouse.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes, “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face– –you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon– –you see yourself” (36). This is a fundamental idea for McCloud: our identification with and even sympathy for another can be frustrated by too much detail or specificity.

Now here’s a sequence from Dan Clowes’ Ghost World

Josh’s face is cartoony and simple, while the man at the window is rendered in much more detail. His face is too much the face of another. What does it mean that Josh cannot see the face of this man as a universal smiley face? It means that Josh cannot see himself in that face.

This point of view is both Josh’s and ours: Clowes is forcing our identification with Josh, I think, because, like Josh, we might also wish that the face of the other would just go away sometimes. The explicit contrast in faces makes us question how we see, respond to, get anxious about, and identify with other people.

Stereotype and integrity

Hi, everyone.

I’ll draw your attention to this essay about stereotypes by Jeet Heer over at The Comics Journal. Thinking about Eisner’s female characters may take on fresh urgency once you get to page two. Heer writes,

Nineteenth- and early 20th-century comics dealt in caricature, not characters, and not just in ethnic and racial matters. Wives were almost always henpecking shrews (with a rolling pin in hand to bash hubby’s brains with) while their feckless mates loved to flee their family so they could go drinking with their buddies. Professors by definition were absent minded, farmers by their very nature naïve and easily fooled by city slickers. Racial and ethnic stereotypes grew out of this larger tendency to caricature. This is not to deny the racism or malevolence of the stereotype but rather to link it to the formal practices of the cartoonists. It’s not just that cartoonists lived in a racist time but also that the affinity of comics for caricature meant that the early comic strips took the existing racism of society and gave it vicious and virulent visual life. Form and content came together in an especially unfortunate way.

Almost inescapably, comics rely on shorthand (icon), deformation (caricature), and reduction (stereotype). Icon: smiley face. Caricature: politician with big ears. Stereotype: combines the deformation of caricature with an essentialist definition, such as Irish immigrants are hooligans.

In A Life Force, Aaron could have easily been a stereotype, but he is treated in a more literary and ambiguous way: he’s romanticized at times and undercut at others. I think he is given his due, despite his functionality. I’m not too sure about Rebecca. As for Rifka, Jacob’s wife, Eisner is capable of representing her with grace (fluid housework on page 13) and integrity (silent resolve on page 28). There’s a whole chapter devoted to her movements.

Just because a story is set in the past, or is “historical,” doesn’t mean it has to lack nuance. Read anything by Jane Austen: of course there are constraints to what a woman can do or be, but look at how her protagonists chafe against those constraints. They think and speak! I agree that we need to understand the importance of traditional Jewish roles, but we also need to consider the degree to which the role takes over. Rifka edges into caricature only too often, and there isn’t much self-reflexivity on Eisner’s part about how he chooses to represent her.

These choices are clearly foregrounded in Maus: on page 131, Art struggles with the question of how he is representing his father, and he is worried that he’s guilty of perpetuating the stereotype of the “miserly old Jew.” What happens, he wonders, if very particular circumstances end up confirming a stereotype? (If you’ve seen the film American History X, you’ll know that its ending does just that.)

This a complex subject, and I know that one post on the matter cannot exhaust all there is to say.