There are some people, like Alan Moore, who believe that comic books -- the comic strip -- can do certain things as a medium that other media can't. They point to the particular, peculiar way that comics combine images and words and note that this has a certain effect on the brain which can't be matched by other, more glamorous media as books and movies.
When I hear this kind of thing I tend to nod my head and agree, but some part of me still feels that this is like some backwater town, some burg of a couple hundred, trying to proclaim that its way of life is just as culturally rich as any big metropolis. I mean, at this point in Western culture we've all learned that parroty nod of the head while we intone, "Photography is art. Comic books are art. Graffiti is art. Everything is art." Movies may be where the money is, and books the prestige, and music's got the audience. But comics have something special, too! Now ask yourself for specific examples of comic books as great art: The picking's are slim, aren't they? Lumpen Harvey Pekar? Dry Chris Ware? Sounds to me like Westley gamely trying to convince Count Rugen that he and Buttercup can live comfortably in the Fire Swamp.
I will admit, though, that there have been a small number of times -- exactly three so far -- when comics have really had that powerful effect on me, when suddenly I realized that they do, in fact, have something other media do not. Two were, perhaps not surprisingly, in books written by Alan Moore. The first time -- not to jump on the current movie bandwagon or anything, but I have to be honest -- the first time was during the climax of Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen. I'd been reading the comics as they were published and that climax, spread across several pages, was so powerful, so surprising, so moving -- I read and re-read that book many, many times. It was a moment.
The second time was in the middle of Moore and Williams' Promethea where Moore is writing about this very phenomenon, how in some way the combination of the written word and the images of comics tap into the human nervous system in some powerful way unmatched by other media; and in the middle of this discussion Hermes turns to look out of the page and winks at the reader.
Now, in no way did I think this was real in the sense of Hermes actually looking at me. Obviously it was just a book (actually, the first time I read it was on a computer). I didn't think I was suddenly hallucinating. But as I read and looked at that moment in the comic, it was as if a door inside me had opened, as if I had received some kind of True Communication, as if -- I can't explain it -- as if I'd had a brief glimpse of a truth of the universe that was, not magical, but deeper and more powerful than science could explain today. Something inside me opened and a wind blew through. It was pretty amazing.
And now, the third time. Which is, says the essay writer, why we're all here.
Recently Tim Folzenlogen got back in touch with me. Three years ago I'd written e-mail to him about his work, which I liked very much, and we swapped messages for a while. As sometimes happens over e-mail, though, we totally failed to understand each other. I'll take the blame; everything I typed seemed to come out wrong. These things, they happen. He surprised me a little while ago by writing again; he had no memory of our previous messages (which is why I save all of my e-mail) but had found my link to his site and liked my writing. He decided we had some kind of rapport now and he asked for my address so he could send me copies of some "sexy cartoons" he'd made. He wanted my opinion. I sent him my address.
The package arrived a few weeks ago. What I opened was not a few "sexy cartoons." What I opened was a 110-page graphic novel. The first eight pages are originals and addressed to me directly. The rest of the book is a photocopy of a sketchbook he'd made for Stefan Stux and dropped off at Stux's gallery.
Tim Folzenlogen, 2009, ink on paper, 8.5x11 inches
I can't say I was blown away. I wasn't creeped out, frightened, elated, excited, aroused, horrified. I was...I don't want to say deeply moved because that sounds like I might've cried, which isn't quite right. I wasn't stunned, either. I was...I don't have the right word. I felt, again, as if some true connection had been made. He introduces me to his girlfriend. She's nude. So is he. This isn't as weird as it sounds, because it's not lascivious in any way, not prurient. It's almost childlike. Something clicks, something at my solar plexus, something opens, there's a breeze like the world's tipping....
I have no idea what to think about this. I have nothing to explain it in words -- not yet, anyway.