Fictitious Institute of Design (FID)
Hope this letter finds you in the best of health and spirit. How were your holidays? I believe this year’s session must have now begun, and the institute must be brimming with enthusiasm at the arrival of the new batch. Oh the joy of new beginnings!
You remember our first introductory session? You were to take our course on ‘Comics’, and when you asked if we would be interested, we cried a “Yes” in deafening unison. I still cherish that moment of collective happiness, the sheer ecstasy in the readiness to explore something together. How beautifully you made us let go of our presuppositions and delve in the medium, in all its intricacies and hidden wonders. Yes, I fell in love with comics then, and the curiosity to understand them has grown ever since.
A few days ago, I read an essay, “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” written by “Sherman Alexie”. This essay though apparently simple, has many layers; therefore each time I read, it’s a newer delicacy indeed. Imagine a Native Indian living in a Spokane Residency in Washington, who learns to ‘read’ at the age of three through none other than Superman Comics! He not only finds his own self in that narrative but also repeats the role of the saviour as he saves himself through reading, and helps others in a similar situation as his, later in life. In my first acquaintance with this essay I got so carried away by the use of stereotype, role-play and the portrayal of comics, that I surpassed a very important aspect, which caught me unaware last night. “I learned to read with a Superman Comic Book.” How could have I not noticed that? The author has implied a newer dimension to the verb “To read”. It was a thrilling moment when I could myself ‘read’ what Alexie could have been saying, I re-opened immediately the essay on “‘Comics’ As A Form Of Reading” by our beloved Will Eisner, and this is what the Father of Graphic Novels himself says, “Comics continue to grow as a vital form of reading.” Oh yes, they are! As I read Alexie’s essay further, I realized that the author’s experience resonates with what otherwise an in-depth understanding of comics would reveal.
Alexie explained that he couldn’t read and comprehend what words meant, but he could understand the purpose of paragraphs as units within a structure, containing fenced words. He relates them to comic panels, where according to him “Each panel complete with picture, dialogue and narrative was a three-dimensional paragraph.” What would language be without a structure? Elevating an otherwise misunderstood and undermined medium to this level could be easily equated with Eisner’s claim that “When one examines a comic book feature as a whole, the deployment of its unique elements takes on the characteristic of a language.”
I know by now you must be really eager to know more about how the author read comics. I apologize for my repeated usage of this word, for it means more than what it seems to. In Alexie’s essay he almost compulsively mentions that he “read” a lot, I now feel that he really “read” a “lot”. The following lines are from Alexie’s essay: “Superman breaks through a door. His suit is red, blue and yellow. The brown door shatters into many pieces. I look at the narrative above the picture. I cannot read the words but I assume it tells me that “Superman is breaking down the door.”” He seems to exemplify what Eisner mentions in his, “Comics communicate in a ‘language’ that relies on a visual experience common to both creator and audience. Modern readers can be expected to have an easy understanding of the image-word mix and the traditional deciphering of text. Comics can be called ‘reading in a wider sense than is commonly applied.”Alexie sees words and dialogues “floating” out of Superman’s mouth and hence he reads this interplay of text and image as Superman saying, “I am breaking down the door.” And reading in the wider sense, he identifies with the character in the panel not just through the visual sense but also internalizes that role and says “I am breaking down the door.” Wow! I now know why Eisner says that reading comics is both an aesthetic perception and intellectual pursuit. No wonder Alexie went on to not just be a voracious reader educating himself to save his own life, but also grows up to be a writer and teacher, helping others break their doors. “Then there are the sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me with theatrical precision. The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist. “Books,” I say to them. “Books,” I say. I throw my weight against their locked doors. The door holds, I am smart, I am arrogant, I am lucky, I am trying to save our lives.”
I hope to be a writer someday, maybe a graphic novelist, and each time I think about what kind of a storyteller I would be, I just know that I want the human mind to delve into it, for them to engage, to feel and to participate. Eisner quotes Tom Wolf in his essay, “Recent research has shown that the reading of words is but a subset of a much more general human activity which includes symbol decoding, information integration and organization…Indeed, reading- in the most general sense- can be thought of as a form of perceptual activity.” This quote sums up the reason why I couldn’t stop myself from writing this letter, why this essay has found a new meaning for me once again, and it is the reason why I know that it is not important to be just literate, you must know how to read.
I shall eagerly await your response.
Alexie, Sherman “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me”
Eisner,Will “‘Comics’ As A Form Of Reading” Comics & Sequential Art Poorhouse Press, 2000