Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Philosophy of Comic Strips

Philosophy of Comic Strips
Sandeep Gupta

Standing on Via della Conciliazone, I was looking at the long, winding queues at the entrance of Basilica di San Pietro. The prolonged wait on the threshold of the divine kick-started a phase of pseudo philosophical contemplation of the kind that visits us so often when time lies heavy and immovable on our hands. I asked myself whether growing line thwarting men at the doorstep of God could be a modern day symbol for the serpentine forms of the Biblical devil, and soon was current day abstractions merged sufficiently with Theology and Philosophy to make me wonder whether the panels of the Sistine Chapel were the first examples of modern comic strips.

Although the life and times of villain vanquishing superheroes have always been treated with condescension compared to the greater works of Literature, to me comics have always been somewhat more than mere childish entertainment. Asterix dazzles me with wordplay that resists the erosion of translation, with newly discovered delights on each rereading. Tintin is remarkable in the absolutely accurate drawn depictions of things as diverse as space rockets and Latin American wild life. Finally, in corporate life, I seek solace , satire and sarcasm in the cubicle with Dilbert. But social and academic conventions slot the form into the lowest strata of fringe literary outputs. The stigma has prevented me from announcing my admiration boldly, let alone attempting to pitch-fork them into the world of thought, thinkers and theology.

It was sometime later, walking through the often complicated, frustratingly French-named streets of central Brussels, that the comic book characters painted on the walls came to life and urged me to think again. In this small country which had given birth to Herge, comic strips are considered an art form. One day at the Centre Belgie de la Bande Dessignee or the Belgian Centre of Comic Strips is enough to provide all necessary evidence and argument.

Raphael's depiction of Socrates and Plato in dialogue tell us that art and philosophy are forever intertwined.  In that case, is not the comic strip an ideal vehicle of the thinker?

The drama critic of Saturday Review of Literature, John Mason Brown, had sneered in 1948 saying, “The comic books... seem to me to be not only trash but the lowest, most despicable and most harmful and unethical form of trash.” (‘The Case against the Comics’, p.31)

Perhaps this was a reaction to some gross, grotesque and gory pictures and bubbles on pulpy paper, with loud colours seeping into each other, while the greatest mayhem manufactured by mankind still played afresh in immediate memory. However, times have evolved. Today, when the colours of manufactured consent seep in to soil the more serious,socially accepted and ratified works, drowning important original wisdom under the drumbeats of propaganda, it is perhaps the lesser medium of the comic book in which truth about life and the world can occasionally sneak through unnoticed.

Let us look at one of the more philosophical words uttered about the destruction of 9/11. The sane world will always be vulnerable to madmen, because we cannot go where they go to conceive of such things. It is then only after a while that one realises with a start that these lines are in fact mouthed by Spiderman as he looks over the ruins.
A more careful scrutiny strangely reveals the immense lexicon of the graphic form of storytelling to be abundantly smeared with deep and insightful philosophy.
As Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey observed, Popeye’s “I yam what I am and that’s all that I yam” is a piece of philosophy that stands besides the Socrates concept of ‘Know thyself’. Not only is the thought scripted in a speech bubble attributed to the lovable sailor man, it is enlivened by the thousands of forms that the pipe and spinach aficionado takes in the strips. This is what makes me wonder whether comic strips are not the best way to convey the message of philosophy.
Discourses of intellectual and abstract concepts, more often than not, soon extend beyond human ability of description through the medium of words. Perhaps that is why, in stark contrast to the verbose dialogues of the classical western philosophy, eastern thoughts are often sparing in the use of words, sometimes using just one syllable as in aum and often teaching followers to avoid them, as in some of the more austere Zen schools. True, words confuse ... tie the soul into knots, make understanding difficult. Wittgenstein's perpetual struggle with language is testimony to the same. In fact, one of the more well known and verbose pinnacles of philosophical wisdom of the East, Bhagavat Gita, confuses the protagonist enough to result in a eighteen day gory warfare.

On the other hand, an ancient Chinese proverb famously says that a picture is more eloquent than ten thousand words. And when the pictures are not limited by the perimeters of stark reality, they can leverage the freedom granted by the fertile fields of fantasy. Hence, they can perhaps be the best possible tools to clarify concepts that are abstract and esoteric. It is not a surprise, therefore, that some of the best applications of the comic strip as a means to understand philosophy have been carried out in the Far East.
Taiwan's Tsai Chih-Chung started with the cartoon version of the stories of the Taoist sage Chuang Tsu. His Zhuangzi Speaks turned out to be immensely enjoyable and successful. He followed it up with picturesque retelling of the Chinese philosophies of Confucius and Lao-Tze before branching out across the disputed waters of the East China Sea to sketch the immortal Zen Speaks. Every anecdote put into pictures is accompanied by the original text and notes. The graphics are often funny and elaborate with inconsequential details providing regaling angles. Almost always, mystical philosophical concepts are broken down into eloquent and enjoyable picture anecdotes.

Whether it is because of a script that is quasi-pictographic, China has boasted some cartoonists who have been philosophers in their own rights. Feng Zikai, considered the founder of China's cartoon tradition, is also known as the Philosopher Artist. His works are supposedly touched by his roots of spiritual Buddhism, combining light hearted. relaxed artistic form with philosophical, almost religious, depth.

Continuing along the way, recent popularity of the Manga does allow philosophical lives to be depicted – although sometimes severely mutilated in retelling as in the eight volume Buddha by Osamu Tezuka.
Talking about philosophies in the form of comic strips have also been carried out elsewhere. In India, Anant Pai published the immensely popular historical series Amar Chitra Katha, which did cover a lot of philosophical topics – inevitable given the inseparability of history and thought of the culture.  There have been similar stories told in Action Philosophers and the Quranic comics of Tunisia’s Ioussef Seddik. Later on, in his extraordinary Cartoon History of the Universe series, Larry Gonick covers a number of religious and philosophical chapters of history in his patented tongue in cheek style.
Most recently, Greek author Christos Papadimitriou published his ambitious Logicomix, the story of the life of Bertrand Russel. A self referencing graphic novel, it carries out several pioneering experiments and conveys the essential life story, managing to demonstrate the coupling of Mathematics, Logic and Philosophy into a convoluted ending.

However, while the story of philosophy is one side of the spectrum, to me the more fascinating facet is the way snippets of sublime philosophy are often found as nuggets of fun in the storyline of many comic books. I am not referring to the rather monumental collection of American Splendor, written by Harvey Pekar, which reaches levels of contemplation about life to rival a lot of heavyweight philosophical novelists. Wonderful as an art form it no doubt is, the child in me who regaled himself with Denis the Menace and bootstrapped himself into adolescence with Archie and his cronies demand fun in comic books even as the adult in me craves for meaning.
The combination of the two is where the true brilliance and potential of comic books are revealed. Calvin and Hobbes do not happen to have the names of two thinkers by happy chance, they emulate their philosophical namesakes on the panels of the volumes. While Calvin spouts weighty worldviews on his excursions around the yard, his stuffed tiger comes to life with the naturalist view of existence.
When on the sleigh Calvin asks his stuffed tiger whether he believes in reincarnation, a visibly jittery Hobbes urges him to drive carefully. And when he proudly shows Hobbes a butterfly he has caught, the tiger observes sadly that if people could they would put rainbows in zoos. This stirs Calvin into letting it free. Wonderful glimpses of the world of contrasting philosophy, with poignantly sketched expressions –  eloquent enough to strike a chord with the deepest thoughts while simultaneously entertaining the younger readers.

In Obelix and Company, first Obelix and then the entire Gaulish village convert into commercialism through the exercise of selling menhirs to a Roman garrisson. They compete against each other to produce the stone monoliths in their quest to become the most important man of the village. At the end of the days of delusion, Obelix tells Asterix that he wants to go back to his old life of hunting boars and having fun – because everyone is the most important man of the village and it is not fun anymore. The underlying principles of philosophy, psychology and economics are almost transcendental, but it is expressed as pure delightful humour characteristic of the lovable giant of a man.

Even the thoughts dealing with everyday existence are poignantly put forward with more than a modicum of fun.
Beetle Bailey discloses whenever the urge to work comes over me, I lie down till it goes away. Wally of Dilbert fame reveals his key to happiness – learning to enjoy what he is and not what others want him to be. When asked whether or not that makes him a sociopath, he responds that it does and he loves it about himself. And Calvin analyses the types of people grouping them between pragmatists, principled idealists and whimsical. When Hobbes asks which category Calvin himself belongs to, he replies that he pragmatically turns whims into principles.

A sizeable percentage of interchange of ideas has historically taken place through gestures and body language.  The letters and lines that stare at us from text books are limited in that they cannot imitate the dancing men of Sherlock Holmes to act out their message. This limitation can however, not only be overcome, but leveraged into an advantage through the manoeuvrability of comic strip characters.
Who could have emulated the Epicurean philosophy in more emphatic terms than Snoopy in Peanuts? When Charlie Brown ponders how dinosaurs became extinct,  the beagle looks smugly at the other side, eyes closed, ears flying in absolute earthly content and observes ‘Probably they ran out of cookies.’

Sandeep Gupta is the protagonist of The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta
A struggling author, he makes his living as, among others, a ghost blogger, a tai chi teacher, an undercover reporter and a stand in consultant 

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