Comics, Essays

Comics Academe: Hellos and Hildebrand

Editors Note: I am pleased to introduce the first article by a new Comics Academe contributor, Tiffany Babb, who will be sharing with us the view from inside academia, and specifically, the how she tackles the common academic dilemma of how to study comics when your institutional program does not have a comics studies program. Since comics studies majors, minors, and master’s degrees are still few and far between, comics scholarship comes from a variety of disciplinary homes, and this is, in my view, one of the strengths of comics studies. Tiffany’s articles remind me that the field is still growing, and one never knows what might inspire new scholarly insight about the medium itself. –KT

Hey Sports Fans! Tiffany here! My concept for this series of articles came from a dilemma that I’m sure many comics scholars of all ages are dealing with: What to do when you’re studying comics in an institution which does not have any courses or tracks that are angled towards comics scholarship.  

Obviously, I have no magic pixie dust to sprinkle over all of our individual scholarship issues, but I thought it might be cool to show how I am applying what I’m learning in my Masters program to my own burgeoning thoughts on comics. I am working towards my Masters degree in American Studies, a field which I chose specifically because of its interdisciplinary nature.

Look at all the interdisciplinary possibilities!

Look at all the interdisciplinary possibilities!

Throughout this series, I will be showcasing bits and pieces from my readings, class discussions, and lectures and how I believe each new topic applies to comics scholarship. In my personal research, I am most interested in examining mainstream serialized comics and attempting to address how the bureaucracy and form of the serialized comic shapes narrative content. However, that is not all I want to talk about here. In these posts, I find that though there is a certain freedom in working with a quickly growing field, there is also a worry that in our rush towards our specific concentrations, we lose access to other connections that can be made. In this space, I would like to branch out and be inspired by the readings I’m doing and draw up some new lines of thinking and broaden the way that I and we think about comics.

Now that the stage is set, let us begin. Last week in my seminar on form (which, though housed in the Comparative Literature department, has a healthy dose of students from other fields), we read Hildebrand’s The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture (specific deets about edition/translation below). I was particularly struck by Section II in which one of Hildebrand’s concepts caught my eye: The distinction between “actual” form and “perceptual” form.

“Form is that factor in our perception which depends only on the object. It is obtained either through movement direct or is inferred from the appearance, and we may term it the actual form. On the other hand, the impression of form is always a product, not only of the object’s actual form, but of the illumination, the environment and the changing point of view” (36).

According to Hildebrand, there are two separate concepts of form, what “actually” exists versus all of the other information that comes into being when we perceive, including all of the factors that come into the picture with our many senses. Thus, if we are looking at a painted finger, the perceptual form may change once we see the arm that is attached to it, even if the finger itself remains the same. At this point, I began to wonder how perceptual form could relate to comics work.

Of course, all artists use some sort of perceptual form to communicate. Obviously, a painter could not recreate an actual living and breathing model on top of a canvas; there needs to be some use of foreshortening and shadow and dimension to portray said model (one could argue that cubists are doing their best to recreate actual form within the two-dimensional realm). But what I want to talk about specifically is the use of what readers perceive as a tool of communication.

When talking about communicating ideas through images, Hildebrand goes on to give a familiar example of how the perceptual form functions.

“These [subjective] relationships serve to influence the visual idea which involuntarily arises when we think of the object … capable of conveying to us a general notion that the object is essentially spatial. When children draw a face as a circle with two points for eyes, a vertical line for nose and a horizontal line for mouth, they represent in these few lines just the essential effect of our ordinary idea of perceptual form” (41).

It is pretty easy here to draw a connection of Hildebrand’s kind of perceptual communication to what Scott McCloud calls “closure” in his Understanding Comics (a book I will be citing very often, I promise you). McCloud defines closure as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.”

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud pg. 63

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, pg. 63.

McCloud presents closure as our mental completion of the incomplete image based on past personal experience. According to McCloud, closure functions as both a phenomenon and communication tool, depending on the relationship between the artist and reader. This is very similar to what Hildebrand says when he speaks about “artistic sense,” which “consists in a clear comprehension of these values of form as opposed to a mere knowledge of the actual form” (42). According to Hildebrand (and McCloud), it is not enough to simply know what things look like and how to portray them; an artist must know which parts of the form to portray to communicate what the artist is trying to present.

What is really cool is that if we throw a spin on the classic theory of Hildebrand and toss a little McCloud in there, we can directly apply Hildebrand to the creating and comprehension of comics, and propose that effective sequential art is the artist’s rendition of chosen traits of shared perceptual form to clarify and direct the reader’s closure to induce comprehension.

For example, in Eisner/Miller, the collection of conversations between Will Eisner and Frank Miller, Miller talks about using “the floating pieces of paper. Which don’t exist in real life, but they tell you the air is there ” (Eisner/Miller 42). In our day to day lives, we rarely see pieces of paper flying about in the wind; however, when a reader sees Miller’s “floating pieces of paper” on the page, they recognize what it means.

This brings up a lot of fun questions for me, mostly about sizing (how small is the smallest we can go and still communicate through relativity, and how big can we go?), but most of all, I would love to be able know what Hildebrand would have said about signifiers in comics.


Texts Cited:

Eisner, Will, Frank Miller, and Charles Brownstein. Eisner/Miller: A One-on-one Interview. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse, 2005. Print.

Hildebrand, Adolf. The Problem of Form: In Painting and Sculpture: Connoisseurship, Criticism, and History in the Nineteenth Century. Trans. Max Meyer and Robert Morris Ogden. New York: G.E. Stetchert, 1907. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.