Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gunther Kress & Literacy in the New Media Age

Don't They Have Comic Books in Europe?

As a student of how image and (alphabetic) text work together to form meaning in narrative, much of Kress's work was interesting for me. However, interesting does not mean that I agreed with him all that often. Towards the end of the book, he discusses that we need to change or definition of reading from solely alphabetic text to reading image, sound, etc. to form a coherent, complete text. I couldn't agree more; the way graphic novelists have combined image and words to convey greater meaning is something I have relished my entire life.

But Kress claims that writing should be used for what it does best, "to provide, in fact, an account of events," while image "is used for what image does best, to depict the world that is at issue, in terms of significant elements and their (spatially represented) relations to each other" (155-6). I wanted to disagree with him, seeing as I do that comic pages do both of these things with their text and with their images. I'm of course aware that Kress wasn't envisioning comics when writing his book, yet I still feel that his rules her are applicable.

Early comic pages definitely fit the criteria Kress lays out here. Take for instance this page from
Superman #292, where we finally discover just why Lex Luthor hates Superman so much. Art by Curt Swan.

Click on the image to see detail. Here all exposition and action is given through text, with each action being telegraphed through words, e.g. Superboy saying that he'll "extinguish the blaze with a mighty super-puff of breath," rather than just letting the image inform the reader. The images really are here just to orient the characters in the space. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, and pretty much exactly what Kress is talking about.

However, looking at a more recent example from Chris Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan, we see images depicting not just events happening in sequence, but providing the only narrative on the page.

While it is hard to provide context of the story's greater tone by only showing this one page, this is a good example of Ware's referred style. Works such as these make me doubt that Kress is entirely correct when he asserts that what image does best is merely show the world at issue.

Kress also raises questions about directionality, the way that reading patterns are determined by the layout of a document, saying that what is most important is identifying document characteristics that promote certain paths. He also asserts that users of web documents "interact with [them] in novel ways that have no precedents in paper design" (17).

Okay, this I must disagree with. No precedent? Comics have been doing this for years. Let's take a quick look at Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan again.
Ware uses several things to cue the reader on how to read the page. The reader is led throughout the age by connecting panels, yet is forced to read the timeline of events at the bottom both from right to left, as indicated, and then again from left to right as would be normal. Both ways give added meaning to the narrative as a whole. Ware is promoting both paths here, something Kress says either cannot or is not done in paper media.

What I would advise Kress and others looking at the future of multimodal literacy is simple. The answer to many of your questions likely lie in comic books, not only in building pages with preferred reading paths apparent to the reader, but also in the way that images can be used to convey more than just space and information, but also depict narrative (an accounting of events) as well.


Courtney said...

pretty rad :-)

dbmor10 said...

We talked about your response a bit in class, so I won't write much, here. I will say that Ashley's critique is a fair one, that perhaps you took the comment a bit out of context. Often, however, you can still use such comments to demonstrate your point. You can argue why the author's narrow perspective is shortsighted and how it should have addressed a larger picture. You could address how although the author is reasonable and thoughtful, you'd like to expand the thinking. So, don't think about such critiques as reasons not to speak or put your idea out there, only reasons to reframe how you talk about your case.

I'm still convinced that you have something going with this narrative and reading a page. You should pursue your other article, but perhaps if you turn the thoughts in this response into something of a proposal for the pop culture conference, you can find the groundwork for making it more your own than the original draft that you wrote. Much of what you had would still be part of your case, this proposal might just help you find a way to find your voice.

You might think about asking others in class who are looking at other pop culture, typically marginalized texts--someone (I forget who--Mary? Melissa?--I may be getting my Ms confused)was looking at picture books and Lorraine was looking at game spaces. Alternatively, if you are looking for a panel with other comic book people or other narrative people, you could organize that way. My husband, also a fan of Corrigan, may have something (he's looking into if he can get off work to go if he is accepted). He has a friend who has a comic book room in his house whose wife is a children's lit professor, so they might put a paper together. Or, I'm sure you know other comic book people. Let me know, though, if you'd like to get in touch with the other comic book people I know.