Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others – in comics?Posted: March 31, 2020
Perhaps the lack of willingness of some people to comply to lockdown regulations is related to the lack of shocking imagery in the media. Hardly any images of people suffering from Covid-19 are shown in the news, which makes the threat posed by this disease appear abstract and remote. Which brings us to this month’s topic.
Susan Sontag’s last book to be published in her lifetime, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) is a long essay, or short monograph, of about 120 pages. Its topic is mainly war photography, but also other photographic depictions of human suffering, and their effects on recipients. She even briefly mentions comics once (p. 100 in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition): “As everyone has observed, there is a mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism in mass culture: films, television, comics, computer games.”
Yeah, right. More interesting are Sontag’s observations of the difference between photographed and hand-drawn violence, her example being Francisco Goya’s series of etchings, Los desastres de la guerra (p. 47):
That the atrocities perpetrated by the French soldiers in Spain didn’t happen exactly as pictured – say, that the victim didn’t look just so, that it didn’t happen next to a tree – hardly disqualifies The Disasters of War. Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened. In contrast, a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence.
This difference, however, does not diminish the potential of handmade pictures “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” (p. 44). At another point in the book, Sontag refers to a treatise on painting by Leonardo da Vinci (pp. 75-76):
Leonardo is suggesting that the artist’s gaze be, literally, pitiless. The image should appall, and in that terribilità lies a challenging kind of beauty. That a gory battlescape could be beautiful – in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful – is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.
Sontag traces this ambiguous perception back to Antiquity (pp. 96-97):
Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its nature. […] Plato appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.
It would now be all too obvious to turn to depictions of war and violence in non-fictional comics, e.g. those by Joe Sacco or Keiji Nakazawa, and see if the effects described by Sontag with regard to photography can be found there too. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine fictional depictions of war and violence? These are largely absent from Sontag’s text (except for Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, which, however, is based on a real conflict), and while they probably lack the power to incite viewers to anti-war activism, some of the other effects should hold true regardless.
Consider the beginning of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed from 1985. Set in a post-World War IV (see Jason Thompson’s review at https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/house-of-1000-manga/2011-07-21) future, the 2nd and 3rd page form a lovely double-page spread of a war-ravaged cityscape. One cannot help but be reminded of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s spectacular renderings of Neo Tokyo after the cataclysm in the middle of Akira (which was probably published too late to have been an inspiration for Shirow). Both creators have a fondness – and talent – for drawing both buildings and their destruction. Add to this a few carefully placed vehicles (another forte of both Shirow and Ōtomo) and you get “beauty in ruins” indeed.
Note, however, the corpse hanging out of the tank in the foreground. His firearm lying on the ground before him, we can imagine that he was shot just as he was about to climb out of his tank which maybe had got stuck in a chasm, and also one of its chains had come off. This soldier is only a tiny figure, but it shows that the conflict that presumably caused the destruction of the city is a recent – perhaps still ongoing – and deadly one. As the only human figure in this panel, the reader might empathise with him, but there is no blood or wound visible on him, and we don’t get to see his face. This body isn’t exactly an appalling sight; it hardly disturbs the beauty of the ruins.
A few pages later (p. 34 in the German edition by Feest) we get to see quite a different depiction of a dying soldier. The protagonists, Deunan and Briareos, defend themselves against an attack by mercenary-type combatants. Deunan shoots one of them with an automatic rifle. The force of the hail of bullets is so strong that it not only kills her opponent but also chips off pieces from the surrounding walls. In panel 3, his body gets folded up by the impact so that we don’t see how badly he gets wounded, but in panel 4, black blotches rise from his chest, up to the level of his head, so that it looks like he is bleeding from his mouth, which is wide open as if in a silent scream. The last panel shows him lying on his back, his speech bubble containing only a sort of open-centre asterisk that may signify his last breath.
A pretty grisly scene, if you think about it. Sure, he was only a villain. Granted, Deunan acted in self-defense. And yet, someone’s life was just cut short, and we don’t even know why they were fighting. Deunan isn’t completely cold-blooded (let alone malicious), as the look on her face tells us when she looks back at her target (panel 6). But Shirow’s art aestheticises death so successfully that we don’t think about it in such existential terms. One powerful device is ‘slow motion’ in panels 3 and 4 in which the figure and the surrounding debris seem to be frozen in mid-air. Another is the convincingly imagined circle that the shots have carved out of the walls (although strictly speaking it was the villain’s weapon that caused it, as shown on the previous page), a rendering of a physical effect once more reminiscent of Ōtomo, e.g. in Dōmu (1980-81) – a ‘safe’ kind of violence as it appears to affect only things, not living beings.
Naturally, images of a real-world, present-day war would always be more shocking than those of a science-fiction conflict, even though the former can at the sime time have that “challenging kind of beauty” too. Perhaps the ability of images “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” depends on two variables: on the one hand, the degree of the relationship of their content to reality, and on the other, the inverse degree of aestheticisation of their form. In itself, the choice of pictorial medium, i.e. whether it is a photograph or a drawn comic, probably doesn’t matter as much. As Sontag says herself, “A narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image” (p. 122), without acknowleding that ‘image’ and ‘narrative’ need not be mutually exclusive.