Review: Scott Mendes’s Venice

In my blogpost on the 2019 Venice Biennale, I mentioned that Darren Bader had set up a comic book vending machine there, which however failed to dispense a copy for me. In the meantime, the artist and his gallery have kindly provided me with some copies of the comic book in question: Scott Mendes’s Venice (or is it “Scott Vendes’s Menice”?).

There are two ways to approach this item. On the one hand, it is part of a work of installation / conceptual art, which in turn is part of Bader’s oeuvre. One could now try to decipher all the references in it – the name-dropping ranges from ancient saints to contemporary artists and other celebrities – and make connections to Bader’s artistic strategy to see how the comic fits into the larger picture. On the other hand, one could simply regard this comic book as a comic book and see if we can get anything out of reading it. In other words: as a comic, is it any good?

First, the facts: while it is a standard staple-bound US format comic book, it is rather long at 32 pages without advertisements (except for two probably fake ones on the inner covers). The writing is credited to “Moses Hosiery” (which may or may not be an alias for Bader himself) and the artwork to two design companies, Suite Sixsixteen and Oliven Studio. By and large, the artwork is of a high quality: the linework is detailed but without any shading, which is made up for by the nuanced colouring. The colouring, however, shows a propensity for garish contrasts which at first glance lend a deceptively cheap appearance to the whole art.

The story is of a ‘dream within a dream’ variety which allows for a surreal plot, as the cover already suggests. The protagonist is modernist painter Giorgio de Chirico who somehow happens to live in present-day Venice. He’s clearly not having a good day: after getting up he falls down the stairs, then gets washed out onto the street by some sort of flood wave, and in the end he even gets swallowed by the pavement. And these aren’t even the weirdest events in the story. Like I said, this is a dream in which strange things happen. Adding to the confusion is the number of languages in which the dialogue is written: English, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Hebrew.

Depending on your taste, you may find this comic either unnerving or fascinating. It’s definitely something different than e.g. the latest issue of X-Men. And despite its surrealism, it portrays a Venice that readers who have ever been there will instantly recognise with all its water, pigeons, seagulls, and tourists from all over the world.

If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of this comic book, perhaps it’s worth trying to contact Galleria Franco Noero to see if they still have any left.

Roland Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image – in comics?

Already in 1964, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) published one of his best-known essays, ‘Rhétorique de l’image’¹. It is also a text that’s quite difficult to understand. Here’s what I make of it: according to Barthes, any image (except for those created by “illiterate societies”, e.g. ancient cultures) contains three messages, the linguistic, the literal (or denoted), and the symbolic (or connoted, or cultural). It should be noted that Barthes deviates from traditional communication theory by using the term ‘message’ without necessarily tying it to a sender: “the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted (for example at the level of the combiner of the signs or creator of the message), it is also the totality of utterances received: the language must include the ‘surprises’ of meaning.” Anyway, let’s look at these three messages in detail:

The linguistic message can be found “in, under, or around the image”. Such textual matter is always there, says Barthes (although I can image at least one kind of image where text may be completely absent). This linguistic message may have either (or both) of two functions: anchorage and relay. Anchorage means, the text clarifies or “fixes” the meaning of the image, which is always polysemous, by choosing some of the possible signifieds and “banishing” others. The relay function is less common and puts the text in a “complementary relationship” with the image – Barthes explicitly mentions comic strip dialogues as an example.²

The literal or denoted message consists of the objects depicted in the image, stripped of all symbolic meaning. It conveys nothing but a consciousness of the “being-there” of the represented things. (Barthes is particularly concerned with photography here, which additionally implies “an awareness of […] having-been-there” and a tension between “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority”.) According to Barthes, little more than “anthropological knowledge” is required to recognise the objects in the image on this level, although I doubt it’s always as easy as that.

Finally, the symbolic message contains the signifieds (or ‘meanings’, colloquially speaking) of the image. In contrast to the literal message, more specialised kinds of knowledge may be required to decipher this message, but different “readings” of the same image are still legitimate. The totality of signifiers in an image, by the way, is what Barthes calls the eponymous ‘rhetoric’. It’s also noteworthy that Barthes seems to think that in some instances (e.g. advertisement photography, his principal example) we may even realise signifieds invested by the sender/creator of the image, i.e. recognise the creator’s intention (and there we have the good old sender-message-recipient model again).

Let’s see if we can read a panel from a comic in this way.

panel from Kiyohiko Azuma's Azumanga DaiohThis is the first panel of one of my favourite Azumanga Daioh (あずまんが大王) strips, by Kiyohiko Azuma. On the literal level, we can identify all the objects depicted: the face of Osaka (one of the main characters), her hair and part of her neck, and a bed with its various components. We are also able to tell the flower pattern on the blanket apart from ‘real’ flowers-as-objects. I think we’re still within the realm of the denoted message when we say: this is a sleeping girl.

Before we tackle the symbolic message (even though literal and symbolic message are perceived simultaneously, says Barthes), let’s look at the linguistic message. There is no writing in this panel, but in this case, Barthes is right when he says there’s always some writing nearby. Consider the complete four-panel strip (from the German edition published by Tokyopop):

strip from Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko AzumaThere is a heading above the panel and a speech bubble in the fourth panel. The heading reads “Osaka’s New Year’s dream” and tells us that rather than just watching Osaka sleep, we are about to learn what she’s dreaming of. The speech bubble says, “Chiyo, how come you’re able to fly?” Now we need to recall the knowledge of writing that is located even further away from our panel: in previous episodes, Osaka already had weird ideas about the character Chiyo and her plaits. With this knowledge in mind, we can almost guess Osaka’s dream (and indeed, in the next strip we see how Chiyo’s flapping bunches enable her to fly in Osaka’s dream). I’d say this is an example of anchorage: without the writing, the meaning of the image would be unclear.

As for the symbolic message, we need to take into account once more previous episodes, which established Osaka as a slow character who often has wondrous or naive thoughts. This strip is not funny because of the absurd idea of a flying girl – after all, such illogical ideas are common in everyone’s dreams – but because it’s such a typical thing for Osaka to think, no matter whether she’s asleep or awake. The symbolic message may well be to invoke Osaka’s characteristics in order to convey humour. In the last panel, the invoked characteristic are her weird ideas, but in the first panel, which is repeated twice almost unchanged, it’s probably Osaka’s slowness. When in a later episode the livelier character Tomo is shown dreaming her own “New Year’s dream”, one panel of her sleeping in bed is enough to indicate that the following panels show her dream.

So that was, if I got it right, a basic application of Barthes’s theory to a comic panel. A more interesting example would be a panel in which literal message and symbolic message are at odds with each other, or in which the linguistic message acts as relay rather than anchorage. I’m sure there are plenty of such examples once one starts looking.

¹ I’m using Stephen Heath’s translation, “Rhetoric of the Image”, in: Roland Barthes, Image – Music – Text, New York 1977, pp. 32-51.
² Comics Studies have later developed more elaborate systems of the relationship between scriptorial and pictorial elements in comics. See e.g. Nathalie Mälzer’s recent conference paper.

Michel Foucault’s heterotopia – in comics?

This time, we’re going to look at a theoretical concept which is not specific to art history: heterotopias, or “other spaces”, described by philosopher Michel Foucault in a talk in the 1960s which was published in the 1980s. He defines heterotopias as “something like counter-sites […] in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” Foucault then lists six “principles” to further characterise heterotopias:

  1. Today’s heterotopias are “heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”;
  2. “a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion”;
  3. “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”;
  4. heterotopias are often linked to either the accumulation of time or to ephemeral time;
  5. “heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable”; and
  6. heterotopias either “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory”, or they are “as well arranged as our [space] is messy”.

These “principles” are not meant to be necessary characteristics of heterotopias, i.e. a space doesn’t need to fulfil all six principles to be regarded as a heterotopia. This rather vague definition means we can apply the term heterotopia to many different spaces. In art history, we mainly deal with two kinds of spaces: real spaces in which art is produced and received, and imaginary spaces conveyed by the content of works of art. For the former, see e.g. Ruth Reiche’s recent blog post (in German) on cinemas and museums as heterotopias. I’m going to look at the latter now, and try to find out what is to be gained when we conceive a space in a comic as a heterotopia.

A sword breaks, a demon laughs... but where are we? On p. 23 of Lone Wolf and Cub #2, that's the only thing we know for sure.

A sword breaks, a demon laughs… but where are we? On p. 23 of Lone Wolf and Cub #2, that’s the only thing we know for sure.

The sequence I have selected for this purpose is from an episode of the manga classic 子連れ狼 / Kozure Ōkami (Lone Wolf and Cub) by Kazuo Koike and Gōseki Kojima, titled “Pitiful Osue” in the US edition (issue #2 in the First Comics series from 1987). On the first 19 (of 56) pages, we only see the infant Ogami Daigorō, the “cub”, but no trace of his father Ogami Ittō, the “lone wolf”. Then suddenly, starting with p. 20, the page background turns black for five pages. A caption text tells us we’re “elsewhere” now, and we witness Ogami (Ittō) fighting against animal-headed demons amidst swirling fumes. Is this new setting a heterotopia?

The basic definition, a counter-site which represents and inverts real sites, might be applicable: in this hell (Ogami himself uses this term later), the twisting, naked bodies are representations of the people on earth. Ogami seems unchanged at first, but then his sword breaks in the fight – something which probably never happens to him in “real” life – and he doesn’t overcome his enemies. Some of Foucault’s six principles also hold true for this hellish place:

  1. It is a place for the deviant, not only in a mythological sense (the deviant sinners are condemned to hell), but also in the sense that this scene turns out to be a feverish nightmare of the ill (i.e. unhealthy, thus deviant) Ogami.
  2. It is a place that has changed its function in history. While in medieval Japan, in which the story is set, hell was imagined as a real place where you could end up after death, the 20th century manga readers would probably regard hell as unreal and recognise this scene as a dream sequence, even before it is revealed as such on p. 25.
  3. Three places are juxtaposed here: the place where the dead wind in agony, the place where Ogami fights the demons, and the shrine (which turns into a real place in which Ogami sleeps). These places are both separated and connected by the mists of hell. On another level, they exist all in one “real” place: the shrine where Ogami dreams of them, or his imagination.
  4. It is quite an ephemeral place, as it exists only for as long as Ogami is dreaming. (On the other hand, for those who believe in it, hell is eternal.)
  5. No matter whether we regard this place as hell or as a dream, both have notoriously specific modes of entering: entrance to hell is usually reserved for the deceased, and a dream can be entered only by one single sleeper.
  6. As a dream, this place is an illusion. At the same time, as hell, the place of eternal torment, isn’t it more real than the fleeting earthly life? Ogami himself seems unsure about how his nightmare is connected to reality: “Is it a sign that my fever has passed — or that death is near?”, he wonders on p. 26. (The relation between the two spaces gets more complicated on pp. 42-43, when they briefly merge, but that’s another sequence…)

So what do we make of this dream/hell now that we’ve identified it as a heterotopia? Above all other characteristics, heterotopias are radically different from real places, and this “otherness” might be the key to understanding the role of the dream sequence in the story: it marks a harsh change of perspective from Daigorō to his father, who are for once far apart from each other in the beginning of this episode. By shifting from the real world to the heterotopian underworld, the authors emphasise that father and son are “worlds apart”. In the course of the episode, they will have to find each other again, so that the order at the basis of Kozure Ōkami – the companionship of “wolf” and “cub” – is restored.