Writing Exercise 1 – Expanding on Ideas
This is a Greek term that is defined in a couple of different ways. It is referred to as a trap, or snare, or stumbling block. My favorite definition comes from the idea of skandalon as an impediment placed in one’s way that when one stumbles or falls over it, as a “stumbling block” it can lead to you being forced to look at something, whatever it is you stumbled over. To interpret this in one way is to take the idea that whatever it is that you stumbled over might be quite ordinary, quite everyday and right in front of you, but it is not until you “stumbled” over it that you are forced to examine the “it” from a new perspective.
Take this idea of the skandalon or “stumbling block” and let’s apply it to graphic novels/comic books. What do you see when you see a comic book or graphic novel on some news stand, lying around, in a case, or anywhere? Do you see something that is for kids? Perhaps something disposable or something you take no interest in? When you watch movies, do you feel the same way? Let’s assume that your answer is “no.” Let’s assume that you watched the latest “comic book inspired” movies at the box office. Perhaps you were watching this past summer’s block buster movie The Avengers. That’s right, “block-buster,” not just some esoteric movie that came out and nobody went to see except fanboys and fangirls and other “geeks.” No, this is a movie that took in hundreds of millions of dollars. Does this make you reevaluate those “throw away” comic books and graphic novels still? Perhaps instead it might act as a “stumbling block” that makes you take a closer look, from a new perspective about something that you used to ignore.
In his novel, Supergods, long-time comic book writer Grant Morrison attempts to relate to his audience how comic books really are more than what many have long assumed. The subtitle of his book actually says: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and A Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. That’s pretty ambitious by any recognition. How can something that we often consider “throw away” teach us about being us. Some food for thought here, historically, when William Shakespeare originally wrote his plays they were intended for a mass audience. They were seen as “public entertainment” and indulgences of the masses. They were not “high literature.” But look at them now, now they are the greatest works in the Western Cannon.
The beginning of Grant Morrison’s Supergods opens with the birth of the modern comic book medium – often short-handed and debated by most – as “the Golden Age.” The Golden Age began in 1938 with the publication of Action Comics #1 and the birth of Superman. Here is Morrison’s “sun god from Smallville” who’s creation and publication by two unknown Jewish men kicked off the modern comic book medium. This was followed, in 1939, by the creation of Batman.
These two “founding figures” of comic books emerged during the midst of the Great Depression in the United States.
Right out the gate Morrison does something that few may have seriously attempted to do in an previous interpretation – he attempts to rhetorically analyze these two characters first appearances. Why would one care about a rhetorical analysis of comic books? Rhetorical analysis is a tool that attempts to dissect some artifact (written, visual, etc.) and understand how the parts that make up this “artifact” relate to one another and come together to make an impact on their audience.
Morrison’s analysis sets a tone early on that there is something more to comic books than simply trash or a medium of kids and young adults. He immediately sets an academic tone, a serious tone, a more than what they appear realization that connects the comic book artifact to the perceptions and potential reactions of an audience. So, who is the audience? Well, when these comic books were first published the obvious audience was kids and young adults. What then enhances that appeal and why should adults care about what “comic books” have to say? The message, as Morrison dissects, reveals something that is not “throw away” but rather a complex layer of dramatic interaction and communication, what Kenneth Burke alluded to as his Dramatic Pentad or Dramatism.
Burke’s concept, as expressed in his work A Grammar of Motives, lies upon “motive: the reasons why people do the things they do” (http://rhetorica.net). If life then is perceived as being a form of drama then it is important to uncover the motives and parts at play. Burke names five elements, a kin to what some in journalism would recognize as basic questions like: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The five elements are:
- Act: What happened, what is the action or what is going on?
- Scene: Where is the action occurring?
- Agent: Who is performing an action and in what roles?
- Agency: By what means do they act?
- Purpose: Why do the agents act? What are their motivations?
Turning this back then, what is Grant Morrison’s motivation, his dramatic move in his book Supergods? The Act (1) is a rhetorical analysis of the first appearances of Superman and Batman at the dawn of what is called roughly the Golden Age of comic books. The Scene (2) is a reflection upon events coming out of 1930’s America and the Great Depression as an impact in our modern times. The Agent (3), as Morrison is illustrating are the characters of Superman and Batman, their creators, and Morrison himself. Their roles form of tiers: creation, creators, and analyzer (who is himself a modern day comic book writer). The Agency (4) here calls upon a rhetorical analysis that dissects the roles that occur with the interaction of all three tiers, covering decades of time and analysis. Finally, there is the Purpose (5), and Morrison this purpose comes the direction that comic books have a way of communicating with an audience on levels that sometimes, and most times, are overlooked by many – legitimacy.