Words With Pictures

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We  humans communicate in multiple ways. We think of words when we want to convey information or ideas but our creative instincts have always used many kinds of media to express our thoughts. The artistry with which we make ourselves heard is one of the most incredible aspects of our humanity. 

The Sistine Chapel and other works of art speak to us centuries after they were created. We do not need a translator to sense the message that such artistic expressions hope to send to the world. Visual art is a way of speaking that transcends language or even culture. We understand and marvel at the ingenuity of people who walked the earth thousands of years ago. We see that people have been compelled to tell their stories for all time.

Our bodies move in the rhythms of dance to demonstrate our feelings and to tell wordless stories. With music we are carried away into the imaginings of our minds. We tell tales with the simple expressions on our faces or the fluttering of our hands. Children do not have to be prompted to create. It is as natural to them as sleeping or eating. We only need what is all around us to begin a narration. 

Today’s young people are enjoying a kind of renaissance of graphic novels and texts. Many of the bestselling volumes resemble elaborate comic books with incredible artwork and complex stories. This trend is worrisome to those who wonder if the glory of the written word is coming to an end. I would argue that such books are simply different ways of manifesting ourselves and the genre are filled with treasures that will be cherished many years from now along with the classics of old. 

When I was a young girl my mother thought it was frivolous to spend money on comic books. I always laughed a bit because my father had several collections of comics from his favorite illustrators and humorists. He read the comic strips in the newspaper every single day, often putting one of us on his lap while he pointed to the characters and chuckled out loud. I grew to love reading such things. I understood that they were not necessarily great literature but they were fun and sometimes I even learned things from them that I had not known before. 

My grandmother kept a stack of comic books at her house for any grandchildren who came to visit. I thought she was so forward thinking to do so. I often wondered if she enjoyed looking at the drawings and figuring out what they meant because she was illiterate. I think comics were a kind of midway means of reading for her and often she purchased the ones that told the stories of actual classic literature. Since she was able to explain what she saw happening in the visuals I felt that she was receiving a certain level of education from them even if she was unable to translate or understand the words in the bubbles. 

Today’s graphic novels are far superior to even the best comics of the past. Some are quite brilliant like Maus which provides a stunning view of the Holocaust or Persepolis which details the coming of age of a young girl in Iran. The beauty of such books is that they are not only filled with beautiful language but they also provide dramatic witness to history and culture in ways that are often insufficient with only words. They spark the interest of reluctant readers and pull them into a world of art and thought that they might otherwise never enter. They have the power to deepen discussions and prompt additional research as the reader wants to learn more about the topics. They are more than a kind of entry way into reading like the comic books once were. They are high art and stunning literature in their own right.

I still enjoy The Far Side and the best of Mad Magazine. I find wisdom in Calvin and Hobbs and laugh at the gang in Peanuts. Graphic renderings of humor or even tragedy can be stunning in the right hands. To me art is art no matter the form, but I am still continually undone by a brilliant manipulation of words. I am in awe of a natural born poet like Amanda Gorham. When words are put together is a way that transcends the ordinary I am moved. The written word, the classics and the offerings of the new geniuses of wording are still my favorite mode of gathering information or hearing a story but I am also open to the modern arts of storytelling. Like Picassos of writing they take the process of communicating and put it back together in new and sometimes powerful forms. Moreover if the new ways actually encourage reading I am all for them. Whatever gets people turning pages rather than just sitting in front of screens is a worthy effort. 

All too often we get set in our ways and want everything to be exactly the way it was when we were young. My father found great joy in the new and different while also appreciating the best of human traditions. We do not want to simply stand still. It is important that we continue to explore and experiment even with the ways in which great stories and histories are told. We should always have an eye on the future while treasuring our favorite moments from the past. We learn both from the old and the new and progress into better ways of understanding and knowledge. An open mind leads to discovery and joy as words with pictures often do as well.


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