Fifth of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.
When I began this series, I made a list of the first few entries I wanted to do and a large number of other works that I wanted to get around to eventually. But I always knew that happenstance would play a major part. In the case of the Codex Seraphinianus, created by Italian artist Luigi Serafini, the chance was my discovering (via Eddie Campbell) that it had been posted online, in its entirety, as a Flickr set.
I described the Codex in my earlier post, but to recap briefly: the Codex Seraphinianus is a fictional encyclopedia, presented as if it was an alien artifact: written entirely in an undecipherable alien script, with strange and hallucinogenic illustrations throughout the text giving glimpses of pregnant, elusive meaning. Whether it is supposed to be from an entirely alien world (in which case the obvious people sometimes included are puzzling), from an alien looking at our world (in which case the obviously fantastical lifeforms, places, etc, are puzzling), or something else, is unclear. It's a masterpiece of suggestive mystery, of meaningful nonsense. Like many people, I first heard of it from an off-hand comment in Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas; but until its recent posting I had only seen the various sample pages available here and there on the web, and had never read it in its entirety (as it is rare and quite expensive). Having actually read it, I knew I had to include a page in this series.
But have I in fact even read it now? In my earlier blog post about the Codex, I wondered whether the word "read" was the proper word to use in discussing it. I have looked at every page -- some for longer, some for less time: the text-only pages -- at a very rough guess, perhaps a fifth of the total -- are, obviously, particularly unrewarding; many of the heavily illustrated pages are so beautiful that they took my breath away. I have never used hallucinogens, but looking at the Codex makes me feel as if I know what LSD must be like. But have I read it? Is "read" the right word?
I have come to the conclusion that it is not. This is true even though I would without hesitation say I had "read" a silent comic like Peter Kuper's Sticks & Stones or Evan Drooker's Flood. The reason is that in the context of a work like the Codex, "read" implies something untrue -- that one has actually read the existent text and not simply looked at the images. Given that the text is, so far as anyone knows, nonsense (but see here), this is impossible; but to say, "I've read the Codex Seraphinianus" implies a mastery which is unwarranted. Further, while the pages are definitely better seen in sequence -- you get a lot more out of it approaching it as a whole work, with a given order,* than simply looking at any given sample pages (said the man writing a series of blog posts about pages taken out of context) -- you don't quite read the images the way that one "reads" (by which I mean something like "performs closure on", to use McCloud's term) silent comics. Say, therefore, that I have "looked through" the Codex: it will be more accurate.
In fact, since I have announced this as a series of great comics pages, including the Codex begs the question of whether it is comics or not. Now Eddie Campbell would argue vehemently that these categories are reductive: that one shouldn't care whether or not the Codex is comics -- one should simply care that it's good. And on many levels I agree with him. But since I disagree with him on equally many levels -- and since I don't want to try to weigh in on The Great Campbell/McCloud Debate™ now (though I may at some point in the future) -- I'll simply note that the page I'm discussing happens to be a page of comics, at least by the Eisner/McCloud definition of comics as "sequential art".** A few of the pages have sequences of art that are clearly meant to be read as temporal sequence -- i.e. are comics by the Eisner/McCloud definition -- but this page is rare in being dominated by a lengthy, comics-like sequence. I think the only other one laid out in quite so traditional a comics fashion is page 41 -- two pages later. (What that means I don't know, although the pages are thematically quite similar in a lot of ways.) So even if you won't call the Codex comics in its entirety -- and I pretty much wouldn't -- I think most people would agree that this page is comics.
Anyway, it's wonderful, and from a wonderful book, so bollocks to the definitions.***
So here is page 39:
I've rotated the image 90 degrees so that its (apparent, to us) proper orientation is up -- as one would, presumably, rotate the book if one shelled out the money to have a dead-tree copy in one's hands -- but if you want to see what it looks like in the book, click here.
In many ways, the "story" here is readily comprehensible -- although the story one gets out of it is distinctly surreal. In the first panel, we are shown a map (its status as a map made clear by the labeling, in the now-familiar alien script, which is on it); in the second through fifth panels we are shown rains, followed by the growth of some sort of crop; in the sixth panel, we see the crop harvested; in the seventh, we are shown in close-up what the crop is: ball-point pens, which grow in the manner of tubers; and in the final panel we are shown the use that these are put to: they are used as the components of necklaces.
(Page forty-one, which as I said is very similar in structure, shows the growth of chairs -- not as parts then manufactured, but as full chairs -- which are then sat on by (for some reason) someone wearing ice-skates.)
It's worth noting that this is hardly the strangest page in the book -- indeed, its very nature as comics makes it among the most straightforwardly comprehensible. Nevertheless, its combination of real and imaginary features, its reordering of the familiar world in a strange way, makes it (in many ways) quite typical of the Codex.
But what are we to make of this presentation? Is the Codex describing a world in which this actually takes place? Or is this the misinterpretation that an alien culture has of our world? Or is it supposed to be metaphorical -- about creation having its roots in the earth, and hanging like a chain about our necks? -- Further, is this an answerable question -- that is, if one studies the Codex for long enough, can one figure out where and when it is supposed to document? Or is it just an exercise in defamiliarization, a playful romp in the gardens of the strange? (If ever there's been an artistic object which aims for, and achieves, defamiliarization, it's the Codex Seraphinianus.) I don't know the answer to any of these questions: I enjoy the page as an exercise in dream-like strangeness, but I don't know what to make of it.
In discussion at Eddie Campbell's blog I said that the Codex as a whole reminded me of Jim Woodring's Frank, in its eerie, often-unsettling, dream-like (or hallucinogenic) tales which mix the familiar and the strange. A commentator, "John C" (who I think is the same John C who wrote perceptively about the Codex here) replied that he thought "it most closely resembles European fantasy works like those one sees from Roland Topor and various bande desinée artists rather than people like Jim Woodring." I'll stand by my Woodring thought, though I admit that it may well have as much to do with my limited frame of reference than anything else. (Jacek Yerka also strikes me as similar in spirit.) Overall, obviously, the dominant mode is surrealism; beyond that, I don't know.
Let me take one small topic: the alien script. What is it doing in this page? Well, it changes the viewpoint: it makes what we see a representative example rather than a specific incident. It implies a whole society -- that this is a tradition, a habit -- rather than, say, some strange specific incident in which pens happened to grow like tubers in the ground, and we had so many of them that we made necklaces. The script (along with the greater context) even helps establish a narrative voice -- one of detached description -- that we then read as the intent behind the pictures. We might be wrong about that voice: it's how encyclopedias that we know are written, and might not really apply to the Codex at all, given that its supposed to be alien. But I think we tend to impute that tone to the Codex, fairly or not. And, of course, once one thinks of the Codex as a product of an alien society, we realize that we are imputing to it all sorts of things that might be wrong: even the idea that the squiggles in question are a script (with an implied language and meaning behind them, even if we can't know them) -- and not, say, simply decoration, or their portraits of the strings of which matter is made -- is simply an assumption that may be wrong. The alienness of the Codex necessarily destabilizes all our attempts to bring meaning to it (although, at the same time, we can hardly help doing so.****) There's no question that the script is absolutely essential to the feel and nature and meaning (whatever that is) of the Codex -- even if we do skip by the all-text pages quickly (for what can one make of them?), their presence is important in helping shape the meaning of more heavily image-based pages such as page thirty-nine.
Surely it's important that this page (and its cousin, page forty-one) are in the "flora" section (again, see my first footnote below), which consists of drawings and sketches and diagrams and so forth of plants. It shapes how we feel about the page; but I don't think it makes it mean any one thing.
Is asking about its meaning just silly? Is it all just supposed to be beautiful and strange? Or, on the other hand, are we missing something big if we just groove on its strangeness rather than seek more specific meaning (it certainly seems set up to encourage us to do the latter).
Did I mention that the art is beautiful?
And what are we to make of the watch in the penultimate panel, the one where we see the man holding the tuber-pen out? That's a very modern-looking wrist-watch.
Is it comics? Have I read it? What does it mean? I don't know. But I know that it's wonderful. (Can I know that without knowing what it is or what it means? I think so, but it's a funny situation to be in.) Go take a look and see what you think.
Update: Nothing to do with the Codex, but Eddie Campbell (whose name I took in vain above) and I are hashing out issues of definition in the comments. Worth a look.
* The Codex is quite distinctly divided into eleven sections, each with a title page, introduction and table of some sort (a summary? a table of contents?) before the main matter. Further, the rough subject of each section is fairly clear (various different attempts to label the sections come out quite similarly). And each section gains in coherence if looked through all together in order -- although admittedly not by much.
** I think that there are three major definitions of comics/graphic novels in play right at the moment. The first, which I think of as the Eisner/McCloud definition, is that comics are "sequential art"; the second, which I think of as the Pekar/Harvey definition, is that comics are "words and pictures"; the third, which I think of as the Horrocks/Campbell definition, is that comics can only be defined by what they historically have been, with a strong dose of "to hell with all this definition crap" mixed in in the bargain. As far as I'm concerned, all three have their merits; and one can most fruitfully engage with the field of comics by using, in various ways, all three.
The Codex is "new lit" by Eddie Campbell's definition -- a graphic novel but not comics (good enough for my purposes); this page, at least, is clearly comics in the Eisner/McCloud sense, even if the whole is not. But is this page comics under the Pekar/Harvey definition? Does an undecipherable alien script count as "words"? I shall argue in a moment (or have argued above, if you're reading the footnotes all together at the end) that the script is essential to the meaning (the feel, the effect, the nature...) of the Codex. But is it words? It's certainly supposed to make us think of words.)
*** Which is Eddie Campbell's basic point about the definitions, if I understand him properly.
**** An interesting test: can we think of this page -- page thirty-nine -- as not comics in the Eisner/McCloud sense? By this I mean: can we try not to process the images as a temporal (causal) sequence, showing us a location, a sequence of events, a use? Scott McCloud says that his iconic picture:
a page like this and not intend sequence? (It's hard.)