Half Note Art

When we discuss graphic novels, a few different questions present themselves immediately - and based on the questions we are interested in, those are the answers our noses guide ourselves to, like a kind of call-and-response choose your own adventure. One question, that I think is enormously important, is a formal one: how do we think about, or talk about—how do we describe, in responsible, penetrating, insightful ways—the actual form of the graphic novel, meaning what makes it distinct from film, or painting, or poetry, or novels? And of course, by now we should all know that graphic novels involve organic combinations of word, image, and story, and that this immediately makes the graphic novel a distinct art form and a genre of literature. But as we should also know, something that is distinct is so because of the enormous inheritance it has assimilated somehow and made its own; and so, along with formal questions, whenever we begin to discuss graphic novels, questions about origins also raise their heads. We cannot know where we are, or who we are, or where we are going, if we do not know where we have been. When we discuss origins, we can talk about the art forms that have helped shape the art form under discussion, like comic strips and cartoons; we can talk about individual artists, like George Herriman, or R. Crumb, or Art Spiegelman, who have been crucial to the development of the form; and we can also talk about individual artists in other art forms, in a kind of ekphrastic transfer, who have contributed in important ways to the development of the form and are still not appreciated for this contribution.

To my mind, the single most important visual artist of the 20th century, the most important for thinking about the difference between painting and drawing, and therefore the difference between graphic novels and painting, is Pablo Picasso; and if we can tease out some differences in his own work between paintings and drawings, and come up with a robust and textured description of drawings in contradistinction to paintings, then we might begin to be able to answer some of the more formal questions mentioned above, as well as questions about origins. So we could start by asking, what are some basic differences between paintings and drawings, and why are drawings so vital to graphic novels as an art form? Why would Cubism, for example, be an originary art movement for graphic novels? Why and how does locating an important origin of graphic novels within Picasso’s drawings and Cubism have explanatory power, and what good does it do for helping us consider larger questions about art and culture in our current shared cultural moment?

A Picasso drawing from the avant-garde journal L'Élan #9 (Feb. 1916). Compare with his 1906 painting Nude Combing Her Hair.

Picasso’s drawings do not have any peers, I think, when it comes to the clarity and creativity of their execution, their utter control and their utter abandon. The almost incomprehensible flourishing of forms, figures, and ideas that make his work in collage, or portraiture, or still life, so flabbergastingly inscribable in one’s memory and imagination as soon as one looks at it for even a moment—the penetratingness of his consciousness, the rugged unflinchingness of his line, the organicism of his development, the fury of his experimentation, combining the relentless ampleness of a Whitman poem with the tiny stitches of inexorable originality in Dickinson’s hymnal poems—these aspects of Picasso’s drawings are crucial for understanding not just Picasso’s art, but as lenses for thinking about the experimental nature of art more generally, and therefore the graphic novel as a genre of literature and an art form in its own right. How so?

Drawings are processual; they suggest small things, flourishes, gestures - Charlie Chaplin or Fred Astaire more than Marlon Brando or John Wayne. They can be expressionistic—they have no prescriptions—but don’t seem to lend themselves to that flavor; or rather, their very nature seems to disguise the expressionistic, like a drawing in a notebook to express and mask the scream of boredom or rage during a class of no substance, hidden within some strange dog peeking out from the margins. This is because their very slightness, or their very articulateness, depending on their state of completion, suggests an interest in and need for a quality of modesty, or unassumingness, or a break from the pursuit of the grand and noble and longsuffering, or merely a detour into the comedic awareness of the daily versus the immortal. Drawings are not definable by subject matter, or even tone, since they can be as infinite as whatever a human being brings to that moment when the pencil begins scratching; but they do have a kind of figurative value commitment, and it is this value commitment that interests me, since there is a difference between forms of processuality, and the ends to which this processuality intends. I think it is safe to say that drawings are more studies than ends in themselves, glimpses into a roving mind, or a flowing stream, more than something standing stock still - like a pause that continues moving, a motionlessness in motion, rather than a form like painting that emphasizes within these ratios more a doorway closed than a gate swinging open. They can happen in plein air or in a room, and no matter what involve mimesis, memory, and imagination, but they fundamentally seek within the larger ambitions of the artist something mundane, daily, tiny, silly, absurd, vulnerable, like assays towards something that is in the process of being imagined, attempts at speech more than speech itself.

Expressive drawing and speech without speaking, from a 1914 Krazy Kat daily by George Herriman.

I want to give this aspect of drawing a name, since I have so far been calling graphic novels “story drawings”, but we don’t have an adequate understanding of the meaning of “drawings”, especially as they function within the context of graphic novels, and what they might suggest for other art forms as well. The great critic and painter Manny Farber used the term “termite art” for his own description of work that followed its needful and idiosyncratic whims, down whatever hallways it needed to find its voice, its way of seeing; this term is helpful, for graphic novelists in their bookish iterations are nothing if not obsessive and even somewhat preposterous, as all lovable human beings are. “Termite art” is a good term as well because it unites the knight errantry of Don Quixote with the bedridden misery of Gregor Samsa, and this to me, in its combination of a sort of humiliating humility combined the most laughably joyous yelp of ridiculousness, seems a fair description of the existential character of drawings, as well as the predicament of most artists. But I think termite art, as a way of thinking about contemporary art in various forms—from TikTok, comic books, graphic novels, music on Spotify, flash fiction, short stories, novels, sculptures, film, cartoons, comic strips—is not ekphrastic enough, because although it is intended to refer to different art forms, it is not plastic enough to apply to the manner in which art forms and genres are created laterally, or cross-sectionally, through skipping across a panel, or turning into a different room, or leaping across a gap of genre, of art form; especially in the case now of the Internet, where we can stream anything if we have enough money, and the imagination exults. Termites burrow, but they do not grow wings, do a dance, click on an archive of every recorded song that ever existed, and fly to the amber moon; there is a remarkable strangeness in our art today, because of its hybridity and hyphenatory relish, that needs a new metaphor from aurality to capture this strangeness, since hearing and listening, music, will always remain the strangest of the art forms because of its relationship to silence and its resistance to conceptualization. Therefore I dorikily propose, in place of Farber’s “termite art”: “half note art.”

Half notes are mini-notes, meaning within the basic structure of the accepted main ingredient for music—for chords, compositions, pitch, volume, like letters for words, or images for paintings—half notes are a kind of scratching, a scrawling quickness; they are like the click of a mouse, the tongue of a cartoon cat, the curve of a woman’s hair in a drawing that is never finished. They are suggestions, out of tempo spontaneities; they blink more than shine, in the ratios of these things, like blueprints that are works in themselves, like the faded quality of concepts, like acts as metaphors not for ambition but the endlessly laughably enjoyable chasm between our public and private lives. Angular and small, they do not stretch themselves across vast canvases, seeking the more vaunting forms of sublimity, but rather proceed stitch-like, cobbling together in a kind of vulnerable open tasting different ingredients that, as whole, a gestalt, create new looks for art.

In the context of graphic novels, think about the interest in ragtime in Chris Ware, or Yiddish newspapers in Liana Finck, or diary entries in Gabrielle Bell, or mice in Spiegelman’s Maus, or the memorandas of affection in Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl strips—business cards, soda water, coat check rooms—or the very spirit of Americana, from blues to the washed out blinding television-soaked gas station landscape of a Midwestern town existing somewhere between mundanity and the apocalypse in R. Crumb. To locate that faint hum between the comedic and tragedic poles of preposterousness - that is something half note art seeks to do. It could be applied to any mode of art, but its angle on these modes—its ways of seeing—is more Boswell’s Johnson than Samuel Johnson himself, for it is like a man at a podium speaking of profound things in one panel, and the man in bed with his lover becoming completely ridiculous for love in the next. It is a form of un-idealizing, deflating, poking fun, and not reducing. The groan, the WTF, the emoticon that vomits and the one that looks squeamish and embarrassed, or the nerdy one with the big teeth; it is the obsession in our culture for the most minimal forms via vignettes, Quickies by the Magnetic Fields, thumbnails, Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s stop-motion shorts: in which animated animals, like mice or pigeons or rabbits or foxes, write shy letters to neighbors they fall in love with, or dance, in wondrous heart-tugging ludicrousness, in hospital cafeterias. Half note art is phones; the anarchic bizarreness of much of the humor on TikTok; it is the internet versus actual life. When we come across the most embarrassment of riches of all time, what else do we do but hunker down and make small things? Like violence in the world seeking the tiniest forms in the most ridiculous way possible, repression and sublimation and sheer windmill charging produces not only expressionistic screams but Mickey Mouse on a tugboat.

Self-referential violence in the April 23, 1919 episode of Bringing Up Father by George McManus.

The graphic novel is one of the best examples we have of half note art, because of its commitments to word, image, and story in an organic way that shatters the conventions of the book, in the same way Cubism shattered the conventions of the pictorial plane, by introducing an organic element of the visual into lexical forms of storytelling in the most quiet and invisible way possible, via the unassumingness of the comic book, comic strip, and cartoon. And drawings, because they are crucial to the spirit of half note art, and crucial to the graphic novel form, are formal means for making the graphic novel as a hybrid form something that works in fascinating and important ways in their best iterations. Because drawings are experimental, or small, and even sometimes anonymous, like more complete sketches, suggestive of both study and spontaneity, they are visual forms that lend themselves to the temporal.

Ambitious paintings typically cause us to pause for a longer period of time—think of a Rothko, or a Frankenthaler—whereas drawings can fit more easily into the swing, the lilt, the rush, the measure, of narrative and narration. Drawings in graphic novels are parts of the whole that help with the turning of the page, and therefore work well in a book form that combines language, image, and story, rather than canvas, paint, and wall, for example. Some paintings can suggest the quality of drawings—think of Philip Guston, or Basquiat—but I don’t think, because of their manner of presentation, that they are intended to be viewed as such. I wonder if both Basquiat and Guston chose their contexts deliberately, to poke fun at the pretensions of painting? But because of the way in which one looks at their work—whether in thumbnail on Twitter, or in a museum, or book—they are paintings more than drawings, regardless of the context, for I believe this is the art form both Basquiat and Guston, as examples, intended their work for or as. We are accustomed to saying that context is everything, but we often do not take seriously enough intention, or will, as means for creating contexts; and if one looks at a Guston painting in a book, or on a wall, or on Instagram, it is still a painting, even if it is seen in widely divergent contexts. Drawings and paintings are a matter of ratios, so a good analogy would be minimalist music. Works by Terry Riley or Philip Glass introduce spatiality into temporality, emphasizing structures within the moving flow of melody; drawings in graphic novels do the same, making the temporality of narrative more spatial by giving us enough to linger on and understand and experience in a new way without causing us to pause completely.

Chris Ware's use of animation devices as musical notation, in this page detail from The ACME Novelty Library #2.

Half note art has to be like this, I suppose. For hybrid works to actually work, like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red—which seems to court both a sublime originality on an almost Homeric grand scale while introducing into it aspects of the half note—one needs to not only be original, but for one’s originality to find means of expression. These figurings-out are not products of abstract reasoning, but intuitive corkscrewings in the silent weird tunnels of the unconscious and imagination. This various intuitive quality lends itself to the quiet manner in which we do not always notice the originality of works by artists like Ware or Finck or Herriman or Bell. Intuition is the muse for the half note, like a kind of soul-singing minim. Its material is hunches, the zigzags of the heart, like a dog following its nose more than a human being embarking on some grand project. It is interested in the tiny, the weird, the squeamish, the awful, the enjoyable, the embarrassing, the vulnerable, the considerate, the unique - think of Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), or Brian Glavey’s emphasis on shyness in John Ashbery’s work in The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality, and Queer Ekphrasis (Oxford University Press, 2015). We can’t have the monumental without being honest about where the monumental comes from, which is sex and relationships; and we can’t have sex and relationships without some sense of comedy in addition to some overbearing sense of tragedy. I don’t say this to minimize suffering, but to poke fun it at almost as a kind of need for survival.

In this sense, half note art is also a strategy for dealing with violence, because smallness is also a strategy for survival, just as the very act of love is also an act of separation. A good way we can talk about this is via animated cartoons—major precursors as an art form, along with comic strips and comic books, to graphic novels—and one of the half note art forms par excellence. Elaine Scarry in Dreaming by the Book writes about them well:

[...]because the cartoon as a genre luxuriates in its own self-announcing unreality, its operations are often deeply sympathetic with mental imagining; it has to have very rigorous procedures for making itself believable since it has disavowed from the onset the strategy of realistic texture; it aspires to be mistaken for the real but disdains the ordinary features that would make that aspiration relatively easy to fulfill. A cartoon is like something done on a dare: BELIEVE THIS IF YOU CAN, EVEN AS I ASSURE YOU THAT IT CANNOT BE THE CASE!

While Scarry is placing cartoons within the context of how we imagine, and why cartoons lend themselves to the image-making process, I think the importance of this passage for our analysis is the word “unreality”, and the fact that Scarry chooses to capitalize the final phrase of the paragraph, along with the tone of that phrase. Cartoons are a strange form of both collapsing and magnifying, like displacement in dreams: they distort, and in some sense hide, because the sheer delight of them can often make us forget the violence that went into their making, and therefore the cathartic agents at work in the cartoon form. Capitalized words are noxious depending on their tone, but here they have a kind of silliness, which means that Scarry captures the spirit of cartoons both formally and tonally through font size, insight, and exclamation mark. It is like a form of anger that laughs out of pain, even if the pain is well disguised. There is a reason why Wile E. Coyote plummets off a cliff, and why it is satisfying, just as there is a reason why we find Krazy Kat’s and Ignatz’s shenanigans enjoyable, or Spiegelman’s mice in Maus relatable, and that is because animals in cartoon form make human beings in all their folly more lovable, and therefore we can laugh at our violence, and feel compassion; and we can imagine, indirectly but somehow also gently confrontationally, experiencing our violence via the act of catharsis. Cartoons are the sneakiest form of vengeance imaginable, which is one reason why they are funny, because the incongruity between violence and what we are actually seeing is so preposterous that we can not doing anything but laugh out loud. Warner Bros. cartoons, early Disney cartoons, R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural - these are ways of animating the figure, though in a ratio of irony and sincerity in the note of the jangly, the silly, the commonplace, the unpretentious, like a Shakespeare play of swapped identities, where violence is replaced with laughter, the human with the animal, and suffering with delight.