Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Darwinian Evolution of Comics

The first volume of The Evolutionary Review has just been published by the State University of New York Press. This will be a yearly volume edited by Alice Andrews (SUNY at New Paltz) and Joseph Carroll (University of Missouri at St. Louis). The editorial policy is to provide "a forum for evolutionary critiques in all the fields of the arts, human sciences, and culture" and thus promote E. O. Wilson's vision of "consilience" as the unity of all knowledge through evolutionary science. The website for this publication can be found here. I know Joe Carroll, and I have long admired his work in promoting Darwinian literary theory. I now must admire his brilliance in putting together a journal that combines depth of thought and engaging literary style in showing how scintillating evolutionary reasoning can be.

One of the best essays in this new journal is Brian Boyd's "On the Origins of Comics." Boyd is an English professor (the leading expert on Nabokov), who has recently written On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction (Harvard, 2009). His essay (with full-color comics!) can be found here.

So what does Darwinian evolution have to do with the history of comics? Well, Boyd shows how evolutionary reasoning can illuminate any human activity, including the arts, and in this case, one of the most popular of "low arts." The main point--which I have stressed often--is to see that Darwinian thinking is not reductionistic or one-leveled but multileveled in seeing the complex historical interaction of genetic evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution, and individual judgment.

At the beginning of his essay, Boyd writes:

"Evolution lets us see comics, like almost anything human or even alive, in a panoramic context but also in extreme close-up, as close as a comics artist trying to grab readers' attention in this frame or with that angle. And it can zoom smoothly between these two poles. Evolution offers a unified and naturalistic causal system from the general to the very particular. Far from reducing all to biology and then to chemistry and physics, it easily and eagerly plugs in more local factors--in a case like comics, historical, technological, social, artistic and individual factors, for instance--the closer we get to particulars. Evolution accepts multilevel explanations, from cells to societies, and allows full room for nature and culture, society and individuals."

Later in the essay, he summarizes some of the main points in his Darwinian history of comics:

"Comics, as they established their language in the early 1900s, solved the problems of sequential narration in image and word in ways that appeal to deep human cognitive preferences. In modern comics each frame tends to create a single impression that can be taken in at a glance and a situation either visually explicit in instant icons or immediately clarified by prominent speech balloons. The sequence from frame to frame usually allows a brisk clear flow of attention and low-cost comprehension. Search time can be reduced to a second or two. Verse around the world uses controlled phrase lengths that in written form become line lengths, whereby poets shape the attention of their audience, releasing just as much at a time as our auditory present and the storage space of working memory can hold (Frederick Turner). In the same way, comics concentrate and reward comprehension within the clearly delineated attention-sized units of the single simplified comic frame, without the superfluous detail or distracting multiple foci of Outcault's panoramas."

Later, he writes:

"Comics tapped deep-rooted cognitive capacities and appealed to deep-rooted cognitive preferences as they discovered a whole series of ways to lower comprehension costs and raise the benefits of even a moment of reading time. They appeal to our craving for story, humor and surprise, for high-quality information in sight and speech, and for likely payoff at low cost. They prefocus expectations, reducing search and comprehension time through genre (comic strip funnies), series (Garfield), and therefore familiar characters (brazenly egotistical cat, blithely hapless owner, self-duping dog) and narrative contours (cat satisfies greed), so that hundreds of millions of readers can reach with minimum effort the promised hit of humor, the surprise of just where that comic trajectory will land today."

Comics are a cultural invention of the last 150 years. But they appeal to our evolved human nature, which includes a natural desire for story-telling, which can be satisfied through narrative pictures and words. The particular aesthetic techniques of comics have evolved through individual artists finding solutions to their problems--concerning how to engage the attention of a mass audience--which then become part of a cultural tradition conditioned by social, economic, and technological conditions (like printing, newspapers, and mass literacy).

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