Artistic Aims Essay

[This is the defense of my thesis project You Are Against Us, which you can see here and here.]
As a rule, I don’t trust politicians.  I was raised to believe that power corrupts – that as a rule, those elected to power will do or say what they need to in order to stay in power.  As pessimistic as this sounds I do feel that it’s important to be critical of the things politicians say, and to look for the motivations behind the things they do.  When we do not do that, when we blindly follow the party line, we run the very real risk of being manipulated and abused.

As much as we are told otherwise, we are not divided into Red and Blue states, and not everyone fits into the categories of Republican and Democrat or Liberal and Conservative.  In reality most people fall somewhere in the middle but wind up voting on the one or two issues that are most important to them: abortion, taxes, health care, terrorism, etc.  In my opinion politicians have exploited these issues to polarize citizens and help secure a stable voting block.  This is all well and good for the two major parties, but what has it done to us?

It’s with this background in mind that I create my work.  My project is an online graphic story, and focuses on the division and lack of discourse that defines our current political landscape.  I look at 9/11 as a moment in our recent history where we as a country were briefly united, only to be torn apart again by partisan politics.  In particular I focus on the debate over civil liberties that emerged after the attacks and the polarizing effect that it had on us as a country.

I want to create a work that shows what a lack of dialogue is doing to our country, and the affects that such divisions have had at other points in history, both in our country and around the world. By doing this I hope to encourage the readers to be more critical of the country’s political leaders.

The project will focus on the roots of the current situation, namely the effects an act of terrorism had on our social and political landscape.  It will be a scrolling wordless comic dealing with the event and its aftermath in rather general terms – no city or specific terrorist activity will be mentioned, but rather I will show what could and would happen in any city anywhere in the country.

In addition to the main storyline of our recent divisions following 9/11, I am creating supplementary historical storylines similar in theme that will crisscross and run parallel to the 9/11 narrative.  The first will focus on the Reichstag fire of 1933 and the eventual Nazi seizing of power; the second will relate the events following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, specifically the Japanese-American internment camps and a foreshadowing of post-war McCarthyism; the third will give a rundown of the divisions and conflicts that led to the eventual Rwanda genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus.  Each will be handled in a similar fashion as the main storyline: no specifics will be mentioned, only hinted at through the events.  In fact, they will be portrayed more as alternate realities or endings to the main story.  While I want the inspiration for the main storyline to be clear to everyone – so that anyone to see it and say, “that’s about 9/11” – I want the other stories to be more mysterious.  The reasons for this are twofold.  First, so that the themes I am pulling out of each will resonate more with the 9/11 story without the knowledge of history getting in the way, and second so that the comparisons seem less absurd than if I were to outright say it rather than just imply it.

Each of these additional storylines is meant to highlight an element that is present in the current situation and show what the consequences are when that element is brought to its most extreme: when hysteria allows oppressive levels of governmental control under the guise of protection; when fear of a foreign enemy causes racist violations of personal liberties; when petty and imaginary divisions are exacerbated to levels of unimaginable horror and cruelty.

While these are all potentially powerful examples, I am doing my best to make sure that they do not come across as too extreme and over the top.  As much as they are meant to show similarities, they are meant just as much to show how comparatively calm our current situation is.  To put it more succinctly, they are meant to provide perspective.  It’s also important that each of these stories not be forgotten in their own right.  They are all somewhat inconvenient to humanity as a whole and it is important that we do not forget any of them.

I have chosen to make this work a comic for several reasons, chief among them being the accessibility of the medium.  Comics have long specialized in both clear visuals and easy to follow narratives.  Well-executed comics are almost seductive in their clarity and ease of use – one only needs to pick one up and begin flipping through it in order to feel the pull.  I also am drawn the medium’s use of strong, visually-arresting images.

I also feel that the comics medium is uniquely equipped to handle the content matter in a non-inflammatory way.  Were I to relate Pearl Harbor, the rise of Nazism, and Rwanda to the events of 9/11 in most any other format it would seem not only absurd, but offensive (even typing it now seems somewhat incendiary).  While there is still that danger in the comics format, I feel that there is a much greater chance that it can be handled delicately enough.

In keeping to more general terms my hope is to avoid any overt reasons that any individual person would have to “shut off” and dismiss the work, either as propaganda for the opposing viewpoint or as espousing information they already know.  I especially want to avoid any portrayals of prominent political figures, in particular the President and Vice President as they tend to be very divisive characters.  As the reaction to their portrayals in The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation has shown, merely drawing them a certain way or in certain poses invites a range of unwanted reactions from all over the political spectrum.  Another advantage in keeping both the events and the people very general is that the user will be able to identify with a wider range of characters, or more importantly for my purposes, with characters on both sides of the issues.

This becomes more difficult with the addition of the supplementary storylines, but I believe still possible.  While I do not want the characters within each storyline to be overly differentiated, I will make efforts to show that each additional storyline has it’s own unique cast of characters.  My main devises for achieving this will be spacing and color.  The three extra stories will be spaced at an appropriate distance from the original story so as to show that while the stories are thematically linked and echo each other at points, they are separate events.  If necessary I will move each story onto it’s own page so that the divisions are imminently clear.

Color will also play an important role in differentiating the stories.  Continuing the metaphor from the 9/11 story, the color palette for the characters and settings of each additional storyline will be determined by the colors of that nation’s flag: The Reichstag story will feature red, yellow, and black, while the Rwandan story will use red, yellow, and green.  The similarities of the two storyline’s color palettes – the same except for one color – will, I hope, reinforce the universality of the events – These are extreme human reactions to extreme circumstances, not isolated events in foreign lands that have no bearing on our own lives.

For the Pearl Harbor storyline I will experiment with multicolored characters – mimicking the red and white stripes of the U.S. flag, and the red sun and white field of the Japanese flag – and faded versions of the 9/11 storyline colors.  I hope to show all American characters as red and blue, focusing on the citizenship of each rather than the ethnicity.  I will also have characters colored to resemble the Japanese flag, using them in two different situations: when the character portrayed is a Japanese citizen and in word bubbles when a character is being spoken about as being Japanese.  Most likely I will take a similar coloring approach as the one I used in the 9/11 story, namely manipulating the traditional use of colors enough to imply the original flags without actually using them.

I am also considering using a more subdued version of the 9/11 color palette as a means of showing the events have happened in the past.  This could be problematic in that the colors are also used to denote intensity of emotion, and I feel that is a shorthand that once established I cannot afford to lose.

An alternate approach would be to color each character with the flag of their ethnicity – i.e., making Italian-Americans red, white, and green, Irish-Americans orange, white, and green, etc.  This could prove to be problematic, however, in maintaining a readable visual hierarchy.  I’m also concerned about the flag color similarities of the U.S. and British flags – similarities that would reinforce the racist and elitist belief that white Anglo-Saxons Protestants are real Americans, with everyone else being merely immigrants.

In helping to illustrate that the project is dealing more with general themes and less with particular events the characters themselves will be abstracted, barely recognizable as human.  They will be represented by square-headed, amorphous people, more or less indistinguishable from each other, whose bodies’ color and shape change to fit the situation much as human emotions change with any given situation.  As the story progresses the characters and setting in the main story will begin to polarize into bright shades of either red or blue, both connecting them with a particular side and increasing the visual intensity as the emotional intensity of the story increases.  In this way I hope to have the divisive nature of the issue sneak up on the user – from scene to scene there will not be much of a difference in the saturation of the colors, but comparing the beginning and end of the tale will reveal a startling contrast.

To help the reader both connect the story to the U.S. as well as distance it from actual occurrences, various events and political conventions will be altered.  In this story, for instance, blue will be the color of those in favor of stricter laws against terrorism, whereas red will be the color of those who are in favor of increased protections for civil liberties.  Additionally the country’s flag will feature a red field with a single white star in the upper left hand corner and a series of horizontal blue stripes.

I will also use repetition of scenes and situations to create a series of visual loops, helping to create the impression that these are events are part of a bigger cycle.  For instance, I will repeat the opening sequence of the main storyline toward the end, but with more intense coloring and character expressions, creating a greater sense of tension and unease.  I will use this technique primarily in the 9/11 storyline, but I will also have panels in the other stories that mimic those found in the main scroll.  Repeating frames and scenes in the other scrolls will further reinforce the connections and universality of these events.

I have been a trained and working visual artist for close to ten years now, and while my abilities have grown and my projects have changed and expanded in that time, the same central purpose to my work has remained the same – to tell engaging stories.  This was my initial motivation for attending art school and majoring in illustration, and later influenced my work as a graphic designer.  Gripping and relevant narratives are something that I have always tried for in my work and something that is always the driving force behind in a particular piece.  I am never more interested in a work than when all of its elements are perfectly in service of its central idea or story.  One of my greatest lessons taken from my education was that there are certain stories that must be told over and over again, constantly being updated to meet current norms.  To this end, my art education consisted largely of learning how to communicate ideas and stories visually in a variety of fashions – everything from composition and color selection to image creation and sequencing.  I explored a variety of media, trying my hand at painting, printmaking, film, sculpture, conceptual art, animation, and computer art.

More recently in my grad school experience I have been continuing this exploration of media, but additionally infusing my work with more social and political themes.  Whereas before I was interested more in stories that spoke to the human condition, and helped us all understand each other in a more basic way, now I have come to want my work to serve a more immediate and necessary purpose.  I feel that this is a needed progression in my work as it reflects my changing concerns as a person.  Consequently I have been drawn more and more to work that shares these sensibilities, particularly the world of documentary – be it film, photo, comics, or written word.  Artists and writers such as D.A. Pennebaker, Joe Sacco, John McPhee, and W. Eugene Smith have recently become strong influences on my work thematically, and I feel that influence is felt in this piece.

The style of the work will be angular and show a somewhat awkward environment in the hopes of heightening the general anxiety the piece is addressing.  Visually the style is influenced heavily by Expressionism, in particular Kathy Kollwitz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Lynn Ward, as well as the cubist and post-cubist work of Pablo Picasso.  This is partly the realm of my artistic influence in the first place, but I feel that the style is highly appropriate in a situation when trying to portray emotions such as fear, rage, and pride, and that these artists in particular have perfected the expression of emotion and mental state through pose, appearance and environment.  All of these elements I feel are central to my piece.  In mining some of their techniques I hope to recreate a measure of their success.

I am also obviously influenced by a wide rang of comics artists, chief among which are Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman.  Both have unique and amazingly effective techniques for storytelling and pacing, and both are known for their tireless experimentation and innovation within the comics medium.  Chris Ware tends to deal with large, and at times almost ridiculous, amounts of panels, bringing them together to create intricate systems that can tell complex stories through almost entirely visual means.  He is also a master iconographer, equally capable of distilling the essence of a situation into a single object or frame.  Art Spiegelman has made a career out of dealing with highly charged subject matter – covering everything from his mother’s suicide to the Holocaust to 9/11.  However, he always finds ways to make the work palatable, whether using allegorical techniques, visual puns, or out and out slapstick.

I hope to use aspects of all these techniques in creating my story.  My desired story composition will follow the spirit of a Chris Ware composition in it’s structure of panel relationships, one where a greater overall meaning is attained upon successful interpretation of the whole.  However, I will not have the same density of images that Ware relies on, instead opting for fewer, more iconographic images for clarity’s sake.  I will also be looking to borrow some of Spiegelman’s methods for diffusing charged subject matter enough to make it accessible to a wide audience.  I have also been researching a number of 9/11 and catastrophe inspired comics works for inspiration, as well as information on different ways artists have handled such delicate subject matter.

In addition to my various comics influences, this project is heavily indebted to the world of animation, in particular the wordless shorts made in the 1950s by such animation studios as Zagreb Film and United Productions of America, as well as individual animators like Chuck Jones and Jan Svankmajer.  All of these animators and studios excelled in telling engaging stories about various aspects of the human condition and modern life through entirely visual means, often times eschewing dialogue entirely.  Further informing my desire to create work that can stand alone on actions and gestures – independent of words – is my experience in the world of theatre.  While I have never participated in a production beyond the level of college, I have learned the value of communicating a story through actions rather than words, and the role that choice makes in keeping the audience involved.

My goal is to encourage people to not only question the current civil liberties laws, but first and foremost to get them to recognize the dangers inherent in blindly following the party line.  I want this piece to illustrate how just such a mentality has lead us into an environment where discussion between the two sides quickly becomes nothing be a yelling match, and disagreement within each side has all but vanished.  Through the supplementary storylines I wish to demonstrate what are some worst case scenarios for our current state.  While realistically we will not reach such extremes, each one of these stories has its roots in the same place: lack of communication and fear of the unknown.  My hope is that this work will, if not spur people to communicate with those on the other side of the “red and blue” debate, at least encourage them to consider that intelligent discourse is possible.  I do not expect this to be a sudden change in people’s opinions, but rather a seed that will grow over time.

While we are a divided and contentious nation at the moment, we are still far from the point of no return, and I believe as a whole we are an intelligent and reasonable people, if a little short-sighted.  Through historical reflection and self-examination I believe that we will regain focus as a nation and realize how little is truly dividing us into opposing camps, as well as come to see the political motivations behind such divisions.