Sunday, October 26, 2014

General Instructions: Show, but not Tell

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, despite being a comic with a simple art style and concise writing, can be very difficult to read and understand. Because the seemingly simple story is so challenging, some “General Instructions” are printed on the inside of the cover. In contrast to the book itself, these instructions are incredibly wordy, using complex vocabulary and a condescending tone as if to suggest insult to the reader’s intelligence for not understanding basic comics. But even with the mocking tone of the “General Instructions”, they can still be useful in understanding the comic itself.
There is one passage at the end of the instructions, “New Pictorial Language Makes Marks: Good for Showing Stuff, Leaving out Big Words” that reveals how the instructions can relate to the comic. Right in the title, one can see the hypocrisy in “Leaving out Big Words”, as the instructions are simply full of them. But at the same time there is a sincerity to that title, as the comic itself lacks many large words and strives for pictorial explanation.
One quote, in particular, stands out in the passage. “’CSA is here to stay,’ remarks a well-known and highly-decorated researcher of popular culture, ‘and all we can do is get ready. People can hardly form sentences that make any sense anymore; they’re making nouns into verbs, and acronyming words out of the first letters of a lot of other words, and using words wrong all the time to mean things they don’t. So I guess little pictures are about the only way we’re going to be able to tell stuff in the future, since most anybody can understand them.’” That passage is just dripping with mockery. All of the ‘sins’ people are making in forming sentences happen in the instructions, all in that section, a few even within the same sentence that condemns them. The attribution of the quote to a vague, well-known researcher also hints at its insincerity. There is strong suggestion here that the narrator might be a little unreliable.
One place in the book where you can see both the celebration of image over word as well as the unreliability of the ‘narration’ would be in Jimmy’s first major dream sequence. It slips from the waking world to the dreaming so seamlessly that the reader is not entirely sure when the transition takes place. Well, it’s clear that it is not reality once he turns into a robot, but before that there is no dialog or narration to tell what is happening.
Then there is a page entirely without words at all, telling the story entirely through pictures. The reader sees the robot looking around and off a ledge, a large picture in the middle reveals that the robot is on an airship, and the robot then appears to extend its eyepiece where it snakes down from the airship and up to a window. This entire section is given without a single letter on the page. That use of little pictures to tell ‘stuff’ happens throughout the entire comic. There are lots of pages where not a word is spoken, written, or otherwise even drawn in the background, yet the comic gets by without the complicated vocabulary seen in the instruction.
Then, after that there is a dream scene where the robot is nothing more than a head. This robot is seen waking up and receiving a crutch as a present. This is notable because after the dreams, Jimmy is shown to have an injured leg, but at no point is it really shown how he injures it. As seen in the ‘transitions’ to and from dreams, there is nothing really showing the difference between the two. So that might leave the reader questioning whether any part of the ‘dream’ is real or even how much of the ‘waking world’ is real. How much do dreams and reality blend?

This is similar to the instructions, where parts of them are joking and parts of them are serious, parts are real and parts are not. There is nothing to tell the reader which parts are which and the two parts even blend together at points. The narration is somewhat unreliable, though in the instructions it’s because it is so verbose while in the comic it’s because it is so absent. Finally, both the instructions and the comic celebrate using images to tell a story, the instructions by talking about it in words and the comic by showing it in pictures. Even if the “General Instructions” don’t directly tell one how to understand the comic, they mirror the comic in such a way that the understanding is shown, not written.

1 comment:

  1. I find it interesting how many people don’t get the mocking/satirical/humorous aspect of the introduction. I’m happy to see you acknowledge it, and hope that you’ll work with it. The challenge here is that, while you have identified that there is irony present, you haven’t yet identified what purpose it serves.

    After reading the whole thing, I like what you’re up to but would like you to make some additional connections and push yourself farther, into a more coherent argument.

    You’ve identified the mocking tone and ironic nature of the instructions. You’ve identified an important place where the instructions are followed. You see that there’s a connection there. But then what? That’s absent. Why does this connection matter?

    Here’s where I’d start, given your interests. Your quotation from the instructions is about the failure or breakdown of language (maybe in general, but seemingly specifically in *our time* - remember what Kandinsky has to say about art belonging to its own time?). Language failing, we move into pure imagery. Why? What is Ware up to here, when representing the breakdown of language, and do you buy into it?