September 2, 2012

New Shelf: The Lexicon of Comicana

One of my most recent interlibrary loans (a necessary resource in the pursuit of comics libarianship) is The Lexicon of Comicana by Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, and many other less well-known strips.  The book is, somewhat confusingly, both a satire of the building blocks of comics and also a genuinely helpful encyclopedia of cartooning vocabulary.  It is unclear how much of the book is the invention of Walker and how much is derived from real cartooning culture.

A selection of "fumetti".
He describes, for example, speech balloons or "fumetti", the Italian word for "little puffs of smoke" (as well as the Italian word for comics and the English nickname for photo-comics).  It's a real concept with significant historical precedent, which Walker mentions in passing by way of reprints of 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century like the ones here at Mercurius Politics, but the idea of cartoonists using "cumulous fumetti" as a named concept for thought clouds strikes me as dubious.  This has to be fake fancy-talk, right?  I guess I can't be sure, but it's still pretty dang effective: "emanata", "plewds", and "grawlixes" are a lot more concise than "luminosity lines", "flying sweat beads", or "those squiggly lines that mean you're swearing", even if they are silly.  Whether or not these words were "real" before Walker made the crypto-satirical claim that they are, seeing them laid out systematically makes a compelling case that they should be.

And this is why I recommend this book for librarians, especially those who aren't very comfortable with them or who have trouble talking about.  Even if the vocabulary presented in The Lexicon of Comicana isn't necessarily genuine (and, incidentally, requires the reader to tolerate or ignore occasional semi-satirical sexism), it successfully communicates the idea of comics as a visual language that is read rather than simply observed.  The book also presents a number of familiar conventions -- characters, scenes, sound effects and so on -- that, regardless of Walker's exact intent, serve to reveal how comics can be constructed from existing pieces of symbolism to create a new work.

Some of Walker's visual conventions

Of course, these conventions are usually found in the realm newspaper gag strips, but many cartoonists of long-form comics also use these or similar techniques, such as Jaime Hernandez and Stan Sakai, not to mention the vast majority of manga cartoonists who use a visual language that is almost completely unrelated to that of the West. 

Scenes from Hernandez' Love and Rockets1 and Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo2

So, check it out!3  It's a quick, easy read that's an excellent introduction to a major ingredient in the comics medium.

All images © Comicana unless otherwise noted.
1. Image © Jaime Hernandez.
2. Image © Stan Sakai.
3. Like I said at the top, I got my copy through interlibrary loan, and it happens to be the 1980 edition, but Amazon has a 2000 edition that may or may not include additional information.  At the risk of ruining the mystery, I'd like to see an essay about Walker's intentions, but I'm not sure if such a thing exists.

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