Smoke Signals

I wanted to revisit the conversation we had last week in class about the smoke on page 3 of In the Shadow of No Towers, because I think it lends itself to a larger discussion on the advantages of “comix” as a medium and the possibilities for translation into another. The layout of the page, bookended by two producers of smoke (the falling Tower on the left and Art’s cigarette on the right), would be very difficult to recreate in another form.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 11.36.20 PM

The way the smoke obscures bits of text near the bottom and clears near the top of the page would definitely not play in printed prose, given the lack of images, and it really would not play so well in film, due to the leveled layout of the page. As mentioned in class, the layout is almost architectural, and each of the stories occupies a different storey. The comic page allows the audience to take in the whole scene at once, top to bottom, while also picking out the individual components at will.

The only medium I could see capturing the movement from top to bottom, left to right, so well as the comic page does would be that of the video game. Braid is a good example of a game that used text and obstruction to good effect, and the interactivity of the player with the text itself was interesting. If this particular page had been a stage in a video game, I could imagine a little 8-bit Art Spiegelman moving up, down, left, and right across an interactive version of the page, with the falling tower and the towering cigarette sectioning off the playable area, the various scenes playing out at different levels.

Still, a video game, and any kind of interactive, audio-visual medium, would have its limitations. The immovability of the smoke and of the other various objects obstructing the text is partly what makes the page so effective.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 11.36.09 PMThe freeze-framed moments of Art and Francoise on their way to Nadja’s school capture very static, isolated moments of panic, at times truly terrifying, at others absurdly comical.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 11.36.28 PMComic Art’s anxiety is interrogated from such a wide variety of angles, all of which are present on the page, but none of which ever have to mingle with each other unless precisely dictated by Art the artist. The precision of the layout, carefully crafted by Art, paints a very particular, very Art-specific portrait of the experience of 9/11 that might not come across as so deeply personal if the audience were presented the opportunity to interact with the text.

11 thoughts on “Smoke Signals

  1. Your idea of a video game that might capture the same visual effect of the smoke covering the words struck me– the figure of Art, moving to avoid the smoke, the fragments of buildings, I could actually totally see that. And yet the idea of a videogame about 9/11 is kind of horrifying. I can’t really imagine someone making one without a huge backlash– and one that I think I would agree with. So what makes it acceptable to write books (and comics) about 9/11, but not a game? There might be something in here about the reasons behind them, that games are ostensibly for entertainment, but as we’ve seen some games aren’t that fun, they’re about the message.

    When the first movie about 9/11 came out, I remember thinking it was too soon, but I didn’t have the same reaction to books that attempted to deal with the author’s feelings about what happened. So is the way that different mediums respond to tragedy in some way limited by our view of the medium, or the way they tackle the issue (a personal response versus a semi-fictionalized account, for instance) more relevant to the way we react to them?

  2. It’s interesting that you are framing the agency that the player is bestowed with in video games in terms of choosing to be revealed or concealed certain information as a “limitation.” Certainly, in the example you discuss with the smoke being an effective storytelling device in “No Towers” in that it packages the information in a very specific performative, presentational manner showcases how precisely the lack of agency the reader has in this case deepens the relationship between the reader and the material. However, conventionally, if a medium is sapping you of the ability to make choices on which information to digest and which to not, you would label the medium inherently more “limiting.” I’d love to hear you talk more about how the medium of graphic novels interrogate the traditional association between lack of agency on the consumer’s part and the notion of “limited” access into the world that the medium unfolds.

  3. I’m not sure that a video game would be a comparable medium to a comic book due to the connection between space, time, and movement. Exploring the story through a video game would require moving from point to point, which takes time, whereas with a comic book, space and time are not connected in that way. In a comic page, you are able to jump at will from image to image, zoom in and out, go back and forth. There is the ability to view the page as a whole and then focus in, and this is something that you simply can’t do in a video game, where story elements are mediated by triggering certain events.

  4. I’ve written at greater length about this in my post, but I think it might be useful to think about the affect or thematic point Spiegelman is attempting to create by obstructing the text with smoke, especially in conjunction with the Mars Attacks card and the “Don’t Breathe” poster, which, in contrast to the smoke, nearly obstruct entire panels and result in the actual withholding of information. I do think that the comic format was particularly useful in this instance, with this narrative, and I’m not sure whether the narrative as a whole would have worked with any other medium, but I have seen similar affects created in books and movies (like, as I discuss in my post, the novel House of Leaves).

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