Tuesday, June 5, 2007

AGE OF APOCALYPSE: The temporal panel and the infinite page

[Hey, people. This is my first post here. It's kind of art-theory, and I apologize if it isn't right for the community. I thought it might interest you guys, though.]

A few weeks ago I saw NYC's recent Morgan Library exhibit, "Apocalypse Then: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan." It was a small exhibit, mostly made up of pages from the Las Huelgas Apocalypse, a 12th-century (maybe early 13th??--can't remember) illuminated manuscript of the books of Daniel and Revelation.

I had a really hard time, at first, figuring out how to approach these pages. They seemed flat, static. One of the other patrons felt the same way: I heard him telling a friend that he couldn't really get into these pictures at all. We didn't understand how they worked.

But somewhere around the third glass case, I got it. These were comics.

They weren't even especially innovative comics! Their techniques would be immediately intelligible to anyone who read '70s X-Men, or this week's manga. But seeing the same time-shaping techniques in such an unfamiliar context made me consider whether comics weren't the best possible medium for an apocalyptic text.

First of all, these manuscripts mixed words and pictures much more freely than your average illuminated manuscript. The Morgan exhibit did include examples of other Apocalypses, and they were much more standard: words and then, here and there, illustrations. The Las Huelgas manuscript was much more fluid. Pictures--and the symbols showing relationships between pictures--helped to tell the story, rather than simply illustrating the story told by the words. A Biblical family tree (with many faces oddly shy, hiding at the bottom of their portraits!) conveyed information through its mix of words and pictorial structure. There was at least one obvious "splash page": the woman clothed with the sun, vs. a huge dragon spilling across the page. Panels showed progression of action: The top of the page showed Babylon at its height, and then as the page (drawn to resemble a shaking tower, in which each floor was a panel) descended, the city itself was destroyed. Babylon burning had no top border to its panel, although the side and bottom borders were there, suggesting that it burned past temporal boundaries into heaven.

There were familiar pleasures here: The angels' wings, for example, had a beautiful sharpness and clarity, like knives made out of sky. But the comics elements were striking. An angel breaks into a panel, shattering its black border, signifying that it comes from another world. (This was perhaps the most obvious use of comics conventions.) Snakes form the border of a page and its panels, serving both a structural function (here is the edge of the picture) and a thematic one (whatever you see between these snakes is evidence of depravity).

These pictures don't work the way we think paintings should work. A Caravaggio doesn't work this way, nor a Cassatt. We tend to expect paintings to capture one moment in time, to show us the entirety of that moment unmoored from any narrative, or open to multiple narratives.

But for the Las Huelgas manuscript, the narrative is the point. Opening these scenes to multiple possible narratives would be ridiculous: The whole point is that every moment is embedded in a larger story whose ending is already known. One of the Las Huelgas pages showed a star at the top of the page, which fell--complete with "Dennis the Menace" action-lines--down into the pit at the bottom of the page.

Moreover, apocalyptic time is weird, in itself. It's a kind of time in which events really do happen--but in the Bible, we see those events through the eyes of a prophet. And the prophet sees simultaneously like a creature and like God. He sees simultaneously the series of events, our shock, our fear, our confusion; and the narrative of God, in which the ending has already happened, in which the victory is already won by the Lamb.

How to represent both fear and faith? The comics format seems so perfectly designed for this task that I'm kind of shocked that the other manuscripts in the show didn't do exactly what the main manuscript did. In comics, the panel can take the temporal, creaturely stance, showing events as they unfold. Our eyes follow from panel to panel, creating a time-bound narrative. And yet our eyes also take in the page, as a whole: start to finish. We're able to see both time and infinity, both event and story.

This effect would be possible even if the medieval manuscripts didn't bother with other features of comics--from the most mainstream to the most experimental. But in fact the Las Huelgas manuscript shows how many comics techniques are intuitive! Using panel borders to create atmosphere (panels made of snakes, or bordered with stars, or cut through by the Tigris River) and breaking panel borders to express metaphysics (angels crashing through) are almost commonplaces: My favorite example is a '70s Ann Nocenti X-Men page, in which Rogue's upside-down, falling silhouette forms the outline for the panels showing her story.

A lot of people compare comics and movies, noting that both use each panel/frame to present both action and atmosphere. But I'm not sure a movie could show the same coexistence of time and eternity that comics could show, and that these medieval manuscripts do show.


Elliot said...

Eve, you rock! This is perfect for Holy Heroes!! Wow... medieval apocalyptic comics...

Elliot said...

PS: With the title I automatically assumed you'd be talking about that X-Men parallel timeline, where Charles Xavier died young... (droops head in shame for being so geeky)

Eve said...

Heh, I was at least 90% as geeky, since the X-Men reference was intentional....

Stephen Sparrow said...

"A Caravaggio doesn't work this way, nor a Cassatt."

No but I suspect the Bayeux Tapestry does - medieval comic strip perhaps?

Anyway, loved your piece Eve. I've long thought that we're about (well in a century or two) to revert to an oral culure where comic style illustrations will surpass books as places to gather information. Just look at your average (man)uel for figuring out how a new Ipod or stereo operates.

Camassia said...

Well, I've already toyed with Revelation as a political cartoon...

I do agree that comic strips are probably a near-universal way of telling a story. Your piece made me think of a medieval altarpiece in the L.A. County Museum of Art that tells salvation history from the Garden of Eden to the Book of Acts in comic-strip form, complete with boxes. My favorite boxes were 1) the harrowing of hell represnted by Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of a dragon's mouth, and 2) the Ascension, showing the disciples looking up at Jesus' feet dangling out of the clouds.

Eve said...

Argh! I totally meant to link to Camassia's post in this one... and then I forgot. So glad you stopped by and added it yourself!

Gabriel Mckee said...

I'll have to check that exhibit out... Eve, I didn't know you lived in New York!