From Comics To Chinese To Ancient Egyptian To Korea And Back Again

I once saw Art Spiegeleman, the author of Maus and Raw and other comics, deliver a lecture in which he argued two important points: that we should call them comics rather than graphic novels, because the latter term is just pandering to snobs who are never going to pick up a comic book anyway, and that comic books are not only art, but the argument that comic books are art is redundant and unnecessary. Roger Ebert might disagree, and Vladimir Nabokov would say that artists are lost the moment they begin to wonder what art actually is, or should be. In Nikolai Gogol he writes that “A writer is lost when he grows interested in such questions as ‘what is art?’ and ‘what is an artist’s duty?’”, even though he obviously thought about this question all the time.

What are the oldest comics in the world? The first Superman or Batman comics? Ridiculous Victorian political cartoons? None of these, Spiegeleman said—we find comics (defined as pictures together with words, telling a story) in medieval stained glass windows and also in ancient Egypt, where the boundary between letters (phonemes, symbols representing sounds) and images (pictoral representations of real things or abstract concepts) is blurred to the point where the hieroglyphic for the famous Horus eye can mean both an eye as well as the sound I. This writing system is no longer in regular use, although the letters I’m using to express my thoughts can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt—but in China and the Sinosphere there is a system that is still around and still regularly used by millions of people.

Called Hanzi by the Chinese, and written Chinese by us, the system is phonemic and pictoral at the same time, just like Ancient Egyptian, and as in Europe there is an old tradition of pairing detailed images with words—known to us, today, as comics. Although my knowledge on the subject is purely amateur, it seems rare to stumble upon any kind of traditional Chinese painting that does not possess some kind of writing, stamp, or signature, in contrast to classical Western paintings, which seem to be much more focused on the image rather than the writing which accompanies it. More often than not, Chinese paintings are covered with writing, in places which Westerners would probably consider fairly intrusive.

But Koreans take the idea of the word as art to greater extremes. Scholars here relied on Chinese characters exclusively for millennia, and only switched over to the homegrown Korean alphabet after the Colonial Japanese—seeking to distance Korea from China—forced them to. As a result written Chinese became fairly rare, even if something like seventy percent of Korean (and perhaps far more) is just mispronounced Chinese, but it also took on something of a cultish aspect; it became an object of worship, a marker of intellectual achievement, as well as a work of art.

Few temples or traditional structures in Korea go without a very necessary adornment of Chinese characters, many of which are so bizarre that almost no one can read them; newspapers and books still use Hanzi, or Hanja in Korean, to help readers distinguish between complex academic words, when mere context is not enough; it is a mark of an intellectual to read and write Hanja, even if Hanja is commonplace just next door in China as Hanzi or in Japan as Kanji; and most importantly, Hanja itself became art.

We can explain Engrish, Chinglish, Konglish—the way various Asian societies seem to adore the visual form rather than the actual meaning of written English, resulting in ridiculous gibberish printed on t-shirts and signs—by looking at the Sinosphere’s love of written Chinese. I can’t speak for China or Japan, but I know that when Koreans want to make any place look really fancy, they use Chinese to do it—often with obsolete words written in unreadable cursive. If we Westerners think covering something with incomprehensible English is ridiculous, we should recall that Chinese people think more or less the same thing when they come to Korea and find their everyday language transformed into a mystical fetish. In my old elementary school, in my in-laws’ home, Chinese is carefully painted on expensive paper, framed, and displayed as a mark of class, a status symbol.

I myself am guilty of this fetishizing tendency as well—written Chinese is obviously far more of an art than written English, and I like the form of a lot of the plainer characters (天, heaven; 水, water; 公, public; 文, culture; 心, mind;)—and I know that there are plenty of Westerners who have gone to tattoo artists so as to inform the Chinese-speaking world that they are child molesters. Chinese is cool. If you get a Chinese shirt or tattoo, you are cool, as well—my father once purchased a t-shirt at Narita glorifying fascist Japan because the shirt looked good and he didn’t know any better. Had he worn the shirt here in Korea, it would have been little different from displaying a Nazi swastika in America.

I haven’t read too many comic books, but I’ve enjoyed the ones I have read, and I wouldn’t exclude comics from the world of art because I believe to do so would be pedantic—no different from doing the same with video games, as Roger Ebert has. Still, there is a certain perception in the West that, for the most part, words and images should be separate. Only smart people read books that are just words, and look at paintings that are just paintings, and only stupid people mix the two together. But the fact of the matter is that a written word and a painted image are more or less the same representation, the same symbol, and if you go back far enough in time, or travel around the world, you find that the distinction between word and image is entirely arbitrary.

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