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Give Our Regards To the Atomsmashers: Writers on Comics

Sean Howe, Editor
Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2004
228 pp., 17 illus. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 0-375-42256-0.

Review by John F. Barber
School of Arts and Humanities, The University of Texas at Dallas


A great deal of current discourse concerning "new media" revolves around its simultaneous engagement and submissive escape. This mysterious combination fuels questions concerning the nature and type of expression(s) we see, or foresee, in new and emerging electronic environments. At the risk of attracting your immediate ire with an unusual connection, let me suggest that a model against which to investigate such questions has long been available in the form of comic books.

According to Sean Howe, editor of Give Our Regards To the Atomsmashers: Writers on Comics, nothing beats comic books with regard to the combination of engagement and escape. In fact, says Howe, "that's the common thread of this art form" (x, his emphasis). Howe argues in his introduction that as a medium that is read, comic books provide a degree of control to the audience not afforded by movies, television, theater, or audio recordings. The pace and tone of the reading, of the interaction with the medium, are pliant and controlled by the reader, or interactor.

The words in comics are, like printed words elsewhere, hard-earned information. The images, on the other hand, invite readers to dwell, to reflect, to meditate, in a way that pure text cannot and will not. This intrinsically greater sensory relation to the narrative components provides an almost guaranteed involvement where one is forced into a more intimate relationship with the medium resulting in the aforementioned simultaneous engagement and submissive escape (ix-x).

Of course, comics have long been considered trash culture and, so, their utilization, and worse, enjoyment, confers outsider status on their user. Ironically, however, comics also offer supplication to the outsider through the example they provide of "otherness" or "unlikeness," the very confinements that overhangs current acceptance of much of the potential demonstrated by emerging utilizations of new media.

A problem with comics, noted by Howe, is the dearth of "personal writing about this most personal of art forms" (xii). What sort of dialogue, he muses, would bubble to the surface if comics creators, critics, and fans were encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas?

The result is this collection of 17 essays by comics creators, scholars, and, fans. Three examples provide apt illustration of the contents' applicability to thinking about new media. First, Aimee Bender argues that the visual experience is crucial to reading. With comics, she says, the symbolic language and imagery underlying comics, the "immediacy to iconic words and pictures," promote a more direct jump from image to unconscious (46-47).

Christopher Sorrentino concludes with an interesting paradox, applicable, arguably, to new media when he says those who champion comics are looking for themselves, and in seeing things through a glass darkly, see only themselves (69).

Finally, Geoffrey O'Brien, cites Ezra Pound's conception of a book: that it should be a "ball of light in one's hand" (119). As a ball of light, says O'Brien, comics seem always on the verge of exploding. Reading comics, we are not so much concerned to learn what happens, but rather to enjoy "lucid detachment," the freedom, the ability to move in and out of what we can see and experience as an illusion. But, this illusion is a real as we choose to believe. We can solidify or dissolve it at will (123). The same, perhaps, might be said of new media creations.

Of course, Give Our Regards To the Atomsmashers is not about new media, nor is there any overt connection made or implied either by the editor, Howe, or the writers whose work is collected in this volume. The connection, any connection, between comics and new media may ultimately be only an illusion. But it is one that seems to work, especially since what we know about creating and using comics may well inform our creating and utilization of new media.

If you really like——and better——read, comics (even secretly), this book offers the added benefit of talking about a topic to which you are attracted.




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