The Tempest is Not Sublime
On a message board I frequent, somebody challenged people to come up with sublime comedy. Weird, I thought. If this is any sort of challenge, it presumes that comedy is nothing worthy, and when we find comedy that does have value, well, that’s the exception.
Sublime: Lofty, or elevated.
Well, sure. Most of us took chemistry, though, and remember that sublimate means to transform directly from solid to gas. That concept, of becoming directly ethereal without going through the usual steps, happens metaphorically in the arts, and begs for a cool word to cover it. Describing something that’s simply lofty, or elevated, is already covered by words like, well, lofty and elevated (and transcendent. I’m sure you can think of some others). When something appears base, or juvenile, or just gosh-darn simple and yet – despite our expectations – it rises, skipping the merely ‘good’ echelon entirely, to the realm of the great, then we have something we need a good word for.
Comics, which most of society already looks down at, already have a leg up in this endeavor. When a strip like Krazy Kat or Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes turns a single gag – a mouse throwing a brick – into a deconstructionist study of loving that which treats us like crap, or turns a lemonade stand setup into a psychiatric booth for tormented seven year olds, or turns a first grader’s imagination into a devastating alternate reality, the world stands there slack-jawed, because trifles like comics shouldn’t do that.
Similarly, when a glorified comic book explores the Holocaust, or when another one explores three generations of Chicagoans engaged in the noble and exhausting exercise of existing, the public is dumbfounded.
Personally, I prefer work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I like humor. I like depth but I dislike pretense. That’s me. What we all, in the comic world, share, though, is the advantage (if we choose to make it an advantage) of low expectations. Sure, it comes with the hurdle of getting people to pay attention at all. But if we can achieve that, we suddenly are at an advantage. We can disarm the readers – beguile them.
Further, following from my message board discussion, we can snare a good many readers with the ‘it’s not art’ camouflage simply by making something humorous. Sublime comedy is a challenge by many standards, not only to create, but also to recall. That is, some people think it’s hard to cite examples of humorous art. I’m not sure why something funny is any more or less likely to have artistic merit, but again, it can work to the comic creator’s advantage.
You have the reader’s attention for a minute a day, or less. Charles Schulz once pulled out a statistic – I have no idea where from – of seventeen seconds (he wasn’t factoring in load times, of course). The readers only expect a chuckle, or maybe a tiny bit of story, or maybe they don’t expect anything – they’re just there out of habit. If we can change their entire day in that time – and I can honestly say that some single episodes of comic strips have had me thinking about them the rest of the day, and much, much longer – it causes a slight ripple in their world view. This was not supposed to happen. The very serious poem I read was supposed to be what preoccupied me, what challenged me, today.
That’s a good thing.
Can we all agree, then, to let the word sublime describe that which is not supposed to accomplish anything edifying, but does against all probability? Because we sure need a word like that, and I expect we’ll need it even more in the years ahead.
BoxJam is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia. More Details.