From a psycholinguistic perspective, it’s interesting that we say we “read” comics. Nobody ever says that they “watched” or “viewed” a comic. And yet that’s what we do. We do watch comics every bit as much as we read them, just like the way we both listen to as well as watch movies. Comics are a literary medium but they are equally a visual arts medium. And despite having read comics (see, I said “read” again!) since the fifth grade, it wasn’t until 1994 when my eyes were truly opened, so to speak, to the full extent of the medium’s profound visual power by the brilliant Scott McCloud in his groundbreaking Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art in which he traces the roots of sequential art back to ancient hieroglyphics and, going even further back, to prehistoric cave paintings.
Viewing Smoke, the new wordless comic by Gregory Benton from HangDai Editions and Alternative Comics, made me think back to McCloud’s book to try to remember what I could from it. While I think I do have a strong sense for visual aesthetics I am still primarily a language-oriented person. And because I am so used to reading comics with dialogue (as many comic fans probably are), the first several pages of Smoke initially felt like they were lacking something. It almost felt as if, by mere virtue of the fact that it did not contain words, this somehow intrinsically made the book a title for younger readers. And because of this I whisked through the book a bit too quickly at first.
Rushing through the book was my first reflexive mistake, one which I hope to help other readers avoid, because this is not at all a book meant for children, not because it contains anything like sex and gore but because it would be hard for the average kid to really appreciate it. It won’t be easy even for the average adult to fully appreciate it for the reasons I’m talking about: (a) the tendency to think that pictures without words must equate to children’s material, and (b) the adult brain’s initial confusion when approaching something it’s not accustomed to.
After my first hastened view, I almost went on to write a mixed review. There were some things about the book that I immediately enjoyed but I was also confused about a lot of things and was about to critique that perceived lack of clarity. But something in me urged a second, much slower viewing. I thought back to McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I also suddenly remembered how one of the comic issues that affected me most of all time was issue #11 of an indie comic called Hepcats by Martin Wagner. I read it in high school and it absolutely floored and traumatized me. And yet it did not contain a single word in the entire issue either.
Remembering these things I then went through the book again – this time much, much slower. I stared at each panel/page as you would a painting: slowly, meditatively, in a calm state of mind, letting the image burn into my mind. I stopped thinking, “C’mon, hurry up and tell me what’s going on here” and let the slow procession of images unfold itself to me gently. And then something kind of magical happened: I fell under the book’s surreal, hypnotic spell. As if I had inhaled a little too much smoke.
I already knew from my first quick viewing that Smoke was about something I had heard of several years ago called green tobacco sickness. This is when agricultural workers get poisoned from too much nicotine being absorbed transdermally while preparing the tobacco plant for processing. Even as I knew this, and even as I could understand that certain characters were experiencing the symptoms of nicotine poisoning, I was still confused until my second, snail-paced viewing of the book in which I finally “got it” (or at least I think I did). I’m still unclear about a couple things but for a book like this, the mystery is part of the experience.
Because of the story’s relatively simple structure, it’s hard to go into any detail without spoilers. I will only say the fact that the book’s two main protagonists are children is important in terms of Benton’s ambitions to draw attention to a certain issue. A third very interesting character is a giant dog, and the visual design of this dog, black-and-white with a skull-like head, reminded me of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos in which many of the trinkets and ornaments used on that day have a similar sort of design. I might be wrong about the reference to Dia de los Muertos, but if I’m right then my guess is that this story takes place among a community of Latino farmworkers.
Artist Gregory Benton has what I crudely call the D&Q style, named after Drawn and Quarterly, one of my favorite publishers. I call it that because a number of the artists published by Drawn and Quarterly, especially guys like Michel Rabagliati, share a similarly cartoony style, simple yet elegant – not the same by any means, just kind of similar. Not knowing what else to call it, I just started calling it the D&Q style. (an admittedly vague categorization for sure so maybe someone can educate me so I can stop calling it the D&Q style!) Benton also makes interesting use of color here, offsetting the soft pastels of the real world with the bolder colors, textures and starker imagery of the surreal world, almost as if the latter were more… real.
Smoke works as both modern myth and social critique. The journey the characters go on is very much a kind of mythical rite of passage, though where to I will not say, with the dog serving as an otherworldly guide (the otherworldly guide being a recurring motif in world mythology). And the fiery demon-like creatures that appear made me think of the Preta (or “hungry ghosts”) in Hindu-Buddhist mythology, only here their insatiable addiction to tobacco sustains a poorly regulated industry that puts many people, especially children, at risk of harm.
I don’t see many wordless comics these days. This is the first one I’ve come across in a while. But now I want more. I think Smoke, like its namesake, might have gotten me hooked. I certainly hope this book finds the audience it deserves, and I hope that this in turn ignites a demand for more wordless comics.