It might seem like all fiction tells stories, but that’s not so. Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” for example, doesn’t so much unfold as describe. But then, it’s a poem as much as it’s fiction, a recount of a conversation with the great Kublai Khan about the cities of his empire: cities of the mind, cities of the heart, cities of myth and symbol.
It seems to me that a story, as a subset of fiction generally, captures a change in time. At the border are books like Lord Dunsany’s “The Gods of Pegana” or Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” both horror, where the events that transpire are really more about capturing a mood. They are half-stories for the same reason Borges’ “The Immortal” is. Indeed, both “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Immortal” recount the discovery of an ancient abandoned city, something that is so old it expressly exists outside time, which precludes change. The authors instead paint a portrait. In Lovecraft’s case, fear of the unknown. In Borges’, a philosophical question.
This painting above by Juan Martinez Bengoechea functions that way. There is a kind of half-narrative to it in that we can imagine any number of explanations for how these people got here and what’s going on, but there’s no sense of change in time. Indeed, the subject matter, photography, implies an eternal moment, and that implication is amplified by the fact that whatever events are captured here clearly take place in the past.
What makes it brilliant, though, is how the camera’s subject — the thing to be preserved — is outside the frame of the image, and all the subjects are turned away from us, as well as from each other. As with “Invisible Cities,” we are not given a story so much as something to ponder.
I’m not particularly interested in any of that. I’m interested in storytelling the way the Pixar guys are. I’ve come at it sideways through the medium of art because art offers a contrast. It exists in space and not in time — versus prose, which exists in time and not space. As such, art has to be very economical in how it tells a “story.”
Comic art, from graphical novels to political cartoons, is the master of this. The whole purpose of the medium is to tell a story in art. Even if it’s a single panel, a comic is, as Scott McCloud defined it, “sequential art” — art that uses space to represent time.
The work above by Sam Bosma tells us a story in that it tells us a kind of joke, and jokes are stories that introduce but do not resolve unexpected tensions. Incidentally, this is why humor fiction, such as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” often ends where it begins. A joke isn’t funny if you explain or resolve it.
To me, this humorous work by Juan Carlos Paz excellently captures parenthood. Not many human children hang upside down and drink their own pee (although I’m sure it’s happened), but when you’re a parent, it sure feels that way. Also, you’re exhausted.
But look at how much of the “story” — which I read as the humorous destruction of this poor fellow by his offspring — is captured in the detail. We immediately recognize the two figures as adult and child based on their different characteristics. The one is larger and bears the marks of maturity: the horn and heavy brow.
Then there is the brilliant contrast between the subjects and their almost photo-realistic environment. I imagine parents of young children feel this dislocation often. Not only do they subsist on a steady diet of children’s television, which features cartoony creatures like this, they are surrounded by toys and often are a toy to their kids. And yet, the world around them is still the “real” adult one.
But comic art isn’t alone in its desire to tell a story. Pulp art (which includes things like book covers and editorial illustrations) is meant to function in the same way, and I realized that’s probably why both of those forms are so popular and why I like them so much.
This is Tom Lovell’s “The Occupation of Paris.” I’ll let you decipher the story.
But the true masters of storytelling in art are advertising and propaganda, where propaganda (including internet memes) is simply political advertising.
Again, it’s the tiny details that both reveal and subvert. When you see an advertisement, including (especially) a political meme, you are reading a story. You are being given a narrative to unpack. There is a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist and a change in time, one that’s either already taken place or might in the future: buying a car or a breakfast cereal or voting against the Democratic Party.
You the viewer are recruited to be part of that story. Indeed, you’re told it can’t be resolved without you. You are the aid to the heroine. You are the heroine.
The difference between an advert and political propaganda, however, is that there’s no requirement that the advertisement world have any relation to the real one. In fact, advertisers often go to great lengths to convince you their product isn’t anything like the real world, for what they are selling is an escape or improvement on it. (Slay the beast of your thirst with Rainier Beer.)
A political meme, on the other hand, which also offers an escape or improvement, is supposed to actually mean something. It’s supposed to represent the world as it essentially is (or should be), even — and especially — if that’s not how it actually is. In other words, it sells you a fiction truer than reality.
I suppose that’s why there are so many buyers.