I’ve been thinking about simplicity lately. The idea that an image can be simple but not easy has grabbed my attention.
The difference between simple and complex isn’t easy to understand. This is one reason why text leveling does not work for measuring the difficulty of a text. Text leveling measures what it is designed to measure – the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs; the commonality of words and punctuation used to construct the sentences. Text leveling programs measure these factors accurately, but what these measures miss is what I have begun referring to as the “cognitive-aesthetic” work that readers do when reading. That is why Hemingway ‘s The Sun Also Rises has a lower Lexile score than Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins (read the New Republic’s article here) that means Hemingway’s language might be simpler but the story is not.
The issue is NOT that the measures are wrong, it is that they are being used incorrectly. It is as if I asked for a vegetable peeler and got a hammer. The hammer is designed to do a job, and in the right hands it can do those jobs well. But take a hammer to a ripe mango and all you have is a big mess and that is what these measures are doing for classroom reading – making a giant mess.
And, when utilized on graphic novels, comics and even informational books with an abundance of images, things go very wrong, very quickly.
And so I have been thinking about cognitive-aesthetic comprehension. I began looking at books that express great emotions – an abstract and complex construct – with little detail and little or no color.
Mo Willems is an expert on the use of muted colors, simple lines, and few details to convey great emotional range and depth in a character. How else can he take us from a happy-go-lucky Pigeon to a despondent Pigeon? Willems changes the “pupil” location, the neck, the tail, and the wings. We, the reader, read into these changes and interpret the emotional context of the character.
Andy Runton shows us a depressed and worried Owly by manipulating similar aspects of the bird – especially the eyes. Using the same downcast pupils in large, white orbits he is cueing the reader to interpret worry or sadness or, even, depression.
But what about artists who don’t use these kinds of large, rounded eyes? How do they provide the reader with cues to the emotional life of a character?
Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis uses deceptively simple, solidly inked illustrations. Typical of the book is this illustration of Marjane and her friends as they are made to wear veils for the first time in their lives. Satrapi provides the reader with a view of the changing world these girls are experiencing during Iran’s religious revolution. She uses a few details to delineate girls from one another, including their eyes, a bit of hair on the forehead, and a single line for the mouth and yet we see a range of emotions from comfort or acceptance to worry and resignation.
In Bluffton, Matt Phelan gives us a character who is known for his deadpan expression. Buster Keaton’s youthful face is shown with almost no expressive lines, slightly raised eyebrows, and like Satrapi’s young girls, a single line for a mouth. But, somehow I look at that face and wonder at the depth of character that is going on behind those eyes.
The lack of color is not the most striking aspect of these images – instead it is the abstractness that I actually forget about. Even without color and in only two dimensions, the human face is a complex set of lines and angles.
Dorothea Lange’s photos capture the depth of human emotions without the use of color, as in her famous photo Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. Although we have to work to comprehend the emotions the photo is a realistic depiction of a human face rendered into a two-dimensional image.
What amazes me, as a reader and a scholar, is the ways highly abstract faces emote such strong responses without the details that would make them realistic.
The Pigeons happiness and sadness is obvious. Keaton’s emotionless face gives away nothing and yet I interpret it as having much to reveal if only given a chance. This use of highly abstract images can create characters that we as readers work to understand. But, and this is the part I am still thinking about, why are we compelled to do that work? The work the reader undertakes – to interpret a simple set of lines into a meaning of emotion, thought, an personality – is not easy and in fact the work is often far from frivolous.