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Pictures speak louder than words

Matthew Forsythe’s graphic novel Ojingogo rethinks the relationship between words and images

For a medium that’s considered visual art, comic books sure do involve a lot of reading. While it’s becoming more common for mainstream superhero comics to feature sequences of silence, the verbose tradition of a medium that once paid writers by the word – Batman creator Bob Kane got every cent he could out of DC Comics in his earliest issues – remains prevalent.

“I think Western comics have a tendency to overdo the dialogue and sound effects,” says Montreal-based cartoonist Matthew Forsythe.

“I think we got that from Stan Lee,” he says, referring to the cheesy catchphrases that fought colourful artwork for attention in Lee’s Spider-Man.

Composed of both prose and sequential illustration, comics often pose a challenge comparable to subtitled films, as they force readers to alternate their focus between the two.

Like all fiction, comics require a suspension of disbelief, but some of the more absurd elements of the text can disrupt that. At the launch of his new graphic novel Ojingogo at Librarie Drawn & Quarterly last week, Forsythe shared an example by illustrator Jack Kirby. In the panel, the captain of a fighter plane orders his crew to abandon ship, though the reader can see that they are already doing so. Forsythe also recalls that the unrealistic sound effect, announced in red block letters, distracted him from the graphic narrative.

While living in South Korea for a year, Forsythe became entranced with Asian comics’ tendency to blend illustrations with text. This is due as much to style as to the graphic appeal of Eastern languages, whose stylish characters lend themselves to sequential art. The Hangeul alphabet that Forsythe learned in Korea seemed to fit better than traditional Kirby-esque sound effects. “Hangeul is based on the shape our mouth makes when we say it,” explained Forsythe at the launch. “It’s a sequential art in itself.”

Forsythe began his illustration career as an editorial cartoonist for McMaster’s university newspaper. “It was just so cynical and I didn’t want to spend every week doing negative comics,” he recalls, though later he took a similar post at an Irish magazine. “Only when I moved to Korea did I turn things around and get positive.”

Eager to explore Asia, Forsythe ended up in a town outside Seoul, where he taught English in an environment similar to a French immersion school. With little knowledge of the local language, Forsythe found himself using what he calls the “universal language” of drawings to communicate with students.

Forsythe composed Ojingogo while immersed in the pervasive cartoon culture of South Korea. In a country where poop is a popular cartoon property, even signs warning of deadly safety hazards are tinged with cuteness. “They have a greater sense of fun with things we take more seriously,” the artist notes.

Though Forsythe explains that Ojingogo began as a “manga version” of his friend Vanessa, a photographer whose camera gains a mind of its own in the comic, it became a response to the alienation he felt in South Korea. “I wanted to make a comic that was a little cryptic and obtuse because it captures the feeling of being in a foreign country,” he says. “Being around all these people I couldn’t understand, it was like a second childhood.”

Aptly, Ojingogo is suitable for the underage set. Forsythe describe the black-and-white fable as “a Korean-flavoured Alice in Wonderland.” Nearly wordless, except for occasional Hangeul characters, Ojingogo can be flipped through in a few minutes or thoroughly examined on a rainy day. With his North American audience in mind, Forsythe didn’t necessarily intend for the characters to be read, though their graphic simplicity makes them easy to understand. “There’s something cryptographic about Asian languages,” says Forsythe, which makes them useful for expressing quick thoughts and emotions.

The artist is glad to be back in Montreal, where he works for the National Film Board and teaches at Concordia. “French culture is much more connected with Asian culture,” he says. “I can go to the Bibliothèque Nationale and read new translations of manga they don’t have in English yet.”

Though he is currently at work on a non-fiction comic meant to teach Korean, Forsythe hopes to return to the world of Ojingogo. He’s satisfied enough with his new release, though; “The goal was always just to finish a comic that I could be proud of.”

Ojingogo can be found at Librarie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard O). It is 152 pages long and sells for $14.95.