Do I have ADHD*? It seems highly likely. It’s taken about thirty minutes for me to start writing this, and since starting I’ve gotten up to look for a CD, checked a chat room and am thinking about getting a cup of tea and opening the window. Oh and I’ve just put on a Japanese radio station. Which isn’t working. Just a minute…
I mention my chronic distractibility not because I’m hoping for free medication or offers of therapy from any comic-reading mental health professionals out there, but because I wondered if it might be something to do with what comics readers are like. Are we more distractible than the rest of the reading public? Scattier? Less focused? This may be at odds with previous columns in which I’ve pooh-poohed the ‘comics ghetto’ approach to my hobby – if we are just readers who happen to read comics, why wonder about differences? – but bear with me.
(pause to turn down deafening Japanese pop music)
I’m not saying you have to be vague to like reading comics, although it’d help. Most of them take very little time to polish off, and the presence of pictures means that the eye can wander back and forth a bit. Yes, it’s true that there are many comics which are more taxing on the mind than proper ‘no-pictures’ novels, particularly if the comics are by Alan Moore and the novels are by Clive Cussler or Jeffrey Archer. But most comics aren’t by Moore. This is probably a good thing. I love Alan Moore’s work but I don’t know if I could stand the strain of being completely engaged in my reading matter all the time.
Another difference I’ve wondered about is whether one has to be ‘visual’ to be into comics. I had a friend once, one of the most widely read types I’ve ever known, who was incapable of reading comics. She didn’t think they were beneath her or anything like that, she just couldn’t follow the action from one panel to another. I tried writing helpful numbers in the panels, the way they do with Japanese comics in translation, but to no avail, she just didn’t get them.
(pause to check chatroom)
The Japanese like comics much more than English speakers do. It is not true that every man woman and child reads comics. One of my big disappointments on arriving in Japan (after not being the tallest person there) was the discovery that large numbers of people aren’t into comics and see reading them as a childish thing to do. However, there are a lot of manga around the place; business manga (“Can Takeshi impress the new head-of-section and get his bonus?”), volleyball manga (“will Reiko’s romance with Takeshi imperil her team’s chances in the big game?”), action manga (“Can UltraDoomFist beat the shit out of Takeshi?”) and of course porny manga (“Can Takeshi survive sex with eight schoolgirls?”).
Certainly the Japanese are extremely visual people. The look of what is written is important there in a way that is hard for English speakers to imagine. The kanji, the characters that come from Chinese script, are pictograms, which can be distilled to drawings of things. Because there are thousands of these, you can use different kanji to say the same word. Thus they can have visual puns. I only know about thirty kanji, so I won’t give any examples here. Pictures are built into the language. Although computers are having an impact, the way one draws kanji is very important and a lot of poets do the painting for their own books, the look being important as well as the poems.
The idea of Japanese people being more visual than Anglo-Saxons came to me when I was teaching an English class. I used to do a lot of stick-figure drawings during my lessons. One day I asked my students to do drawings of my fellow teachers, so that we could practice descriptions. The students pictures were astonishingly good, the worst of them well up to newspaper cartoon standard. I’ve noticed similarly good drawing abilities in my wife and in-laws (who are Japanese). I guess this must be cultural and I wish my culture was like that. I used to be ‘visual’ but had an art teacher I despised and never really got back into drawing. Now I just look at a lot of art and read comics.
Certainly you don’t have to be an obese, badly dressed nerd with no social skills to like comics (although it doesn’t hurt). I’m none of those things and neither are at least two other comics fans I know. I think if anything sets comics fans aside, it’s a combination of being visually oriented and if not actually juvenile, at least being unafraid of seeming so (which is actually very mature).
*Used to be called “Attention Deficit Disorder”, now something else I’m too distracted to look up.