getting the same vibes from da vinci as from batman, questioning the joys of both

It’s good to investigate your pleasures and get a sense for why you value one passtime over another but lately I’ve been grilling myself a little too hard about whether I’m reading all these comic books because I genuinely enjoy them, or if it’s more of an obsessive completionist impulse that drives me to read four, six, twelve issues in a sitting and to pat my belly thereafter and relish the idea that I’ve just made a dent in the 27,000-book collection, or whatever it is.

It’s probably the case that I get pleasure from both. 

Im just consumed by the question of whether one of those pleasures is more honest or healthy than the other.


Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci taught me how an old Renaissance painting could work as a narrative—which is a concept I’ve heard about in the past, but never understood.

How can a static image convey movement, narrative?

Maybe you can look at a painting’s details and deduce the circumstances surrounding the moment in time that it’s depicting, but that’s not narrative. That’s deduction. That’s context.

What Isaaccson taught me is that the painting needs to establish a focal point, where your eye should begin, and then a trajectory for how it should move across the canvas.

To start on the left and move directly to the right, would be the simplest example. The things on the left side of the image are the cause and the things on the right side are the effect.

It seems Da Vinci liked for your eye to begin at the center of the canvas (he actually hammered a nail into Jesus’s forehead in The Last Supper to keep track of that centerpoint) and then move in a counter-clockwise spiral outward. In that course, you’ll see that the gestures of one figure are traded off to the next, each character influencing the next.

A story unfolds that way.

This unfinished painting, Adoration of the Magi, is one of the best examples of Da Vinci’s narrative paintings. Let your eye settle on Mary’s face, at the center, and then move in a tight counter-clockwise outward spiral toward the edges of the frame.

(Another bit of Da Vinci trivia: our boy Leo fancied himself more a scientist than an artist and one of his scientific innovations was to fuck around with his paints, try to make them cheaper and somehow more effective, but one of the great tragedies to Da Vinci’s genius is that the paints he invented didn’t last very long, they began to fade after just a couple decades, and The Last Supper, just fifty years after it was painted, was so quickly fading away from its wall that some of the monks in the Milanese monastery where it was painted felt no reservations in bashing out a doorway beneath the mural, shaving off Jesus’s feet in the process, feet which–as speculation has it–were probably visible beneath the table cloth, gently crossed in the manner of his crucifixion.)

As concerns that chiseling of a narrative from a static image: I think I’m picking up similar bits of understanding from these comics, the inventive ways that panels will be configured across a page–some of those configurations, though forbiddingly intricate when glanced from a distance, flow with such natural grace when you actually start at panel #1 and read forward. Your eye follows it intuitively.

So strange and beautiful.

But even when I come away from a comic book with that appreciation for its innovative storytelling, I have to ask myself, Did I enjoy the story, or just the experience of ingesting and studying it?

I start studying my tendency to study things.

In the past couple days I’ve read the entire “Court of Owls” Batman arc from 2011 and then the quick-to-follow Joker saga, “Death of the Family,” and I enjoyed them both…but I’m not sure if I enjoyed the experience of ticking them off, plowing through issue after issue, or if what I really enjoyed was the stories themselves.

I feel like Polonious would have good advice about this.

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