I’ve lived in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area my entire life. I’ve experienced plenty of snow storms, built many a snowman, heaved a ton of snowballs, shoveled driveways, skied and sledded down many a slope and never actually SAW a snowflake until today.
I was gathering wood to light a fire in my fireplace, preparing to hunker down for the latest impending storm which was expected to be a doozy. I had already overexerted myself transporting many more logs than I should have when the snow began to fall, yet I quickened my pace to prevent the remaining logs from getting wet by the accumulating, frosty, precipitation.
Then I saw it!
Caught in a spiderweb that was cast to the side of the doorway I was passing through, a tiny, perfectly formed, six-pointed, crystalline snowflake clung, suspended in majestic solitude right before my eyes.
It was magnificent!
My first reaction was that it was a manufactured piece of mylar, party confetti that had somehow fallen there. It was too perfect to be real. It looked just like the graphic representation of a snowflake that we all agree upon but never truly witness.
I examined the tiny miracle of nature closer and was astounded to be able to determine its authenticity. Then something else magical occurred.
As I looked around I was able to distinguish individual snowflakes, everywhere, each as unique as the next , falling, tumbling, and piling upon each other as they formed a thin layer on every exposed surface. Surprisingly, I had experienced a moment of incredible clarity that was exciting, frightening and sad all at the same time.
Why did I suddenly have the acute ability to perceive snowflakes?! Had I overtaxed my heart and was a lack of oxygen stimulating a strange case of euphoria? Was I about to die of a sudden heart attack and experiencing some kind of life altering exhilaration before I met my maker? Or was I, for the first time in my life, just finally able to see something that was always there, observed by others but taken for granted by myself? Had I lived my whole life so consumed by a generalization of snow that I was somehow blind to the incredible individual flakes?
Since my initial experience, I’ve noticed that distinguishing snowflakes is not always so simple. I have spent the rest of the storm observing handfuls of snow and realizing that, more often than not, the little snow flakes are either too clumped together, too tiny or too damaged to be recognizable as the perfect flakes I had witnessed. I was given the gift of being aware of the little jewels at just the right time, under perfect conditions regarding temperature, and humidity.
So what does any of this snowflake stuff have to do with comics? I think it s a fine example of how, as Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” What I have realized by talking to others about my experience is that most people don’t see the snowflakes as I did, either, (In fact most people thought I was a little crazy or chemically induced.) I was not alone in my previous snow blindness!
You see, though we are all taught that no two snowflakes are alike and that snowflakes all have six points all which can be verified by science and acute observation, that is not how we are conditioned to witness them, presumably because that is not how they are most often depicted in art.
Yes, they are used as symbols that represent snow and as decorations at Christmas time. They are used by children who cut them out of paper and draw them in school. We all use the iconic images of snowflakes usually, as something static that represents snow but not how we experience it.
How we perceive snow in most art is different. It would be too complicated to render each snowflake in a painting, or a film or in a comic. A field of snow is usually portrayed as a blanket of whiteness and snow falling from the sky is generally shown as little blobs of white. As life imitates art, this is how we also have grown to experience snow, as blanketed fields of white and little white blobs as snowflakes.
Depicting snow this way is a universally accepted idiom and has defined our ability to experience snow just as art defined our ability to experience fog according to Wilde, “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects…They did not exist till Art had invented them.”.
My previous experience of snow is defined by Charles Schulz’s PEANUTS comic strip. Whenever I see snow, I immediately flash to scenes of Charlie Brown and the gang playing in the snow, building snow forts, throwing snowballs and building snowmen. This reality of winter was later backed up for me by Bill Watterson’s CALVIN AND HOBBS comic strip.
Schulz and Watterson’s characters knew how to enjoy the snow and their antics in the white stuff played a major role in defining how I have grown to expect winter play to be like. As cartoonists, both men had a simple and distinctive style. It did not require a lot of lines, detail or anatomic accuracy for them to create a vivid reality. This was the brilliance of their work and a quality that sometimes is lost to aspiring comic artists who get caught up in details at the expense fluidity.
Both men certainly did not depict snow with any detail and I defy anyone to find a sample of comic art that does. I’m sure it exists somewhere and I am sure it is as rare as those snowflakes that captured my attention today.
The lesson learned is that wether snow is observed or depicted in all of its infinite detail or in the usual gross generalization, snow is snow and it can be as fun and as treacherous either way.
This analogy could come in handy when comic artists are challenged by wether their work is too “cartoony” or too “realistic.” Does it really matter if the message is clear? I can guarantee that no matter how realistic an artist’s style might be, if they draw snow it will be just as cartoony as Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson’s snow.
I saw my first snowflake today and, in fact, many more. It was amazing and I will always keep my eye out for more but that will never stop me from enjoying and experiencing snow in all its simplicity thanks to the world of artists out there that chose not to imitate life.
I will also think twice before judging a comic based on it’s cartoony or realistic style and give the creator the opportunity to create a reality that will affect how I may observe the world.
Who would have thought that one little snowflake would have inspired me so much?
Now there is a foot of the stuff to shovel off my drive. C’est la vie!