Monday, March 26, 2007

words and pictures.

Inspired by a topic on the ever irritating comics journal messboard I've decided to tackle the heady topic of text in the creation of comics.

Many people, me included, see comics as a primarily visual art form but there is no denying that the use of text, punctuation, speech and thought balloons and various types of linguistic gymnastics has an equally long history in the creation of "sequential art."

The Reading Experience

In his book The Act Of Creation Arthur Koestler introduces the concept of bisociation. Bisociation is described as "The perceiving of a situation or idea [...] in two self consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference." Koestler then goes on to explain that this process is the mental basis for the creation of all art, science, and humor. The concept is similar to the very definition of abstract thought and connects very strongly to Scott McCloud's definition of comic as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence" and his concept of “closure”

These concepts point to how we as thinking and reasoning humans can see two images and connect them together in a sequence to infer a type of meaning whether it be representational art or abstracted symbols such as letter-forms. This is why comics possess an inherent and almost unavoidable reading experience with or without the use of text.

Silent comics

Silent comics are comics that play out without the use of text. Usually involving characters acting out in a pantomime and can range from deeply moving and thought provoking work to stooge-worthy slapstick.

Silent comics are ubiquitous and have an advantage over other, more text oriented work by being generally legible to an international (and even illiterate) audience. I have seen examples of many kinds of stories told in silent form from all over the world. One of the drawbacks of silent strips is the loss of nuanced character development. Dialogue has a way of offering insight into a character that we cannot fathom otherwise. Many silent strips have attempted to surpass this hurdle by offering visual representation of thoughts and dialogue within balloons but this approach often falls flat. Visually representing a persons thoughts is often equally broad and lifeless as drawing an expression onto someone's face and hoping and audience gets it. Imagine daffy duck with a thought balloon and a baseball with a screw going through it. Thus dialogue has been added to comics to make a character more concrete in a readers mind. This is not the only reason for dialogue of course but most other reasons (advancing the plot, formal play) could also be accomplished visually with negligible loss of narrative information.

The words and pictures kind of comics

This is the most common kind of comic and the type of comic most people think of when they think of comics. The reason this kind is most common is due to the obvious amount of experimentation possible. There are almost limitless permutations of drawing and text that can be placed with a panel. Some comics offer straightforward narrative stories where characters interact and have relationships much like movies on paper, there are strips with wildly imaginative flights of fancy in writing style and idiosyncratic uses of pictorial representation. There are strips where the words and pictures work in incongruous ways to add up to a more cumulative meaning. One of the primary risks of this type of comic art is redundancy. I recently was reading an old issue of Daredevil (you know the superhero comic?) and Stan Lee’s script could easily have been removed from most of the pages. There’s a scene of Daredevil on a rooftop looking over the city or something. The narration reads “Daredevil looks over the city” and a thought balloon bubbles over Daredevil’s head as he thinks “I’m looking over the city.”
The concept of text versus picture is discussed in Understanding Comics chapter 6

Text heavy/text only comics

Occasionally a cartoonist will experiment with the idea of creating a comics composed entirely of text or use text in a page to convey information economically. This effects the reading process in various ways. Effective reading often relies on the continuation of a type of rhythm set forth by the author and the understanding of various rules set forth by learning to read when we are in school. The reason we can read text quickly is because we have learned (been brainwashed) to recognize familiar rhythms in written language. When that rhythm is broken we seize up momentarily and are jarred away from the reading experience. Same goes for the rules laid out in written language, if we understand that grammar or punctuation work in one way and a text is working in another then we are similarly jarred until we can reconcile the two frames of reference. This same concept can be extrapolated to encompass comics as well. We learn to read comics and when the rules get broken we get momentarily confused. Sticking large amounts of text with boxes and laying the boxes out in a page is a jarring and provocative corruption of how most people have learned to read comics as well as how we've learned to read text. Sometimes this is a worthwhile pursuit and causes a reader to begin thinking and reading in a new way but often it is frustrating for a reader who just wants to keep up the rhythm of reading.

Some sort of conclusion

Like any experiment the use of text in comics is a tricky proposition. A cartoonist using heavy blocks of words to convey information runs the risk of ruining an audiences reading experience as well as being redundant and verbose. It is important to try to see your own work through the eyes of a reader. Like any act of experimentation you should begin with questions, some of those questions might be "will readers understand why I've incorporated so much text, will they even read the text or will they move on to the next comic that conforms more to their expectations?"

images stolen from


Phoebe Gloeckner

some fumetti site (Italian)


Alissa Nielsen said...

Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it.

Maybe this question is for another topic, but the whole Stan Lee/Daredevil thing reminded me of collaboration between writers and cartoonists.

What methods are used when writers collaborate with cartoonists? Is there a general script format? Do you think that there are certain themes or styles of writing that lend better to comics? If a writer wanted to approach a cartoonist about working together on a project what would be the most professional way to do this? What are some things writers should ask themselves before contacting a artist for collaboration on a project?

Just something I'd be curious to know more about...

Thanks again.

vinylsaurus said...

This isn't strictly to the point but I'm reminded of Mike Mignola's method of page/panel composition. He says he always does the word balloons first and works out the best way to "read" the page that way.