Components of Comics

By | Friday, January 12, 2007 5 comments
Over at Tom Brevoort's blog yesterday, he noted that Klaus Janson (with an assist from Walt Simonson) recently came in to the Marvel offices to teach a course in comic storytelling to the editors. At one point, evidently, the discussion ranged into the area of "a comic with the words removed is still a story, but a comic with the art removed is not." Tom's initial reaction was to disprove that notion with the following sketch...

A couple of people -- including myself -- pointed out that, in this case, the text and the word balloons themselves are acting as art. However, I'll also point out that it's not impossible to come up with a solid example of a comic that would read reasonably well without the art. Here's a random page from Shock Suspenstories #7...

And here's the same page without the art...

Even without the sound effects, and the fact that we're jumping into the middle of a story, it still seems to make perfect sense to me. Conversely, though, here's an example of a comic page with the text and word balloons removed...

It's from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and in this sequence, he's discussing nuances of language and imagry. Becuase of the specific nature of what McCloud was trying to do here, we have effectively the same image repeated six times. (Ten times, actually, since the previous page in the book has four more copies of the same panel.) But without the text, does this tell you anything? We see a man standing in front of a painting. He moves his arms a bit, but I don't know that that really conveys a story of any sort.

Or what about a sequence whose narrative is entirely disconnected with the imagry depicted? I can't seem to find a solid example of that offhand, but I'm sure I've got a few stashed away in my collection somewhere.

What I mean to boil this down to is that storytelling is an art, whether you use words, pictures, sounds, gestures, whatever... Comics are a form of storytelling that can, but not necessarily always include pretty pictures and/or flowery language. Comics, despite McCloud's excellent attempt, still defy a concise definition. Or, at least, a generally accepted one.

At some point, comics cease to be comics but the question is: at what point?
Newer Post Older Post Home

5 comments:

plok said...

Well, far be it from me to contradict Klaus Janson, but to my mind where you've got words, you do in fact have story, and I can't think of any ways of getting around that that aren't stretching a point. He's clearly talking about comic stories specifically, granted...but a little bit farther down this road there's more trouble waiting, because the Martian script you show kind of highlights how any arrangement of text outside the usual prosy structure of condensed paragraphs becomes a graphical adventure involving the tension of different space-usages on a page. You can find many excellent examples of this in poetry, e.g...

So the basic principles and rules aren't exactly immutable, I would say. I always tell people that Understanding Comics is indispensible general reading, whether they like comics or not...hey, maybe Scott McCloud is the real comics gateway drug for kids that everyone's ostensibly looking for these days?...but I think Scott gets it entertainingly (and illuminatingly!) wrong by chasing Platonic Forms, when really "comics" is a code we apply to pen and ink creations in the same way "jazz" is a code we apply to musical creations. It's like Ithzak Perlman's demonstration of the difference between "fiddle" and "violin", I guess! After all, it isn't just in Brevoort's counterexample page that text is graphical: letters, words, numerals, and phono- and pictograms are all drawn objects, ultimately...

Something I heard once about an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy comes back to me here, that over time Chinese writing has developed into art that is simultaneously representational and non-representational..."neither at once", if you like...

So in this sense, Scott's idea that Egyptian hieroglyphics are "comics" seems faintly ridiculous to me, because the pictures aren't really simply pictures, despite their being more obviously representational than our lettered words...

But anyway, sorry, long comment here...what I mean is, certainly without at least enough "pictorialness" to suggest the existence of a page as accentuated graphical space, I think you can't have comics, but as with many things it's a continuum, whose bottom end is probably something like the 1 1/2" X 2" notional space surrounding a haiku, and whose top end is...maybe "Destroy!"? Certainly I think if you were to take out the word "Destroy!" from that comic it would have a lot less story in it...becoming a parody of nothing, in that case...

Yah. I'll say that simply having pictures without words won't always be sufficient to produce story, because intention counts. See if you can't agree with this "provocative" statement, Sean: among comics stories without accompanying words, there are stunningly brilliant examples of what can be done, which leave the reader completely satisfied, as well as other examples which leave the reader wondering whether or not the comic will be any good when it is finished. Because, not every grammatically correct construction is semantically interesting.

Well, that was a fun ramble! At least for me...

Excellent response, plok! I was a little disappointed that Tom's original post didn't generate more feedback; I think comics on the whole need more discussions like this.

I disagree with your asertation that words=story. If, for example, I pulled a random sentence from a dozen different novels, I'd have a paragraph of legible, internally cohesive, grammatically correct sentences, but it wouldn't be a story.

But where I was trying to go specifically with my example of Shock Suspenstories was that the story still "reads" in any arrangement of the text. I left the original formatting for the sake of simplicity here, but that text could be written in any font, any color, any format and it still makes sense. Or not even written! It could be spoken and still make sense.

And I think that's the key difference in separating the visual of a text from the text itself. Is the text's meaning reliant upon the formatting? If not -- if the text can manipulated visually without appreciably affecting the meaning -- then I think we can claim that the story is told effectively without being a comic.

But I completely agree with your point about intention. There are a great many examples of comics that work perfectly well without any accompanying text at all. Marvel had their "Nuff Said" month a while back and, regardless of how good the stories were from a qualitative perspective, they were all successful from a simple storytelling perspective. Then within that context of "Nuff Said Month" some stories were indeed better than others in conveying the story they were trying to tell. So it's not only dependant on the intent, but also the skills of the creator(s) involved.

plok said...

Another thought sparked, Sean: a noted critic of Dylan Thomas once printed a "fake" Thomas poem in one of his columns, to show that it was all just gobbledegook...Thomas responded that, contrary to what the reviewer might wish to believe, he did in fact sweat buckets over each carefully-chosen word. And you can see it, if you read closely: the reviewer's poem is florid, even kind of catchy, but ultimately it's superficial, and makes much less sense.

Uh...whoops, forgot what the relevance was, there...

I did a paper in college called "The Fleeb and Zorbleflax of Nonsense Poetry." Western literature is rife with examples of writers who use gobbledegook and still convey a message or story. To wit, one of my favorite authors wrote...

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


Not a single real noun or adjective in that whole refrain, but it still makes a kind of weird sense.

So it's certainly possible to string together garbage and produce a story, but my point was that simply putting words down does not NECESSARILY equal a story. Just as putting images in a sequence does not necessarily equal a story.

plok said...

You mean, maybe, that at some point the enormously broad-reaching interpretive power of the reader simply fails? I'm down with that: a "zero-point" where story doesn't work. I've encountered this before in my occasional line of work as a charlatan, whoops I mean fortune-teller, when there's insufficient "shape" in a distribution even to hang lot-casting on. (I used to sometimes do it with found objects for free beer, using drink coasters, Monopoly pieces, household appliances...anything, really). That's when you can only cop out with meta stuff, like "the future is unseen" or some such rot...true enough, obviously, because you can't "see" it! It's no more or less than an admission of failure! But by making the commentary about the commentary, you appear to say something more than this, and so you earn your beer even though it hasn't worked...

The point being, that you should take care to avoid a "zero" reading by using orthodox materials, Tarot cards etc., which always give you something to say regardless of a zero distribution...no, wait, that's not the point! The point is...yes, I agree. At some point the bottom falls out of interpretation, and that's when story is absent.

However, where you've got even the bare form of a sentence, I think you've also got a lot to work with. Similarly with pictures? I'd actually sort of like to see a comics page that just does not work to create story, I think that'd be rather interesting. Art that nullifies strong interpretation, it's definitely out there...

But is it in comics?