A picture’s worth

Writers are traditionally credited before artists on the title pages of comic books, but is the industry giving too much power to the written word?

The most notable studies of the graphic novel define it as a medium that combines images and words to produce a sequential narrative. This is certainly the case in most modern examples, but the earliest evidences of storytelling suggest that the written word is an optional extra, adding flavour but not necessarily meaning.

Cave paintings, hieroglyphs and, if we’re being technical, the letters that make up an alphabet are the original sequential art. The pattern of symbols – the pace and flow of movement that is set by their positions and the spaces between them – allows for the interpretation of narrative. Comics theorist Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics) defines this process as “closure”, and it provides accessibility to a story regardless of the audience’s age, language or level of education.

Why, then, do we need words? Flemish expressionist artist Frans Masereel (Passionate Journey, The Siren) and his successors did without them in their socially critical woodcut novels at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although the medium died out for a time with the apathetic critique of the Nazi party, Australian artist and author Shaun Tan (The Arrival, Lost and Found) is applying the same principles to different methods in the creation of narrative resonance today.

In his 2006 book, The Arrival, the deliberate absence of words contributes to the isolation of Tan’s immigrant protagonist as he makes his way in a world that, to the reader, is both recognisable and unknowable. In a post-modern nod to the communicative power of wordless comics, Tan draws his immigrant holding up the crude outline of a bed to cross a bridge of communication that would be dismantled by dialogue.

Similarly, comics creator Peter Kuper’s wordless graphic novel The System is anything but silent. Riotous with colour and expression, his story invites the reader to “invent dialogue” that matches their interpretation of the images. Explaining in the preface to the 2014 edition from PM Press that it had been his “hope and crusade for decades to get graphic novels into the hands of non-traditional comic book readers,” Kuper reveals a socially significant language barrier of sub-cultures that affects the consumption of literature. By altering the language of comics, removing the identifying symbols that are word balloons, he unfolds the medium, creating a new shape altogether.

In an interview with The Comics Journal in 2003, sequential artist Eric Drooker (Flood, Blood Song)  explained that, “Pictures are a more direct language than words” because they don’t have to be “encoded” and then “deciphered”. The transcript was re-printed in his graphic novel Flood to give context to its silent commentary on the political landscape of 80s’ New York.

What’s noticeable about this inclusion is that such context is required to understand the author’s original intent. While humankind will automatically interpret what we see according to the archetypes that inform our reality, any meaning or emotion that we derive is as individual as our own point of view. For a call to action or to decrease the margin of error, verbal narrative becomes more of a requirement. Words are more definitive. They appear, if briefly, in Drooker’s Flood, changing the nameless character’s life forever as signs reveal the closure of his workplace and his eviction from his home. These events aren’t open to interpretation. Words label and express, provide individual voice and identity. Where pictures tell the truth, words can manipulate and distort. They can create or destroy, mere semantics turning enchantment into a curse. But words aren’t language.

Language is an ever-flowing river and its application in graphic storytelling is only as dependent on the written word as the creator’s desired level of interpretation. What wordless comics make clear is that dialogue and narration carry too much power to use recklessly.

Images from Eric Drooker and Dark Horse Comics

One thought on “A picture’s worth

  • April 19, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    Good piece, but it is a mistake to presume that, because we can see, images have an immediate impact on our understanding and don’t need deciphering. Emotionally they have an immediate impact, yes, but images are also codified and we have all encountered readers who have failed to pick up on important elements within an image or images crucial to some element of the comics story.
    It is one of the odd things about post-prose reading that before a child has been taught how to read pictures properly (sat on their mother’s lap being read a picture book) they are forced into learning the code of prose. In the books, the pictures suddenly shrink and the letter code, the alphabet etc, takes precedent.
    And reading imagery takes a lot longer than reading prose code, which is why so many of us go back and read our comics again and again.
    But I agree, words are just one of the comic art form’s tools and not the B-all and End-all so many writers believe them to be.


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