R.C. Harvey has an interesting essay over at the Comics Journal. I find a lot of what he says very thought-provoking and I have to agree with him on the examples he gives (for the most part), but one underlying preference that governs his criticism is that in comics the pictures should lead the pacing and not the words. While I too tend to prefer comics that are visually paced, I am loathe to overprescribe the medium. And in fact, I can think of works I like that are word-centric. For instance, I know that Alison Bechdel composes her comics in words first and then decides how to illustrate them later. And I think Fun Home is an incredible book. Dan Clowes also has a lot of works, such as “Immortal, Invisible” or the beginning of David Boring, that a very narrative heavy. I would say that in these works words set the pacing more than the images.
And yet I agree with Harvey’s overall point that many people who try to create graphic novels seem to not really understand the medium. Part of this may be they are coming out of a writing tradition and have not really thought through how comics function and the unique advantages of the form. Still, I don’t think the problem is that the words are the prime mover of the pacing.
More fundamentally, the problem is that the words and pictures are not given unique jobs. In the word-centric examples Harvey provides, the problem is that the pictures merely illustrate the words, not that the words lead the narrative. This is what Scott McCloud calls a “duo-specific” relationship. And this is not a new problem. The old Classics Illustrated books and many of the EC horror comics had this same problem. So I also disagree with Harvey that somehow writers new to comics are destroying the medium. I think the problem is the same one that has always been: the medium has been viewed simplistically and its potentials ignored.