Category Archives: comics theory

pictures over words?

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.

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local images to global images = metonymy

Okay, first read this. It’s a translation of an article by Barthélémy Schwartz about the defining characteristic of comics.

I’ll wait here until you’re done.


Okay, so this reminds me of my old idea that comics are metonymy. With metonymy, a part or a related concept of a larger idea stands in for that idea. This can be seen visually in comics all the time. The minimalist backgrounds of someone like Jaime Hernandez are a good example. The backgrounds are often just simple lines and silhouettes that stand in for something like an entire neighborhood. So a part stands in for a whole. Yet this is done in painting as well, and so doesn’t seem like a fundamental enough idea.

So let’s move away from the individual panel or even the act of drawing itself. As Schwartz says, comics are created when “juxtaposed local images” make up “a global image.” For instance, we could have a panel of someone throwing a ball and another panel of another person catching a ball. As readers, we understand that it is the same ball in each panel and that the one person is throwing it to the other. Also, if they are dressed in uniforms, we may assume the act is part of a larger game, which brings in the related idea of other players and perhaps spectators. So these juxtaposed parts are pieced together and create a narrative larger than the pieces themselves. I would call this metonymy.

I’m not the first to say this. According to Ann Miller in her book Reading Bande Dessinée, Roman Jakobson first applied the concept of metonymy to visual art. Yet his understanding seems more akin to the first one I described above, which doesn’t capture what is special about comics from other visual art. Miller also says that “Fresnault-Deruelle has called [comics] a ‘metonymic machine'” (78). Still, as Miller goes on to describe this idea all her examples are of individual panels. For instance, she discusses how speed lines have become a grammatical element to stand in for speed.

But what I mean by metonymy in comics is more akin to what Schwartz says about individual images making a global image. The structure of comics itself is metonymic. The reader takes discrete images that relate to a larger idea to understand that larger idea. Related details stand in for a larger whole. This act is essential to being able to read comics. So it is a fundamental component of how the art form functions.

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intentional dis-ease

John McWade had a fascinating article about typesetting over at Before & After. Basically, the thesis is that easy-to-read typefaces and layouts may not always be better. Sometimes confusing layouts make the reader slow down and pay attention.

I’ve thought about this in comics in terms of the density of panels. Denser panels tend to slow down the eye and make the reader work a bit more. Fractured narratives, such as The Sound and the Fury, have a similar effect. And I think the clunkiness of the gameplay in the original Silent Hill actually adds to its effect.

But it’s interesting to consider making a comics panel or layout confusing expressly with the intention of getting the reader to work more. I need to run off now, but I want to think of examples of this in comics. Do you have any?

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text/image pairings in comics

Since I’ve been teaching Fun Home the past year and I just read Essentials of Visual Communication, I’ve thought a lot about what Alison Bechdel calls the “separate tracks” of comics, text and image. Scott McCloud categorizes these pairings in the “Show and Tell” chapter of Understanding Comics, but his emphasis is on which element, the text or the image, carries the most information. So he has categories like “word specific,” “duo-specific,” and “interdependent.” While I think these categories are useful, I’m more interested in what specifically the text and image are doing, what roles they are playing together. Obviously, wordless comics and dialogue-only comics are left out here, but Fun Home constantly pairs text and image and does so in different ways. I started making a list as a teaching aid and added to it a lot the past few weeks as I was going through Essentials of Visual Communication.

So I wanted to share a visual list of some of the pairings I came up with. Most of these came out of analysis of actual comics, especially Fun Home, while a few are theoretical. This is not supposed to be a complete list, but I am curious to hear if anyone reading this has other pairings to suggest. Besides the intellectual interest in making this list, I thought it might also be useful in teaching as well as creating comics. On the creation side, it could inspire creators to think of other ways in which text and image work together. In terms of teaching, I was thinking of putting some of these up for my students and getting them to look for which appear in Fun Home and where. If I were teaching a class about creating comics, then I could have students choose a certain number of pairings and use them as the basis for a comics panel or page.

So let’s start with narration and monstration. These are my pet terms of the past year. Narration is what is told, verbally. Monstration is what is shown, visually.

Sometimes the image shows what happens and the text explains how or why it happens.

In Modern Cartoonist, Dan Clowes says to think of the text as the mind and the image as the body.

And here’s one about the image/text red herring I mentioned in the Essentials of Visual Communication post.

The opinionated lizard narrator in Enigma made me think of this next one.

These next three come from teaching Fun Home.

And two theoreticals.

Do you have any others? Or any specific examples of the above pairings?

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notes on Essentials of Visual Communication

I picked this up from the library. The organization of the book is a bit scattershot and there are some odd claims in it. And large portions of the book don’t interest me, like the explanations of how the business of an ad agency works. And oddly for a book about visual communication, there is no mention of comics at all. There is discussion of film, literature, billboards, web sites, tv commercials, but nothing about comics. All that being said, there are some interesting and insightful ideas presented in the book. Some of them I had heard before in other places, but they were presented here with nice specific examples.

Anyway, I made some notes of things that interested me as I read, so I thought I’d share them here. I left out things about Gestault principles and axis of action, not because I wasn’t interested, but because the book didn’t introduce any new insights about them (for me). The following is simply an undigested bullet list. Also it probably goes without saying, but in the following notes I was thinking specifically about the relation to comics.

• image/text red herring. The text can create an expectation that the image subverts. Or vice versa.

• image/text difference. Image shows what happens. Text describes how/why it happens (more on this in another post).

• metonymy. Often employed to illustrate an abstract concept: picture of Wall Street to stand in for idea of stock market. Or a cup with one toothbrush next shown with two toothbrushes to show that a new relationship has begun.

• synecdoche. Part stands in for whole. A seagull is shown to stand in for a whole seaside setting. This reminds me of three jagged lines in Peanuts standing in for an entire lawn.

• metaphor. Often used in advertising. The image is the metaphor; the text acts as the referent. Example: the image is of an arrow, the text states the make of a car. The viewer understands that the car is fast.

• context. The textual context can change the meaning of an image. If an image of two couples embracing is accompanied by the word yes, then the image takes on a romantic meaning. If the same image is accompanied by the word no, then the image is about a nonconsensual pairing.

•frame/panel. Horizontal and vertical frames have inherent movement. Square frames are static. Though a diagonal composition in a square frame can give it some dynamism.

• rule of thirds. Split a frame into thirds horizontally and vertically. Place important elements on the intersections.

• L > R movement. Left to right movement is the standard U.S. reading direction and images that move that direction seem to being going somewhere. Figures that move from right to left seem to be coming home.

• shadows = volume. Figures without shadows look two-dimensional. Shadows give figures weight and volume.

• head in frame. If a person’s head is low in a frame, then it seems like the person is sinking.

• Roland Barthes: studium and punctum. Studium is an image that is informative, presents a general observation. Many news photos fall into this category. Puctum is an image that contains a question or something wrong with it that makes the viewer have to interpret. A photo of a group of people looking at something out of the frame would fit this category.

• Roland Barthes: positive and negative space. This is different than the graphic design meanings of the terms. The positive space is what the viewer sees in the image. The negative space is what the viewer intuits to be outside the image. This relates to studium and punctum.

• Roland Barthes: anchorage and relay. These are categories for relationships between text and image. Anchorage is when the text and image are anchored in each other, when they say the same thing. Scott McCloud labels this as duo-specific. Relay is when the text and image carry different pieces of information, or say different things but come together to create a greater meaning. McCloud labels this interdependent.

• denotation and connotation. As with words, images have denotative meaning, what they literally mean, and connotative meaning, what they imply. Connotation refers the to associated ideas or emotions around an image. A picture of a casket connotes death.

• image/text reception. An image is more immediate, processed by the right brain. It is more emotional. Text is decoded, processed by the left brain. It is more intellectual.

• equality vs. contrast. Equality is static. A frame divided equally in half has no movement. Contrast is dynamic. A frame divided so that the top portion is larger has a weight to it. The top portion presses down on the lower portion.

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black force

I love these talks John McWade does for Before & After. While I don’t do straight graphic design anymore (and even when I did it was only for about a year at a local weekly), much of the thought behind graphic design is about how to tell a story in images so it translates well to comics.  McWade does a nice job of making this apparent. Even if you don’t like his finished products, I think seeing his thought processes for them is really insightful. In the video above, he mentions something that I’ve definitely done and seen other comics artists do.

A question I have: is there a book that mentions concepts like these? There must be some graphic design book out there that goes through principles like the one above. I know in the graphic design class I took in college, the instructor walked us through various Gestault design principles and had us apply them in various ways. So, if you know of such a book, then let me know. Part of why I ask is that this is something most how-to comics books leave out. Most focus on drawing itself, mainly figure rendering. A few focus more on the visual storytelling side, such as Brunetti’s Cartooning: Theory and Practice. Still, most don’t push the graphic design angle of comics. McCloud mentions Gestault principles a bit in Understanding Comics (ironically, Making Comics focuses more on how to draw and one’s approach to that than design elements), but that’s the only book I can think of right now that does so.

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From Plato to Lumiére: Narration and Monstration in Literature in Cinema by André Gaudreault. Originally published in 1988, this book attempts to bridge literary, stage, and film narrative theory. Gaudreault is the one who coined the term “monstration,” so I felt I should read his book. So far, his style is very accessible. And he covers the main conflicts in narrative theory, especially as they apply to film, such as the debate over whether one can say if a film has a narrator or not. I’m hoping that his ideas will transfer over to comics.





Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling by Jared Gardner. I just received a Stanford University Press 2012 catalog and this book was in the beginning. It looks like this book isn’t just another history of comics, but is instead a look at how comics storytelling works and how it’s progress relates to the rise of the modern world. It looks interesting.

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problems in panel composition

Here is a nice post by Chris Schweizer about common problems in comics panel composition. This is a really complete list and specifically geared towards comics. I had heard about some of these ideas a long time ago from a book my dad got me when I was in high school: The Complete Book of Cartooning by John Adkins Richardson. Richardson has three main categories, which he calls ambiguous alignments, tenuous contacts, and distracting parallels. Here’s his example image:

As kind of a corollary to the above, I think the panel borders often present their own challenges. They exist as lines on the page like everything else and they create a very two-dimensional space, both of which can serve to flatten out the composition of a drawing. Over the years, I’ve been collecting notes for a book about creating comics, and here’s one on an index card about panel borders:

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Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice

The book is back in print, this time by Yale University Press. The new book is 88 pages and the one I have is 80, so I wonder if there is some new material. Anyway, I recommend it if you haven’t read it (and not many people have).

It is dubbed “a classroom in a book” and is organized as a fifteen week syllabus. So it’s obviously very useful to teachers of comics. The book promotes a very distinct attitude about the medium. It’s like an anti-How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. While the latter book focuses on proportion and surface style, the former focuses almost exclusively on storytelling. For instance, in most of the exercises Brunetti encourages the students to use characters made out of basic shapes and not consider style at all.

I think Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures is probably a more comprehensive primer for the aspiring comics artist (a term Brunetti hates, preferring “cartoonist”), but Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice is a very accessible book. It’s small, calmly laid out, and contains exercises that are straightforward and fun. And it’s smart.

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