Most comics I read structure their stories through a consistent interplay of words, in dialogue and narration, and images. Arguably the reliance on both written word and drawn image to tell a story is what distinguishes comics from other narrative forms. Prose is about the written word. Film and television rely on spoken language and moving images. Aural forms, like radio and podcasting, use spoken words and sounds. While there are prose books that use pictures for illustrative purposes, only in comics are stories actively told through both written words and drawn pictures.
Creators can and do push these boundaries, both in the use of words and their reliance on visual storytelling. Joe Sacco, for example, breaks up his comic narrative in Palestine (Fantagraphics Books, 2002) with full pages of written text that provide history and context for Israel-Palestine.
(Kettledrummer; US: Oct 2010)
However, too much reliance upon the written word and an author begins to produce a work of prose, not a comic book. Where comics creators are more likely to experiment is in the extent to which stories are told through images—with few, or even no, words.
Words can be powerful tools for directing or, following Roland Barthes, “anchoring”, the meanings of images. I can draw two characters and have them refer to each other as “mother” and “daughter”. By doing that I provide readers with a ready frame of reference for understanding those characters and their roles in the narrative.
There are a number of ways in which I can visually imply a mother-daughter relationship, having the mother figure tucking the daughter figure in to bed at night, for example, but without anchoring text, most of those gestures will be fully open to interpretation, and the meanings they have may change for a reader during the course of reading. At different points, the adult character could be seen as a nanny, or an older sibling, or some other adult relative or caregiver. How strongly these figures are read as “mother” and “daughter” will depend on the context provided by different images, and by the individual reader’s own ideas and experiences, both personally and from other media.
Even where an author might directly name their characters “mother” and “daughter”, a reader’s own understandings of those roles and relationships will shape how they see those figures, but through anchoring, a creator prompts the reader to bring a particular set of texts to bear on the interpretation of their narrative. Without that naming, the author leaves the frame of reference open. Making comics with an emphasis on visual storytelling necessarily entails embracing this kind of openness, of giving up measures of control over meaning, and of inviting readers to select their own bases for understanding a book.
For a recent and particular example of telling stories visually in comics, consider Ximo Abadía’s Clonk (Kettledrummer Books, 2010).
After a prelude where the main character appears to commit suicide, the story opens with a two-page series of panels that begins with an empty seesaw, followed by the appearance of a new character and the figure from the prelude. The series ends with a three panel sequence wherein the main character remains planted on the ground and the other character is left suspended in air, increasingly frustrated while the protagonist breaks into a grin.
The drawings on these pages are not anchored by words. Who these characters are to each other only becomes apparent, and can only be inferred from, subsequent panels and from the few lines of dialogue provided by Abadía. Eventually, I came to read these two characters as “friends”, but only after observing different interactions between the two, and seeing that they are close and familiar with each other, but not related.
With a strongly visual book like Clonk reading is also a continual process of writing or rewriting the narrative. Literally or figuratively, later pages and panels cause me to go back to prior ones in order to reassess the meanings of those earlier passages. In fact, it is difficult for me to think of my first reading of the book in isolation from the second, the latter taking place right after the former. And even during the first reading, I went back and physically re-read certain panels after finding that subsequent images suggested new meanings to earlier ones.
On first reading, for example, the full significance of these panels, and of the whole page in question, was not clear to me until after this panel, from fourteen pages later. And it was only on later readings that I took full notice of the gravestone in the lower right corner of the earlier page.
While I have no doubt that other readers are more attentive that I am, the fact that I passed over the image in the corner highlights another risk/opportunity for strongly visual storytelling: the greater possibility that pieces of the narrative will be missed by readers. However, that risk also means that a book is likely to significantly reward repeated reading.
In Reading Comics (Da Capo Press, 2007), Douglas Wolk argues that reading comics necessitates attention to both “narrative substance” and “style”, particularly “visual style”, or, in simple terms, the distinctive way in which an artist draws (see page 24).
However, even in a book with little dialogue, years of consciously learning and practicing to read words, and of seeing reading as an activity primarily about comprehending the written word, fosters an impulse to sublimate pictures in favor of language when searching for meaning in narrative. By contrast, reading images seems to come naturally—sighted people will typically spend more of a typical day “reading” images and objects than reading words – but this apparent naturalness makes it easier to take those readings for granted. Books like Clonk challenge that naturalness by leaving the images un-anchored, requiring readers to think more consciously about the narrative significance of the drawings.
Clonk is a book attuned to the pace and rhythms of everyday life. Ximo Abadía can afford to let pages go by before a fuller idea of who the two people on the teeter totter are to each other emerges. In faster paced stories, panel space needs to be devoted to other purposes, like plot development. Words become short cuts to explaining roles and relationships. But every comic is a balance between showing and telling. As noted by the prior reference to Wolk’s Reading Comics, just as the infrequent dialogue in Clonk does important narrative work, so too do the pictures in even the most dialogue and narration-heavy comics.
This sequence from The Finder Library Volume 1 (Dark Horse Books, 2011) shows one of Carla Speed McNeil’s characters at work on a house and provides an extensive interior monologue from the character’s point of view. It is easy to let one’s eyes just slide over the pictures in the panels while attending to the dialogue. However, the drawings provide critical context for those words, information about who is doing the talking, and where he is, who he is addressing as he talks to himself. In that sense, the images are anchoring the words.
While the relationship between written words and drawn images may be what makes comics an unique narrative form, the dimensions of that relationship is relative and plastic, and can look very different when in the hands of different creators telling different kinds of stories.