Structured Silence: Comics Storytelling, Minus Text

[22 May 2014]

By Matthew Derman

Sometimes, it’s nice for the words to step aside in a comic and just let the art tell the story for a while. This can mean a single panel, page, scene, or issue, depending on the title and the story it’s telling, but any well-timed silences act as rhythmic and/or tonal shifts that can either establish or shake up the pacing of the series as a whole. Silence is used differently but effectively in many ways across any number of titles, some relying on it heavily while others save it for moments of special significance. It’s important for any comic to be able to have some quiet, even if it’s only occasional, because the medium is a visual one, and too much text too often can become cumbersome on the eyes and minds of readers. The artwork ought to be able to work on its own, and when it can, when it tells the whole story without needing any assistance, the words should acknowledge that by staying out of the way.

There are those books that use silence generously, making it a regular part of the storytelling. Wordless scene come in between the more talkative ones, or panels of silence punctuate those with dialogue so that none of the pages are ever overcrowded. Series like this create a certain expectation in their audiences that, no matter how crazy or heated things get, there will always be a chance to cool down and/or catch our breath. These books need not be any less intense or dramatic or action-packed as any other comic, but they find balance for those elements in the quiet bits. Even if a scene is brutal or terrifying or tragic, having no noise mitigates some of that for the reader, making it easier to digest. Silence tends to be less of a specialized narrative tool in these cases and more just a part of the pacing, infusing a sense of calm and control into the series as a whole.

A good example of what I mean by this is Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski’s Sex. Centered on a depressed, apathetic former superhero named Simon Cooke, Sex finds lots of opportunities for Cooke to do nothing but stare into space with a sour look on his face. There are also, it will come as no surprise, frequent sex scenes in the book, and these often occur without dialogue or even sound effects, letting the overtly graphic artwork have the spotlight. And while nobody is as bad as Cooke, nearly all the major characters in Sex have some amount of inner turmoil and secrecy in their lives, which leads them all to brood pensively from time to time and/or sneak around unnoticed, meaning silence is not only a side effect but a goal. So Sex is full of silent scenes and panels, which matches its generally downbeat and slow-moving atmosphere.

The advantage of establishing silence as a normal part of things is that, when the urgency or drama need to be amped up for any reason, merely upping the word count can achieve this. When the reader gets used to breaks in the text, suddenly seeing an issue without any adds extra stimulation and chaos. A few months ago, Sex had an almost all-flashback issue showing Cooke’s life when he was still an active superhero, and it was therefore the most violent, high-speed issue to date. It was also the chattiest, with nearly constant-running dialogue between Cooke, his sidekick Keenan, and their guide/coach/manager Quinn while Coke and Keen are in the middle of a chase. When that was interrupted, it was either so the villains could talk or so some high-powered and high-volume action could go down, but either way things never grew totally quiet. Even when the fighting was over, Cooke and Keenan got into a heated argument, so there was never really a time when everyone just shut up or settled down. Somebody always had something to say, and it increased the tempo of the entire issue, relative to any and every other chapter of that series.

It’s far more common for silence in a comicbook to be reserved as a method of highlighting a particularly important moment. A shocking reveal, the arrival at a new location, a character’s death or emotional breakdown…these are the big, blockbuster events that demand the reverence and respect of total silence. By removing any text, the reader is implicitly invited to pay extra attention to the art, to let and even force ourselves to be drawn into the images on display, because they hold all the information. This in turn makes the big beats more memorable, since the pictures are given special care by not just the artist(s) but the audience. We contemplate the wordless panels or pages a bit longer and more deeply, especially in books where they’re uncommon, because when they do show up it’s impossible to miss.

To be completely silent and visually stunning at once for a major story moment like this is something other narrative mediums don’t get to do as often or as effectively as comics. Obviously, no prose piece is ever totally “silent,” since it is constructed wholly of words. In movies and TV, a total lack of sound is not impossible, but it’s definitely rare. Scenes with no dialogue still tend to have the sound effects of whatever else is going on in them, and/or background music, and/or narration of some kind. And even when all the sound is muffled or drowned out by an explosion or similar incident, there’ll be a ringing noise or behind-the-ears heartbeat or some other audio lifeline for the audience to hold onto. For a show or film to fall completely silent might throw people off, making them think something is wrong with the sound on a technical level, so there is almost always something to listen to throughout. In the theater, obviously there are often fewer sound effects or post-production noises included, but plays also don’t have the same kinds of options on the visual side of things. They suggest settings, they hint at environments, but there is not as much freedom to really create their fictional worlds in full detail. So even if there is a pregnant, soundless pause, it is not accompanied by the same visual impressiveness as you’d (hopefully) get in a comicbook.

Silence in comics can also be employed as more of a gimmick, the largest and most obvious example being when a series does a completely silent issue. There are other, smaller touches I’ve encountered, too, such as blank speech bubbles to represent dialogue that can’t be heard, scenes that should have sound being silent to show the POV of a deaf or temporarily deafened character, and probably several others that I can’t bring to mind right now. These tactics are not the normal uses of silence even in the comics where they appear, but rather handy tricks used to change the way a story gets told where appropriate. When used well, they can cut through needless exposition and get right to the point, adding efficiency in the narration by skipping over pointless text. No need to explain that something can’t be heard if it can’t be read, and any completely silent issue had better make sure all the images are perfectly clear and can tell the story in full, in which case adding words would be superfluous and annoying anyway.

If any current series best exemplifies an effective, skilled handling of silence in every way, it is hands down Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising. A small-town supernatural horror story, Rachel Rising is full of creepiness, secrecy, deception, witchcraft, and murder, any and all of which can occur in complete silence. Moore doesn’t shy away from the loud, gruesome, in-your-face kinds of horror, either, but they are always tempered with eerie, unsettling quiet. Even issues that are heavy on dialogue have a page or two thrown in where something so dreadful happens that there is no sound big enough to encompass it. Also, because Rachel Rising is a black-and-white book, there is a muted feeling to the series even at when it is at its noisiest and craziest. The art stifles the loud parts and enhances the silent ones, deepening their power with the simplicity and colorlessness of the art.

Ideally every comicbook would strike a solid balance between words and art, finding as many chances for the artwork to do the heavy lifting as possible. After all, the “worth 1,000 words” thing is as true as ever, and it’s much easier, I find, for the pictures to burn themselves into my brain than the text. I remember story details, sure, but usually not what everybody said verbatim. I do, however, hang onto many if not all the details of my favorite images, because they are more arresting and leave a more lasting impression. So if the art is going to be what sticks anyway, it’s a good idea not to bog it down with words or cover it up with speech bubbles and caption boxes or do anything else to impede it. Hush up and let the visuals stand.

Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/182123-structured-silence-comics-storytelling-minus-text/