August 22, 2019

Comics as Visual, Spatial Storytelling

Comics are worth your while, and are a unique form of storytelling. We've already discussed books as verbal storytelling and movies as audiovisual temporal storytelling, so what of comics? Comics—which includes comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, manga, and even comic strips—employ semi-verbal, visual, and spatial storytelling. 

A Way with Words

Like movies and plays, comics don't rely on words to tell their story. In fact, there are graphic novels out there that use no language at all. They are still semi-verbal, however, because the vast majority of them include words in the form of dialogue—usually in white balloons—narration, sound effects, and other uses of text.

One of the coolest comics I have ever read was the final entry as part of a tournament on Deviant Art (back in the day, different artists would create characters who would compete against those of other artists in comic entries drawn by each contestant). The artist's characters were fighting against the villain of the pieceanother artist's character, who had taken on that role—who was a violin-playing robot. Interspersed with drawn action were stanzas of a poem about Nero fiddling while Rome burned. The text was used to enhance the drawings, and gave the entire scenewhich included no dialogue—an eerie, tense feeling, similar to what one might feel if a particular song played over an otherwise silent action scene. 

Panels and Space

A four-panel gag manga from Nichijou
Aside from words, comics of course rely on visuals in the form of drawings or paintings, usually contained in boxes—called panels—so that a number of pictures, like shots in a film, cover a single page. These panels are what truly make comics unique, in that they are not only visual but spatial, too. Like a movie creator, artists must decide what's in any given panel and where the characters are standing in a scene, but while movie makers use time to pace their stories, artists use space.

For example, the artist might slow a scene down by drawing one panel of a character's hand hung limp at their side, then repeat that panel again, but this time with the fist clenched in resolve. Artists can also use page breaks to build tension, perhaps having the last panel on the page be a reaction shot and leaving whatever horror the character is seeing for the next page.

The size and position of panels is key to spatial storytelling. Important moments get larger panels, or even a two-page spread. Skinnier or smaller panels are used for supporting details and ongoing action. Sometimes, an artist draws a character outside of, over, or above multiple panels to either link what's in the panels or emphasize the character's action. Additionally, certain types of comics have a uniform layout, such as four-panel gag manga, which are similar to American comic strips, which have a setup of four panels in a column, the last being the punchline. 

The slanted panels represent the anxiety of the character

While the edges of most panels are basic perpendicular or slightly tilted lines, some artists play with this. Heavily tilted panels might symbolize a character going crazy, while black backgrounds behind the panels are often used for flashbacks or interior monologues. Many manga will spend a page or two having characters thinking, with their words floating in space and minimal pictures as a backdrop.

I've seen creativity in webcomics too. Though some webcomic artists stick to the tried and true four-panel set-up or normal page sizes, the internet allows people to go beyond these limits. Many artists use long vertical pages to tell their stories, while others play around even more. Ashley Cope, the author/artist of Unsounded, will occasionally add animations to her comic or will have pictures flowing off the standard book-sized page. In one chapter, a character falls into another dimension. In this case, the reader, instead of "turning the page" by hitting the right arrow key, must scroll down and down to see a sequence of drawings of the character falling. The next several pages are totally black except for the character looking around—even the usual background of the website is gone—and the URLs, typically ending in something like "ch04/p26.html" were replaced with "what.html", "huh.html", and "where_am_I.html". It was so inventive, driving home the fact that everything we had read so far was going to be totally different now; we were in a new place with new rules.

Humans and Art

Now, I could talk about how comics are the modern version of an ancient art form, relating them to the paintings we see on the walls of Egyptian tombs, Asian woodblock prints adorned with captions, Christian triptychs which tell stories of biblical figures and saints, and the very, very, very long comic known as the Bayeux Tapestry, but I think you get the idea. Humans are verbal, emotional, and we love visual imagery. Comics have employed some new standards—white balloons for talking, onomatopoeia sound effects, specific symbols to signify certain movements or emotions (especially in manga)—but overall, they're just the newest version of humans using art to tell stories.  

If you still pooh-pooh comics as somehow inferior to books or movies, do yourself a favor and read the following: Rosalie Lightning: A GraphicMemoir by Tom Hart and Erased by Kei Sanbe. These are by no means the only great comics out there, but they are shorter than a lot and are prime examples of what a comic can be. Rosalie Lightning, in particular, is a crash course in non-linear, cyclical narrative and the use of recurring imagery. Erased is, well... Erased is one of the four perfect stories in existence. It, too, makes amazing use of motifs and symbolism, many of which make call backs in the final chapters. It also has a mind-blowing premise (a cat-and-mouse time travel story), excellent characters, and heart.

Anyway, that is why comics are unique and worthwhile, and these, dear readersand comic fansare my thoughts on comics.

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