Comics communicate to us with their body language. Maybe they can’t literally wink or snigger, whisper under their breath or roll their eyes, but in their own way, they can. Text and illustrations working together create a gorgeous, magical thing. The words inform the images and the images build on the words, and it’s a sensory feast. You can’t really privilege one or the other in comics because the story is never complete without both of them to tell the reader what’s shakin’. If we don’t pay attention to the teeny tiny details in a comic, we’ve missed a layer of inside jokes, visual quips, and scads of insight.
I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I’ve had the pleasure of bringing comics into my college and university classrooms on a number of occasions. The thing I often find with new comics readers is that they forget to look closely at the illustrations. They’re so accustomed to reading for plot and evaluating text that the images can slip completely to the back of their minds. Or perhaps they glance over the images, but they don’t study them fervently enough to see the clues that enrich the story.
I recently posed the question to our Panelteers, “Do you ever get so caught up in the written text that you forget about the images?” We have a variety of readers from newbies to lifers, so I thought it would be interesting to know how the breadth of experience plays into the ways we read. The answers were quite varied from, “I read my comics multiple times to catch the details,” to “I’ve been reading so long, I have one eye on the text and one eye on the images.”
Personally, I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I pre-scan through a page of illustrations, then read the text while attempting the “one eye in each direction” method. It’s still a work in progress.
For many of my classes, I’ve suggested they read a comic two or three times. Many times students are so excited by experiencing a new-to-them medium that they don’t give me much flack. It’s like a treasure hunt…a Where’s Waldo approach.
Fables, by Bill Willingham and a large cache of artists, is one of my all-time favorite comics series. I’ll spare you all the gory details, but essentially, our favorite fairy tale characters live on the sly in New York City. This includes Big Bad “Bigby” Wolf who atones for his years of pig chasing and tormenting Little Red Riding Hood torment by becoming Fabletown’s sheriff. Most of the time he exists in human form, a gruff, grizzled noir figure. However, when he’s angry or needs to throw on some speed, he transforms into a giant wolf.
One of my favorite moments of text and visual action is in Fables: Legends in Exile when the reader is just getting to know Bigby and his secrets. He’s standing, talking to Snow White in an ominous, chiaroscuro-lighted hallway. He’s very plainly in his human form but his shadow on the wall is very clearly a wolf.
It might seem like a simple thing. An old trick. But it’s so subtly wonderful, too. To read along and find these little visual bombs that don’t just illustrate a story, they also enrich and elevate it. They tell a rounded, whole story.
Another, and bigger example of art informing a story and enriching plot and characterization is in Daniel Clowes’ quirky coming-of-age story, Ghost World. If you haven’t read the graphic novel, you may be more familiar with the 2001 film adaptation by comics lover and director, Terry Zwigoff. The film stars Thora Birch as the protagonist, Enid, and a young Scarlett Johansson as her best friend, Rebecca. The duo have just graduated high school, and while Rebecca is becoming more responsible, Enid is floundering to find her identity and her priorities.
It can be especially easy to overlook visual details in Daniel Clowes’ work because the artwork itself is subtle. Ghost World is drawn in stark black and white with some washes of turquoise. It makes for a great, moody layout, but there’s also a sense of the world being washed out…lacking clarity and vigor. It’s fitting, since that’s the way Enid sees the world. She’s perpetually bored and cynical, always searching for meaning and an authentic emotional experience.
I pulled one specific chapter of Ghost World into a film adaptation class a few years ago, and after my group read it through one time, the response was a resounding, “So what?” They found the characters bratty, jaded, and unpleasant to the point of being unlikeable.
I wasn’t surprised. They are all of those things. The reason the characters come off as irrevocably bratty is because in one isolated chapter, we don’t get the whole story. I did it on purpose. A sneaky way of making them look closer and dig deeper into the text and the images. As a class, we tackled the story panel by panel. We went beyond the stark words and snarky dialogue. Everyone sounds like a jerk if they say jerky things. Without knowing the characters’ backgrounds and lives at home we struggle to empathize.
What my students found within the images in Ghost World was that ability to empathize. Enid, in particular, is really unpleasant, but she’s grappling. From scene to scene she changes herself constantly. In particular, the frames of her glasses change, and her hairstyles aren’t far behind. Both of these visual indicators tell the reader that Enid is trying on new identities. She’s a punk in one scene, a hipster in the next, and finally, just plain Enid.
It was even more fun to analyze the glasses, specifically. Dark ones, light ones, rounded, square. Glasses quite literally change the way we see the world, and for Enid, who was trying to see it in a variety of ways and always looking for the “right” way, the glasses are a telling clue to her inner life. If she’s guarded, her glasses are often rounded shades. If she’s a little more open and introspective, they’re square and the lenses are clear. It sounds like such a small thing, but it was amazing to see students pop up with their own ideas about why the images change and how they reflect Enid’s inner turmoil.
For an illustrated detail that the students completed missed the first time around, the realization was remarkable and profound. Most of them saw the chapter in a whole new light, and when we took our observations to screen, they were far more capable of analyzing visual queues within the film as well.
It feels a little like preaching to the choir to talk about the wonder and fabulousness of illustrated details on a comics website, but our experiences reading comics, and even our methods of reading them, can be as varied as our backgrounds and interests. Even a devoted comics fan may not catch all the pertinent detail in a comic or graphic novel the first time around, and when we do catch the details, our interpretations can vary. Just as our impressions would vary if we listened to a speaker or interpreted each other’s body language. Comics are alive in text and image, and getting to know them can be a complicated, nuanced process. One I happen to love.
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