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The Basics of Comics – Part 2 of 2

Understanding their structural development

The second part of this post is about the various distinguishing characteristics of comics as a medium of expression. They are very sophisticated processes, though they might not appear to be. They have been used in many imaginative ways that have pushed the boundaries of the medium. These have grown from generation to generation with each adding something new.

The first and most important one is the Panel.

Little Sammy Sneeze - Winsor McCay (1906)

Comics are usually characterized by having the page broken up into smaller rectangles called panels, each furthering the narration. Now it may be presumed that each is like a photograph, a moment frozen in time. Yet, it is not as simple as it appears. Panels are not simply like the borders of 35mm film. Given the limitless powers of the illustrator to bend the medium, the panel becomes an expression, as vivid as colours, as important as the look on a character’s face.

The Spirit - Will Eisner (1949)

And though they are frozen to our eyes, their contents are not frozen at all. There can be a whole conversation in a flash, and we don’t even notice the passage of time. But time has certainly passed. In fact time, is twisted into a very different progression than in the real world. It is slowed down and sped up at will by the creators.

Cookalein - Will Eisner (1978)

Unlike in novels, where whole paragraphs can go towards describing a perfect moment, and time might be kept frozen while we construct imagery in our minds, here text and image are presented simultaneously to the reader. We instantly absorb the image and absorb the communication it holds, while the text takes time to be read. As a result of the immediate impact of the visual element not much need is there of descriptive text. Instead the focus is almost wholly on speech and thought.

It is to carry speech and thought that there was the birth of the speech balloon – the second most important element of comics. These balloons are the descendants of speech scrolls found in ancient and medieval art of various cultures. They are the carriers of direct thoughts and words and also point out the speaker with their tails.

Barefoot Gen - Keiji Nakazawa (1973)

Comics, like other visual arts, is heavily performative. Hence it relies on both speech and gesture. While gesture is well represented by the image, text also starts to take on a performative aspect. It is not merely words we see, but words with specific intonations, emotions, and even sounds. Indeed, sounds are also a very intimate part of the whole comic-book reading experience. Words can become an entirely different sensory trigger.

Barefoot Gen - Keiji Nakazawa (1973)

In fact, though we read them, and we attribute meaning to them, to me they seem more real than any other medium. And one of the most fascinating aspects of comics is just this – what people have called the reader’s participation, inhabitation, or closure. We include our faculties in the act of reading comics, much more than in reading text or viewing paintings. We attribute meaning and qualities to them. How else can a paltry sum of words, and pictures that are not the most realistic, take us through a journey that is as encapsulating and vivid in mere hours, that others take much longer to do?

The most important application of this is in the transition between panels. As mentioned earlier, there is more to the panel than meets the eye. In fact, even between panels there is much going on.

24 Hours – Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (1989)

We consistently invest the images and text with our senses and add motion, sound, maybe even smell, everything that doesn’t exist on the paper, into it. Different speaking voices come up, and we find ourselves as breathless for our heroes as they would be. Yes, many of these reactions can be seen when one is reading or watching cinema as well, but the power of the reader to assign values is much greater here. The blank spaces in what is offered to us and left upto us are much more.

Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1987)

Books have many times more words, movies have many times more images, and yet at no stage can a sensitive reader say that the impact of comics is far lesser than these. We construct all the action between panels in our head, we can make it all seamless, what we extract is actually far greater than the sum of the parts that we are given.

One of the ways in which comics allow us to get under the skin of characters is by allowing identification. Comics creator and theorist Scott McCloud, someone from whose work a comics enthusiast can learn a lot, says that because of the basic facial structures found in comics, we actually find it easier to associate as well as inhabit the characters.

The Adventures of Tintin - Herge

It is clearly on the plane of universals that we see the characters. We might not be able to see ourselves, or someone we know, in a realistic portrayal, because the details will overwhelmingly exclude us, but in comics we can easily ‘empathise’ with the character, as well as ‘be’ him or her.

On a personal note, I have felt that reading comics can be a very intimate experience. Firstly, in practice it is one of the most physically close visual mediums, there is hardly any space between the reader and the book, and hence there are no mediations or distractions. Secondly, the characters are not putting on a performance, they are not actors, they are real. Hence we are not spectators, we are willing participants or voyeurs. We are exactly like the Common Man in RK Laxman’s cartoons, flies on the wall. Both of these together have the combined effect of making the reader step through a door and into another world.

You Said It - RK Laxman

With that I end my 2-part post. Comics studies is a wide open field with a lot of new discoveries to be made. There are many more practitioners now than ever before, and forms and platforms are ever evolving, yet our understanding of the depths of the medium are highly inadequate. The people who create them have mastered techniques more complex than we can imagine and are pure genius in a so-called juvenile art form.