Comics – The complexity of pictures and words


Comics haven’t had the easiest time being accepted as “real” art. There are exceptions but comics are yet to occupy the same space as movies and books. I still remember my year 6 (5th-grade)  teacher telling me off for bringing in my favorite issue of the Beano on World Book Day. She quite smugly asserted that comic books weren’t actually books; imagine my surprise considering the word book is right there in the name. Since it’s generally hard for a child to verbalize the importance of comedy in a healthy literature diet, my comics were confiscated and I was given a nice Shakespearean regicide book instead. 


Medium vs Genre

Comics - The complexity of pictures and words

At some point, the words comic book became synonymous with childish. To be fair some comics are childish and basic and that’s fine, great even. Transformers doesn’t represent every movie and similarly, Captain America doesn’t represent everything comics can do. It does make sense though, the superhero genre in comics is so popular that it almost dwarfs the medium. If we can divorce medium from genre then comics can do some things no other medium can do and it all starts with the blank spaces between panels.  


Closure in comics

These are gutters

Comics - The complexity of pictures and words 

In terms of just utility gutters act as definitive dividers between panels. They’re a way of knowing one sequence has ended and a new one has begun, almost like hard cuts in films. In comics space and time are the same. As you read the panels from left to right you’re also progressing forward in the stories timeline.  While reading you build an understanding of what is actually going on by putting together context clues, i.e. how each panel relates to the previous or the next. Here’s an example:

Comics - The complexity of pictures and words

Your ability to create meaning or build ideas with limited information is known as closure. Closure doesn’t just happen in the gutters though. Look at this image:

Comics - The complexity of pictures and words

There’s only one panel but you can still use the information provided to build your own world. The sounds are your own, the smells are your own, all the characters mannerisms belong to you. 


Why should you care?

When you’re watching a movie you’re learning about a world someone else has crafted both visually and narratively. If you read a book your only job is to build the visuals. When you read a comic you’re in a partnership with the writer and artist. In each panel both give you only just enough information to kickstart your imagination.

 The very heart of comic books is closure that creates an intimate connection to the characters and story. Some comics do it better than others but only comics can create closure like this.

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