The last fifteen years has seen an explosion of films related to the much-beleaguered medium known as comic books. While the medium itself has its roots in ancient history, most of us still think of them in terms of the superhero or the newspaper “funny” pages. Superheroes undoubtedly receive more press than any other genre in comics, but it is far from accurate to proclaim the inferiority or disingenuousness of a medium strictly due to its loudest messengers.
As humans, we instinctively respond much more strongly to images than the abstractions of pure text, both emotionally and intellectually. In combination, they could form a catalyst for ideal information transfer, allowing for brevity as well as solid establishment in memory. Comics are a special medium of communication, one that capitalizes on that confluence of the visual arts and the textual. While the visual realm can range from stick figures and the ‘polar bear blinking in a snowstorm’ level of sophistry to the photorealism of a Tom Blackwell, to the abstractions of a Picasso, and pure text can similarly range from Dick and Jane to Dostoyevsky, the comic world is free to employ both types of media with impunity. The comics creator is freed from the shackles of each medium to tell a richer story, far quicker and often more effectively.
At its simplest, a comic can be defined as a “sequential art”. An artist’s developed sensibility can allow fine control over three major aspects of comics that set them aside from other forms of media. First, it is the reader that determines the actions taken between panels, through a process called closure. Comics, unlike most other media, are above all an active experience, one which engages its readers as participants. We instinctively fill in the gaps, provide the actions, the sounds and atmosphere, all with comparatively modest suggestions made on behalf of the author. Who decides the striking blow from one panel to the next, its placement, the depth of the wound? We, the readers, do.
Secondly, an intricate yet instinctive sense of time comes into play for the reader. A single image can be a snapshot, an instant, or, through dialog or lines of movement, it can represent a few seconds or even minutes. Adjustments to panel pacing or design can give a further sense of time, and the format can allow for multiple, instant changes of time and location which would be incomprehensible in other media.
Thirdly, through deliberate choices on the range of realism to abstraction, a comic writer can allow a reader to identify with characters in ways that are unique to the comic world. Everyone sees themselves in a smiley face, after all. The less specifically a character is defined, the more the reader becomes the character, the more attached, the more empathetic. Imagery cuts deep; written language is only five thousand years old, but as a species we’ve drawn pictures of ourselves, our dreams and realities, for far, far longer.
The superhero world is certainly the most prevalent in comic books, but they are not the only kinds of stories out there, nor the only way the medium has been used. I’ve learned plenty about statistics, chemistry and history through works in a comic format; identified with mice living under a phenomenally fascist feline regime; understood the very real clashes between politics and religion through the eyes of an aardvark. The ambivalence of our culture to such a powerful medium has deep roots – some of them undeniably self-inflicted – but such an attitude is clearly embedded in loose and shifting sands.
[Toastmasters Speech 8: Get Comfortable with Visual Aids]
N.B. I haven’t developed a set of slides yet to go with this, but plan to add it in fairly short order. Expect plenty of copyrighted material, most especially from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”… 😛
UPDATE: Slides are done!