Observations on text/image combinations in comics

Recently we posted an activity which encourages students to push to the limits the distance between image and text, in large part to demonstrate that in fact you can almost always infer some amount of contingency between apparently disparate series of images and texts. In this post I’m going to discuss a few examples of the creative exploitation of this dissonance.

Chris Ware did a comic years ago which I refer to as “I Guess” because, though it is a truncated phrase, a subject and verb without a predicate, it is literally and graphically the unlikely title of what otherwise appears to be a silver-age style super hero story:

© Chris Ware

As you scan the first page of this six-page story, you’ll quickly grasp that the text is out of synch with the images. While the drawings show a well-told if by-the-numbers superhero story, complete with mad scientist and “girl reporter” in distress, the text is a series of first-person reminiscences about growing up the only child of a single mother. This incongruity is amusing on the face of it, but the more closely you read the comic, the more you see that the text and image line up in unexpected ways. Consider just the opening narration, in a banner clearly marked for the “origin story” of our super man:

When I was really young, I asked my mom why all old movies were in black and white. She said that back then, everything was in black and white. I took her really literally, and until I was six or seven, I thought color was some weird modern invention…

The notion of things in the past being in black and white refers to the nostalgic nature of the cartooning as well as to the fact that the comic itself is in black and white (Ware would later publish a color version, but I prefer this earlier one). More interesting still is the use of the phrase “weird modern invention” in close proximity of the drawing showing a scientist clearly being infected by some superpower-rendering substance.

Notice that the text flows continuously, without regard to its status in the comic as narration, dialogue, sound effects, or title lettering. This makes for an unusual reading experience, akin to reading text projected on to random surfaces, and it leads to some incongruous and funny moments, such as a narration box containing only the word “eyeholes” or gunshot sound effect rendered as “LIKE”.

The act of reading and parsing the two levels of narrative in this comic and seeing how they clash and fuse is a rewarding experience in and of itself. At the end, however, it’s rendered surprisingly poignant by the identification of the Super-man with the boy narrator, the mad scientist with an ex-boyfriend, and the Lois Lane stand-in with the mother. In the last panel as the superhero whisks the woman away to safety, the narration box, rather than “join us next month for another exciting adventure!” reads “[I  liked things better when] it was just my mom and me, anyway.”

For you cartoonists out there, consider how you might go about creating a comic like this. How much you think Ware planned this out panel by panel and how much was serendipity?

Here’s a very different, and very clever, use of text-image, from Ben Katchor‘s old weekly strip, “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” (this one appeared in the very first collection, Cheap Novelties):

© Ben Katchor

Read it a few times through and it becomes clear that this comic runs, you could say, on three different tracks: on the one hand there is a narration consisting of a single sentence stating plainly the theme of the strip (“In this novel, the hero is thwarted not by etc etc); then you have the visual track in which panels showing a shop clerk trying to read at a counter bookend a series of intervening panels showing hypothetical calamaties from an adventure novel; and finally the third and most devious track, a series of utterances from the mouths of the characters in the adventure scenarios.

This last track is tempting to skim—one would expect a series of meaningless interjections such as “help!” “Noooo!” and so on—until one notices that in fact these characters are saying things like “Do you have this in small?” and “will these shrink?” Of course what we are seeing is a visualization of the confusion and frustration of the clerk who, every time he starts to lose himself in his novel, is interrupted by a customer. We can see clearly in the color-coded version above that it is between the second and third panels that the banal dialogue (red) of the customer service counter (blue)  insinuates its way into adventure scenarios (yellow), but in the comic the transition is almost seamless and easy to overlook on first read. The device of those incongruous word balloons is not just a clever trick (though: what’s wrong with the occasional clever trick?), instead it recreates (“illustrates” feels inadequate here) the clerk’s sense of disorientation rather than simply explaining it to us (as, after all, the narration could do by itself).

Gary Sullivan is a poet as well as a cartoonist, and a rather experimental one at that. His poetry belongs to the Flarf school, which he co-created, and uses as its primary source not the inspiration of the Muse or even observations from everyday life but, rather, Google searches. He has also written a series of wonderful posts on his blog sketching the interaction of comics and poetry, especially among the New York school of poetry. (It’s a woefully underexplored subject and I do hope he will come back to the topic soon–perhaps here on this blog? In the meantime, a good starting place is Joe Brainard’s Nancy Book) Increasingly, Gary has applied the Flarf technique to comics with very intriguing results. Here is one page from a comic which you can read in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation website:

© Gary Sullivan

As you could probably infer even without my introduction, the text is derived from message board searches for the keywords “emo” and “poetry”. The images are edited and redrawn from Thai pulp comics that Gary collects (another woefully under-explored subject?!), somewhat in the redrawn-appropriation style of Kevin Mutch’s Captain Adam. Unlike the Ware and Katchor comics, you would be hard pressed to come up with any clear, continuous “reading” of this comic. The jumps from panel to panel and from utterance to utterance are too great to cohere at all smoothly, even though certain sequences and exchanges read as if they should make sense (for example, the man addressing two young women in the last panel). What we’re left with instead are fleeting associations, a sense that we’re reading a story that is dissolving before we have grasped it, like the last, fading images of a dream. There are moments of mystery, critique of the poetry world, and, of course, slapstick humor.

People talk a fair amount about “poetry comics” and what I have seen are mostly comics illustrating poems or comics that are evocative in a “poetic” way. I find that what Gary does in this comic is more challenging but more rewarding because it enacts poetry’s ability to suggest meaning while evading it at the same time. And the chief technique the comic uses to generate this effect on the reader is the dissonance between words and images.

There’s a dissertation or two’s worth of discussion on this topic. I hope these three examples will point you in a few new directions in your reading and making of comics.


1 Comment to Observations on text/image combinations in comics

  • by J T Guerrero

    On October 25, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    I understand the usage and flow of this because in the beginning, I read the comic without reading your explanation and the narration made sense. Yet, after reading your commentary and detailed explanation, it made even more sense.

    To me, your article demonstrates the complexity of comic art/literature. My daily reading of comics is really a sophisticated and mentally stimulating start to my day. Not to denigrate the Steinbecks, Hemmingways, or any other writer but comics can be or are just as sophisticated as the “great” writer’s works.

    It makes sense to the creative mind/artist but definitely confusing for the “common” person. I don’t mean common in a negative or derogatory way, but for the common person with a conventional processing brain. For me, I can make comparisons or allegories that seem incongruous with the main subject. If only the common person could begin to understand the mental processes behind the creation, graphic novels/comics would be appreciated more.

    Interesting how if one is a successful (either financially or creatively) in writing/arts, how a lot of people will marvel at their work, yet if I create something in a similar vein, it is dismissed as disjointed or in-cohesive. Yet to me, it is cohesive and the themes correlate beautifully! So, off I go to create another disjointed, in-cohesive comic! 8-P

    Great article and inspiration!

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