Comic Books – in a World of Words and Pictures


The comic book is a form that is difficult to separate from its history. Even the name ‘comics’ derives from the days of the penny dreadful, where the ‘comic cuts’ provided non-threatening light entertainment1. When attempting to define the comic book, most people will turn to its historical subject matter rather than its properties, mentioning perhaps joke strips in newspapers or the superheroes that were so popular during the 50s. It is also largely due to its history that the comic book has received so little critical attention, and it is only relatively recently that the problematic combination of words and pictures that comics use has been critically addressed. The combination of two disciplines that are generally separate – that is, language and image – has lead many to view comics as a sort of hybrid. There are a number of theories as to how this duality works, some of which I will outline later on in this essay; I will also make some attempt to compare the functioning of the comic book with strategies employed by film, another ‘hybrid’ to which it is often compared. Finally, I will address the question of whether language and image can be assumed to be such separate disciplines, and thus the notion that the comic book is a place where word and image converge.

First of all, we should define the term for ourselves. A fairly effective definition put forward by Scott McCloud is as follows: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”2. This does however omit the second reason that comics are so closely linked to their history, the vast variety of conventions that comics use, but we shall come to that later on. Secondly, there is the problem of a name. Wanting to shake off the non-serious overtones of the name ‘comics’ some artists in the 1980s, when comics began to approach more serious subject matter, began to use the term ‘graphic novels’ instead. Sadly, it was not long before this term gained its own negative associations, being lumped in with the pornographic comics that were popular at around the same time. Other names have been proposed, such as Will Eisner’s ‘Sequential Art’ and Martin Fox’s ‘Narrative Illustration’3; however, these are both problematic for use in an essay discussing the literary and visual aspects of comics, as they each have a bias toward one or the other. I will therefore use ‘comic books’ or ‘comics’ for the majority of this essay.

The medium specificity thesis as explained by Arnheim proposes firstly that there are particular qualities inherent in different media, and secondly that each medium should exploit these unique qualities in order to differentiate itself from other art forms. Arnheim also suggested that these unique properties would render each medium suitable for different subject matter, for example painting to line and form and literature to narrative4. The form of the comic book becomes extremely problematic when considered in these terms, being a combination of two media that some would say have different agendas. Such combinations can be referred to as composites, although Arnheim specifies that such forms are only true composites if the two constituent elements are given equal weighting: “if there is a truly composite art form, then none of the constituent media can be anything but fully developed… none of the media combined would be subservient, nor… merely repetitive of what is already conveyed by another, more dominant, medium.”5 Some would argue that comics do not present an equal combination, that the text provides information to be assimilated, whilst pictures add character or background; Uri Shulevitz describes this in terms of children’s stories, where the words of the story are heard and understood while the pictures on the page add detail or context6. Will Eisner points out that some sequences consist almost entirely of pictures, but even these are concerned with relating a narrative, which the medium specificity thesis would call the territory of literature7. An exception to this can be found in the one-frame cartoon joke often found in newspapers, but since it is the longer form of the comic book that we are concerned with, we will assume for now that the notion of narrativity holds.

Indeed the relationship of word and image in comics could be described as a simple division of labour within a narrative framework. The easiest and most popular account of the relationship of text to image in a comic is as equivalents of sound and sight: “in the typical comic strip, word is to image as speech (or thought) is to action and bodies”8. The images show us a visual approximation of what is happening, whilst text in speech bubbles tells us what a particular person is saying and onomatopoeic exclamations (e.g. BANG! POW!) provide any important environmental noises. This functions much like a filmed version of a scene, in that the ‘sound’ is presented at the same point in ‘time’ as the thing that caused it (for example the person talking), suggesting a causal link. This link is far more obvious in film, partially because the visual and sound elements can be precisely synchronized and partially because it is far closer to our usual perception of the world; in the case of comics such causal links are often clarified by devices such as speech bubbles.


Opening frames of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (New York: DC Comic, 1986) featuring captions presented as extracts from a diary

ne problem with the sound/sight model becomes clear when we consider the captions that sometimes accompany panels; these sometimes describe events or give information on what has happened previously, will happen next or is happening elsewhere, or can be extracts from a piece of text such as a diary that relate in some way to the events taking place. Clearly, this cannot derive from our sensual perception of the real world, since these words are not spoken by any character or heard in any way, but simply exist outside of events rather like the voice of a narrator. A similar narrator’s voice is most often encountered in literature such as novels, wherein it is used primarily to describe visual and action-based elements of a story without any visual input. However, like media such as film and comics where such elements are sufficiently provided by visual stimuli, can also be used to add detail, context or personal comment. Another such anomaly is found in thought bubbles, which are supposed to show a person’s undisclosed thoughts. While these thoughts are presented as text, and could be imagined to be spoken in the character’s voice, clearly they are not heard or sensed in any way; their disclosure is a purely fictional device presented as an insight unique to the reader. Although these examples do undermine the sight/sound model, they strengthen the notion of a narrator’s voice within comics and thus their literary bias.

Indeed it is true that almost the only thing that the many and varied definitions of the comic book have in common is some reference to narrative. It would seem that this bias is inherent in the way that the pictures of a comic are arranged, laid out in order to be read in a linear manner. In his “Laocooen”, Lessing described how “objects which exist side by side, or whose parts so exist, are called bodies…[these] with their visible properties are the peculiar subjects of painting. Objects which succeed each other, or whose parts succeed each other in time, are actions… the peculiar subjects of poetry”. Clearly the illustrations of a comic, whether containing text or otherwise, are normally read one after the other, which gives rise to the many comparisons made between the comic book and other linear forms such as film and prose. However, it is important to note that this linearity is not complete.


An example of visual pacing from Steady Beat by Rivkah (Tokyo; Tokyopop, 2006)

One aspect of comics that separates it from the simple linear form is the juxtaposition of frames and the way that they are laid out on a page. The reader will normally focus on one panel at once, whilst maintaining an awareness of the form of the page and the frames preceding and following the one being read. Danto describes this as demonstrating how a person will “Perceive both [the present] and one’s consciousness of it as something the meaning of which will only be given in the future”. This awareness of the narrative as a sequence of moments could be seen as more natural than a smooth, one-way progression, since in everyday life the present is generally experienced with awareness of and reference to the past and future9. Furthermore, the reader can be made aware of upcoming shifts in pace; different shapes or forms of frame can be used to suggest pauses or fast interaction, which are laid out on the page in such a way that a short glace will give a sense of what is to come. For example, wide frames or full-page images without a black border can imply a pause or suggest an air of timelessness, whilst narrow, densely-packed frames suggest a quick-fire conversation or sequence of events. This presents an interesting duality, since this means that comic books are experienced firstly side by side, before being ‘read’ one after the other.

This is clearly an important difference between comic books and other linear forms. Novels and other books are also laid out side by side and read in order, but these generally provide little graspable indication of what the text contains until it has been read. Film, to which the comic book is often compared since the sight and sound model for comics can be easily equated with the audio and visual tracks of film, is even more restrictive in its linearity. Film as a narrative form also has similar problems with the medium specificity thesis, especially since sound was introduced to what was previously seen as a form centered around the animated image. It is the moving image that gives us the first very important difference between film and comics, since although they are placed in a linear order, comics use only still images; “In cinema motion is manifest and fundamental to the form, but in the sequential frames of comics all movement is purely implicit.”10 Although comics do use sequences of images, these are often separated by large gaps in time, and far from being presented one after the other in a single space to present the illusion of movement they are placed side by side. It is therefore up to the reader to interpret these individual images as a linear narrative. Gaps between frames are referred to as gutters because of their form, a slim blank space left between the borders of frames, but the term is also used to refer to the relationship of one frame’s content to the next. Leading comic book writer Frank Miller describes film as showing the viewer steps A, B, C, and D, whereas a comic will show A and D and leave it to the reader’s mind to fill in B and C11. McCloud refers to this process as ‘Closure’ – “mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience”12. This onus upon the reader to contribute to the narrative is said to “[foster] an intimacy surpassed only by the written word”13.

Another important difference is that film is a time-based medium, with a set duration and order. Whilst a film must necessarily be followed in order, with the comic the reader is able to jump between points in the narrative and it is much easier for the reader to control how they move through it. This flexibility is often used to great effect, with hidden structures or references included in the comic that readers are able to investigate as they read. An interesting example is a section of Watchmen, in which a short sub-narrative about one of the characters has a symmetrical structure (both in form and narrative), which only becomes apparent when the reader looks at both ends at once. Dave Gibbons, the artist for that book, said, “…with a comic book the reader can back-track…. We wanted to take advantage of that difference… We wanted to make a comic book that read as a straightforward story, but gradually you became aware that it had a symmetrical structure.”14 Although it would be possible for film to employ such techniques, especially with the new interest in narrative complexity15, it is unlikely that these would be appreciated without multiple, linear viewings16.

Although these points disrupt claims of linearity in comic books, these variants all occur within a narrative framework, and serve to enrich that narrative. Similarly, the very duality that makes the comic book a problematic form could be said to be being exploited in order to present a richer narrative. The medium specificity thesis emphasized unique properties of different media; one theory suggests that those properties and the tension provided by their differences are being used to create a narrative that inherently presents more than one facet of the story. David Carrier in ‘The Aesthetics of Comics’ draws attention to the differing methods of appreciating literature and visual art, the former of which is normally read privately (and is said to transport the reader to an entirely different, private world), whilst the latter is often contemplated publicly in galleries17. J. Hillis Miller describes the division between the two as “… linked to things like the difference between the (speaking) self and the (seen) other”18. This gives rise to a model that proposes that the words in a comic might represent the self, and the pictures represent ‘other’. The theory is that words equate to the inner workings of the mind in their symbolic, conceptual form, and pictures being more detailed and thus specific relate more closely to our perception of the outside world; in other words the “realm of concept and the realm of the senses”19.


An Example of visual metaphor from Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973)

omics also make use of a wide range of devices that could be described as literary. For example, the opening frame of Watchmen shows a badge of a smiley face spattered with blood, an iconic image that recurs and becomes laden with associations during the course of the book. A prime example of visual metaphor is Maus, where the characters are obviously human and dealing with human issues but the Nazis and Jews are shown as cats and mice respectively20. It is not so surprising that the comics most respected have thus far been praised and analysed mainly in literary terms; works such as Watchmen and From Hell have often been studied via poetry, literature and trope, and psychoanalytic theory21. Maus was even awarded a Pulitzer Special Award although “The Pulitzer board members … found the cartoonist’s depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify.”22 This linguistic view of comics could be understood a rather different way when considered in terms of semiotics or semiology, the “study of non-linguistic sign systems”23 that suggests that other forms could be understood as a language. This applies particularly to the comic book for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the comic book as it is today uses a vast number of conventions to communicate action, emotion and causality. An example that we touched upon earlier is the speech bubble, easily the most obvious device. Although Will Eisner suggests that the form of the speech bubble may have been inspired by the clouds formed by a person’s breath on a cold day, most critics reject the idea that the speech bubble is supposed to represent something ‘real’ and regard it as a purely conventional device. Speech bubbles have a strange relationship to the picture plane as “neither purely… holes in the picture nor… things depicted”24; although we see them as white spaces in the image, the characters cannot normally see or relate to them (although sometimes this principle is violated for comedic effect), and normally treat them as heard speech. Interestingly, in illuminated manuscripts the text would be seen in a scroll and emanate from a person’s hand rather than their mouth, as if to suggest it was their handwriting rather than speech being represented25. Other examples are motion lines and stars drawn around the head to suggest drunkenness. For the most part these devices have little basis in real life, or have become extremely stylized in their execution, so that they could be said to be symbolic in their relationship to the idea that they represent.

A similar treatment could be given to the simplified illustrations of comics themselves. In “Understanding Comics”, Scott McCloud describes how a person sees another as an accurate detailed image, whilst perceiving themselves as a set of concepts: a mouth, eyes, body etc. Although we are aware of our body and appearance, in everyday life we use a simple model with basic functional features to represent ourselves in our own mind. Therefore, he argues, the simplified cartoon face with basic features equates much more readily to our own self-image than to our idea of an ‘other’.This concept-based face leans much more towards language, in presenting a universal ‘person’ image that can be applied to any reader. Of course, there are comics that use very realistic illustrations or even photographs; McCloud argues that the more detailed an image, the more the viewer has the sense that it is specific to another person and thus separated from the self. McCloud expressed these ideas on a diagram of a triangle, with the picture plane, reality and language as the points. He described the comic book illustration as somewhere between reality and language, moving more toward the picture plane as it became more stylised26.

Furthermore, as representations become more simplified and concept-based, they begin to require much more interpretation. “The human body, and the stylisation of its shape, and the codifying of its emotionally produced gestures and expressive postures are accumulated and stored in the memory, forming a non-verbal vocabulary of gesture”27. This codifying translates things such as body language into a set of recognisable symbols that become a language. Indeed, even the orienting the page with respect to real life, equating its two dimensions with vertical and horizontal axes and expecting the forces that would accompany them (such as gravity) must be learned28. The text of comics also strays into the realm of the representative. Often the typeface or size is altered to suggest volume or urgency, and onomatopoeic ‘sound’ words written in, say, a fractured script to suggest the sound of breaking glass. In addition, title pages sometimes use words apparently made up of pictorial elements, such as pipes or drops of blood, sometimes to create a visual joke. Will Eisner is at pains to point out that at least some language was formed from symbolic images rather like cartoons that became abstract through gradual stylisation29. It is also important to note that although text and image are traditionally separate media, they do both appeal to the same sense – sight.

Clearly the form of the comic book is not a straightforward one. Its formal properties are difficult to define, not least because they vary considerably from example to example. It is possible, however, to identify a fairly consistent emphasis on narrative, and a number of narrative devices that are arguably unique to the comic book.


1 Martin Barker, Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1989) 8

2 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics – the Invisible Art (New York; Kitchen Sink Press, 1993) 9

3 Fox, Martin, Vol. 3/No. 2 (Print (New York, N.Y.) 61 no1 41 Ja/F 2007)

4 Noel Carroll, “the Specificity Thesis” in Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory, (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1988)

5 Noel Carroll, “the Specificity Thesis” in Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory, (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1988)

6 Uri Shulevitz, Writing with Pictures (New York; Watson-Guptill Publications, 1985) 16

7 Will Eisner, Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative, (USA, Poorhouse Press, 1996) 13

8 J. Hillis Miller, Illustration (Massachusetts; Harvard University press, 1992) 91

9 David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics (Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000) 73

10 David Thompson, The Spider Stratagem (Sight & Sound ns12 no4 24-6 Ap 2002)

11 Mark Salisbury, Artists on Comic Art (London; Titan Publishing Group, 2000) 162

12 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics – the Invisible Art (New York; Kitchen Sink Press, 1993) 63

13 Said, 69

14 David Thompson, The Spider Stratagem (Sight & Sound ns12 no4 24-6 Ap 2002)

15 Janet Staiger, Complex Narratives, An Introduction (Film Criticism 31 no ½ Fall/Wint 2006) 2

16 M. Todd Hignite, Avant-Garde and Comics: Serious Cartooning (Art Papers 26 no1 16-19 Ja/F 2002)

17 David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics (Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000) 62

18 J. Hillis Miller, Illustration (Massachusetts; Harvard University press, 1992) 5

19 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics – the Invisible Art (New York; Kitchen Sink Press, 1993) 39

20 Uri Shulevitz, Writing with Pictures (New York; Watson-Guptill Publications, 1985) 24

21 Geoff Klock, How to read Superhero Comics and Why (New York; Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002) 1

22 Alessandra Stanley, ‘Thousand Acres’ Wins Fiction As 21 Pulitzer Prizes Are Given, (New York Times, April 8, 1992)

23 Pierre Guiraud, Semiology (France, Presses Universitaires de France, 1971) 1

24 David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics (Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000) 29

25 J. Hillis Miller, Illustration (Massachusetts; Harvard University press, 1992 92

26 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics – the Invisible Art (New York; Kitchen Sink Press, 1993) 31-49

27 Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics (Canada, Harper Collins, 2000) 100-8

28 Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art – Principles and Practice of the World’s Most Popular Art Form (USA; Poorhouse Press, 1985) 10

29 Said, 11-13

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