Comics and The Value of Language (Part 1)

At the heart of storytelling for comics lies the relationship between language and image. A comic is defined by that particular mix of the two that makes it a comic. But when you try to pin that relationship down, it gets slippery! Comics can morph from Posy Simmonds’ prose-hybrid Gemma Bovery to “silent” stories like Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man without anyone batting an eyelid.

These two examples lie on opposite ends of a huge storytelling spectrum that sometimes feels too broad for one medium to contain comfortably. When we say “comics”, it really encompasses a lot! Despite this amazing diversity of expression, the idea that comics lack cultural or literary merit is still common, and the lack of public understanding about comics is still startling.

In this article, I want to explore the idea that comics are, and always have been, held back by a very pervasive cultural condition. This condition is responsible for the lack of merit that our culture assigns to comics, and at its heart lies the same relationship between language and image that defines comics themselves!

As with all cultural states, it’s not something that we think about consciously unless we study it carefully. It’s a shared experience that we’re immersed in from the moment we start learning about the world, and it’s so ingrained that I’ve been constantly flustered by the limitations of the English language in my efforts to describe it. To begin to get an insight into it, consider these words as they apply to comics:

Artist. Writer. Reader.

The word artist doesn’t imply “storyteller”, yet there are comic artists that write their own stories without using a single word. The word writer doesn’t suggest drawing, but comic writers often describe drawings using text. Then there’s the word reader, which we use for “comics readers”, but so heavily implies the reading of text.

We quite literally don’t have the vocabulary to frame a proper discussion about creating comics, let alone dig into our own cultural assumptions about art and writing! So, in order to continue, I want to spend a little time dealing with exactly how words and images both excel at telling stories.

When it comes to images, a massive amount of information can be compressed into one frame without using a single word: atmosphere, weather, time of day, the attitudes of characters towards each other and their environment, personality and costume to name a few! Images can be symbolic, metaphorical, or generally representative in a number of ways.

Understanding Comics – Scott McCloud,
Blow Up – Shintaro Kago,
Nijigahara Holograph – Inio Asano

If used in sequence, images create the illusion of passing time, but a sequence of images is a pretty unwieldy thing. The smaller they are, the less information they can clearly contain, and even though you can superimpose images or use panels-within-panels, you can’t just put them on top of one another indefinitely! Text on the other hand is much more efficient at dealing with this kind of thing:

“She was on her regular morning walk, when the bank that she’d passed every day for ten years suddenly blew up! Instinctually using powers she’d possessed all her life, she leapt clear of the blast, but she knew that it was her nemesis behind the attack, and it was only a matter of time before he finally took her life…”

Not the most elegantly written passage perhaps, but these 60 words give you a range of information about passing time in a very small space. I could communicate the same things using a sequence of images, but it would be a long one! However, if I did use images to “say” the same thing, I’d be able to include many other details which images are much better at conveying quickly. What did she look like, how big was the bank, how did it explode, does her appearance change when she uses her powers, what does her nemesis look like…? And so on.

I’d sum it up like this: roughly speaking, images and text compress differently. Images compress spatial information well, and words compress temporal information well. Both are capable of telling a story, and neither is more of less effective at it, they’re just better suited to different storytelling tasks.

There’s also a subtler issue with words and images… one that I’m battling with whilst writing this. Words create visual expectations. I used the word “she” in the passage above, and with that word comes a host of associations. If I want to avoid those, it takes a lot of effort to untangle them using language alone, but a drawing could remain ambiguous with no effort at all. The same goes for many other words… like, oooh, writer or artist!

So, why does our culture frown upon comics in the way it does? Surely such a potent mixture of text and image, each with perfectly complimentary advantages, should be the most versatile and well respected storytelling medium there is?

If I was to say that the thing I’ve been working up to, the reason for the English disdain of comics, and the gap in our language’s ability to talk about comic storytelling is that we’re a nation of visual illiterates, I’m sure most people would disagree… in fact, I say it a lot and most people do disagree!

These obvious objections stem from the clumsy nature of the co-opted phrase. Literacy is a word that applies to language, and so all the expectations and associations that surround it undermine its application to images. I’ll approach it from another direction… by the time we get out of education, most people can write proficiently, and although they may not know how to string a plot together, most of them could attempt a blog entry or a short essay. On the flip-side, most people leaving education still can’t draw any better than the average 10 year old!

Examples of adults drawing themselves from
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – Betty Edwards

Let’s add to this the fact that people who do know how to draw are often self-taught, or have received an education that amounts to 90% mysticism, 10% instruction. Anyone who has been through UK education for a vocational art and come out the other side as a practicing professional will know what I mean!

I’ll use the “visual illiteracy” analogy again in lieu of a better one that doesn’t exist yet, and point out that it works in a general sense if you consider the following:

Illiterate people can understand language and speak it, but they can’t write or read it. Visually illiterate people can understand drawings, but they can’t draw them. The analogy compares understanding a drawing you see to understanding a language you hear (both instinctual skills if you do them from birth). It compares drawing a drawing to writing a language (both skills that have to be taught).

With this in mind, we can write out a few conclusions quite plainly:

  • Most of us are taught to write.
  • Only a few of us are taught to draw.
  • Being able to draw is not an indicator of being able to draw stories.
  • Being able to write is not an indicator of being able to write stories.
  • Both drawing stories and writing stories require a particular set of skills that can be taught.
  • These two skill-sets overlap, but only partially.
  • Skills unique to writing stories can be practised by anyone who can write (meaning most people).
  • Skills unique to drawing stories can be practised by anyone who can draw (meaning barely anyone).

If you think about the comics industry from the perspective that these conclusions provide, the way we do things suddenly makes sense. Writers don’t draw (most of them can’t) and artists don’t write (I suppose they could, but they tend not to).

We’ve turned the
limitations of our language
into a actual state of being.

And because writing skills are more easily accessible, there are lots of people who aspire to be writers, but as a result writing comics is over-saturated and hard to break into. These writers mostly require artists to draw for them, so there’s a demand for skilled artists who can draw stories. There aren’t many people who are proficient at that task, so those that are will easily be able to find a writer who needs them (although a writer who is able to pay them is another matter). This chain of supply and demand quite literally makes up the economic structure of our industry, and ultimately it’s created by the lack of instruction we receive in drawing as a culture, which in turn is because of our lack of visual literacy, which in turn is so deep that it’s embedded in our language. Quite the vicious cycle.

How can we fully understand the potential within comics when creating them requires a skill most of us can only appreciate as an obscure talent we wish we had?

This is a powerful cultural imbalance, but in comics it would be easy to see ourselves as outside its reach. After all, we all read and write pictures in a way that the rest of our culture doesn’t… aren’t we visually literate? I’d argue that the answer is actually no. We’re all shaped by the cultural condition, and we rarely consider its full implications, or the way that it shapes our own attitudes.

In a following article I want to use this concept to take a closer look at exactly how visual literacy affects comics creators and readers, and the kinds of comics we create and value. That’s a much thornier subject though…

Continued in Part 2.


  1. Colin S. says:

    This supply-and-demand formulation ignores the fact that within the industry the number of competent artists is significantly larger than the number of competent writers.

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