Comics and The Value of Language (Part 2)

Comics and The Value of Language (Part 1) suggested the controversial idea that we live in a nation of visual illiterates. Since “literacy” consists of reading and writing skills, I proposed that “visual literacy” should consist of both image perception and drawing skills. It’s telling that the only people I’ve encountered who readily agree with this idea are other artists… everyone else is taken aback, and there seem to be two reasons for that:

1) If you can only understand drawing theoretically, how can you fully appreciate how deeply it affects the way you see and understand images?
2) The heavy implication is that non-artists are inadequate creators, and that’s especially annoying to hear if you’re a comics writer who can’t draw.

I’d like to go straight to the heart of the hurt with this follow-up, and discuss how our highly literate, but visually inexperienced culture has created for itself a “literary mode” of storytelling that frames how we discuss comics, which comics we value, and how we reward creators for their efforts. That discussion starts with a simple, but deep-reaching idea…

There is a profound difference between a good script that has been well illustrated and a good comic.

But what do I mean by that? Surely a good script, well illustrated is the definition of a good comic. If the script is good, and the artist draws it well, what else is there to take care of? The only way to answer this is by teasing out the consequences of relying on words when “writing” for a highly visual medium with a series of examples!

The Beautiful Script

I sometimes get confused reactions when someone asks me how I begin writing my own comics when I say that I don’t write them, I draw them. A story is made up of places, people, actions, expressions and objects, so it makes intuitive sense to me to translate my imaginings straight into character sketches, environment sketches, page thumbnails and various other kinds of visual “notes”. Dialogue is the only thing that I feel I need language for, and I leave my dialogue notes loose, since they can change even after the finished art has been produced.

However, for practical reasons, many creators have to use language to “write” comics, and when using words to describe visual storytelling, those words end up exerting a kind of power over the creator. Have you ever wondered why we’re forced to “read” Shakespeare at school despite the fact that he’s a playwright? The answer is that he embedded all his plot in his dialogue, and a lot of the enjoyment in the language can be gained by reading it out loud… although you may get a more satisfying experience at a performance, you can just read it and still appreciate it.

The same goes for many comic scripts that I’ve read, sometimes to such extremes that I wonder what the point in drawing them is! The visual descriptions are soaring and elegant, or punchy and entertaining, the dialogue is exhaustive and it contains everything I need to know to understand the plot. The story has already been delivered, and no art has touched it…

Obviously, to a certain extent, that’s what a script should do – give the artist vivid images to put on the page. But if you can put those images in the artist’s head, why not just give them straight to the reader? The art is just a potentially inadequate go-between when a script is beautiful by itself.

A good comic artist is an author in their own right, capable of strengthening a plot, deepening character relationships, teasing out an overarching theme visually, and much more. But when an artist receives a beautiful script and is expected to simply execute it, the relationship between artist and writer is not a collaboration, it’s closer to the relationship between a writer and their pen. All a good pen can do is make writing pretty.

The Echo Chamber

Beautiful scripts suffer from a series of pitfalls that seem to be at least partially replicated by a huge percentage of writers. It doesn’t seem to matter if the script writer can draw, or if they’ve got a lifetime of experience behind them, information that is best delivered visually ends up seeping into dialogue or narration, and often right next to art that communicates the exact same thing!

The result is that slight differences in the tone created by the language and the tone created by the art clash and make dissonant chords. The reader can pick up on the fact that the art just mimics the words, and it becomes easy to skip it entirely.

“He walked down a dark alley, the rain was like mist and Cathy was stunning, silhouetted against the distant streetlight”
The rain actually looks more like cartoon rain, and Cathy looks a bit like the logo of an adult shop.

This is one of many problems with narration in comics, and underpins the reason that narration so often feels clumsy if you know what to look for. “Later that day” is just as easily expressed by a change in the art. “Misty rain” is better conveyed with atmospheric art. Even the inner thoughts of a character are something that skilful expressions and framing can do. Any artist worth their salt will be actively trying to communicate whatever it is that the narration has been introduced to convey, and the result is more echoes.

The Missing Beat

When the burden of storytelling in a comic is carried by the words, dissonant echoes are just the start of the problems. Consider the artist’s perspective when a script contains a speech bubble that takes a character through two or more emotions. Without artistic gymnastics, it’s only possible to depict one pose-per-character-per-panel. You can inset panels, you can divide them up, you can do this that and the other, but if the writing isn’t taking into account the difference in the way that images and language compress (see part 1), the art can only put a plaster on the problem.

This issue crops up in lots of other ways too… panels that ask for a facial expression from someone who has to be facing away from the reader, panels that ask for an action pose whilst the character is delivering a monologue, panels that describe a range of details that can’t possibly be in view at the same time, and so on.

The resulting artwork reinforces that sense of disconnection from the words, because it can only choose one of the many emotions, poses or actions that they describe. The reader is forced further and further away from the art in order to understand the characters and the plot.

“Oh, Cathy, I’ve been waiting to see you for so long, but wait… is that another man’s lipstick on your collar? How dare you!”
He said with a smile on his lips.

The Wrong Face

Another way in which this issue manifests itself is in a more direct difference between the words and the images, and it’s sometimes the artists’s fault and sometimes the writer’s. A facial expression won’t quite be right for a piece of emotional dialogue, or a panel will show one character opening their mouth but staying silent, and another closing their mouth but speaking passionately.

This can happen when an artist’s range of expressions and grasp of cartooning isn’t equal to the task at hand, but also happens when a writer tweaks dialogue after an artist has finished drawing! This kind of tweaking can work well, but in many instances it doesn’t, and is done without any consultation with the artist at all. Some artists seem to have become so irritated by this that they just draw everyone with closed mouths and a neutral expression, creating the disconcerting effect of watching a bunch of emotionless ventriloquists act out a scene from a dramatic play.

“Get the fuck out of my face, James, you’ve betrayed me for the last time”
She said through a vaugely sexy pout.

The Literary Reference

Another way that the role of words becomes inflated on comic pages is through literary reference. Stories packed full of genre tropes taken directly from films and books, writing packed full of philosophical concepts forced into dialogue, plots that echo popular pieces of fiction, narration which imitates the effect of written fairy tales or fables, or characters who can’t stop quoting “their” favourite authors. In a culture that values the merit of the written word (or even, grudgingly, the artistic value of a film), the inclusion of these influences lends a comic an air of “worthiness”. There’s nothing wrong with literary influences exactly, but they’re another mechanic by which the interest and “worth” inherent in a comic bleeds into the words and away from the images.

I frequently see creators saying things like “if you want your comics to really come alive, stop reading comics! Take your influences from elsewhere”. They’ve certainly got a point… in our culture at least, there are very few comics from which you can learn anything about what makes comics uniquely effective among other storytelling mediums. In my opinion, this has more to do with the fact that it’s such an under-explored and under-developed medium than because reading other things will help you to expand your horizons.

The Artless Plot

Any one of the issues I’ve discussed is enough to pull me out of the enjoyable experience of reading a comic, but the most extreme result of a beautiful script is that all of them happen at the same time. If that happens, I actually find it physically impossible to read a comic! Much to my dismay, this not only happens frequently, it happens in some of the most critically acclaimed comics ever written! I name no names for fear of being lynched before I’ve made my point, but if you use this article as a template for analysis, you’ll quickly find some examples.

It seems that most readers (even artists) will happily read a comic that contains all these dissonances (and more) without noticing a thing. I suspect that this is because their combined effect is to push the unwary reader into the world of words, skipping from bubble to bubble for an entire comic, lauding the carefully written dialogue reversals, the beautiful tone of the language, the thematically complex plot, occasionally stopping to say “wow” at an impressive vista, a complicated crowd scene, or a textless sequence – the art functions as beautiful handwriting for a beautiful script.

The Novel Adaptation

Hopefully that idea that I began with, “a good script, well illustrated is not the same thing as a good comic” will already make more sense, but I’m only half done! Publishers are responsible for filtering creative content as much as the creators themselves are, and if the quality in comics shines most often shines through the words, their behaviour will reflect that.

The industry is stuffed full of adaptations of pre-existing “literary” works, or just plain old popular novels, in the hope that some of their popularity will rub off. And indeed, it does! My first ever job was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and almost every creator I know personally has relied on adaptations for income at some point.

To complicate matters, when an adaptation is made, the first thing that happens is the commissioning of a script. If you’ve found a comic artist who understands their medium (the only kind you should be hiring if you want good results), changing one piece of writing into another piece of writing so that the artist can change it into a comic seems very odd to me… yet it happens all the time. The implication is that the hired script-writer understands plot structure and how to condense narrative better than the artist, which may be true in some cases, but it once again denies the artist true authorship, and divides the work of creating a comic into words followed only in the last instance by images.

The Celebrity Writer

Even worse is a situation that happens almost as frequently: a publisher calls in a famous writer (or not even famous in many cases) of novels to create an original comic! Even writers who have studied their craft for a lifetime make mistakes. I’m not going to dwell on what happens when someone who has only ever read comics (and those comics most likely ones in the “literary mode”) try their hand at writing a published comic!

Hopefully it should be enough to say that I was once shown a film-style script for a comic written by a novelist. I estimated it to be around 400-500 pages long, but when I suggested splitting it into 3 books, I was asked instead to squeeze it all into 144 pages, since it had been commissioned as a “single graphic novel”. It actually has been published and I daren’t read it! I pity the artist who ended up on the project.

The Film Analogy

For creators who avoid the issues I’ve discussed so far, another barrier rears its ugly head: the translation of film theory into comics theory.

This is a very common way of thinking, and has at least been partially adopted by every well-respected comics theorist I’ve ever read. It sees each panel of a comic in the same way you see a frame of a film, with speech bubbles replacing dialogue, although there’s as much more to it as there is to the body of thought on the creation of films!

This does get closer to the heart of what comics excel at, because it at least places the art at the centre of the theory. There can be whole pages of comic uncluttered by dialogue in the “filmic mode” and the art is allowed to carry the “narration” of the story. It seems on casual examination that this is the pinnacle of the craft, and because film is ubiquitous in our culture, it’s a language that’s familiar to a large number of people, readers included. However, it has its own limitations…

The Living Storyboard

There’s a good reason that many storyboard artists try their hands at comics, and many comic artists try their hands at storyboards: it’s easy to see each panel like a window into a scene, as if it were a camera lens. Spending a lifetime working on storyboards creates a discipline of sight and technique which is commonly shared by and looked up to by many of the best comic artists and writers from around the world.

The perspective is perfect, the ability to foreshorten the human figure is astounding, faces have a pleasingly photographic quality whilst remaining expressive and relatable, framing is impeccable and even the sense of lighting can be dramatic and filmic. If a beautiful script which gives the art some space gets drawn by a competent storyboard artist, the result seems phenomenal. It ticks all the boxes that most people are aware can be ticked.

A comic made in this “filmic mode” feels like a living storyboard, something akin to those cine-manga books that take movie screenshots and turn them into comic pages by cropping, arranging and lettering them. Even when the art isn’t heavily rendered or realistic, many artists work in this mode, never breaking out of their role as a replacement for a camera… and despite how pretty it looks, that’s a shame.

Once again, it only hints at what comics are capable of, because it co-opts language from the production process of a fundamentally different visual medium, leaving vast regions of storytelling potential unexplored.

The Perfect Panel

So, if an individual panel is perfect, and a comic is made up of perfect panels, how can it be lacking? A storyboard is a filmmaker’s tool. Its purpose is to frame shots and construct sequences ahead of time, and mark out changing camera angles for film crews to reference. The most significant beat in a storyboard is the one that indicates when a camera has to be moved.

The transition between two adjacent images is the language of a comic, but it’s not one of camera angles. The possibilities for a panel transition are endless – they can change abruptly, merge into one another, mirror one another, take place micro-seconds or light-years apart. They sit next to one another, and that is their beauty and their potential.

Comics live in the expressive, representative and symbolic nature of a drawing, in the comic page when treated as an interconnected piece of art, in the reader’s ability to “pause”, “rewind”, “rewatch” and linger on a moment at their hearts content. Comics thrive when each panel doesn’t just represent a mechanical shot-by-shot advancing of the plot, but a carefully considered and timed “beat” which enforces an emotion, underlines a joke or teases out a dramatic moment. Comics excel when the artist understands how to guide the reader’s eye around the page, when a layout does more than frame a sequence of images, when the story is expressed non-photographically and when the qualities of the artwork beam the characters’ emotional states right into the reader’s head before they read a word of dialogue.

In the decade or so since these thoughts started bubbling in my head, there seem to be more and more examples of both artists and writers working in this mode, which I’ll call full-on “comics mode”. It’s something that results from a creative process that acknowledges the primacy of image as a storytelling tool, and recognises the full range of methods that comics have to offer the storyteller. Good comics are so hard to create because their qualities are emergent, gestalt… more than the sum of their words and pictures. Teasing out that kind of quality requires close collaboration, deep mutual understanding between artist and writer, a shared vision or a single creator.

The Inadequate Artist

Just as a writer becomes capable of less when isolated creatively and culturally, so too does the artist.  Many artists I know don’t consider themselves storytellers even though they work on comics, and whilst there are many disciplines to creating a plot that art can’t teach you, I wonder why many comic artists feel that they can’t (or don’t need to) learn them? It’s a central part of their trade, and feeds into the quality of their work, yet so many artists I talk to are naturally subservient towards writers, and don’t rate their own ability to tell stories. I see one of two things happening when an artist has unconsciously absorbed the attitude that they’re a tool and not an author…

The first is that “bad” (in as much as it’s not writing that’s conscious of anything I’ve discussed in this article) writing becomes worse when coupled with an artist who can’t bring their own understanding of storytelling to the table.

The second is more tragic. Perfectly good visual storytellers end up as artists for writers who believe that they are “teaching the trade” to their co-creator. Usually, all they’re actually doing taking brilliant, but unrefined work and slowly sucking the narrative ingenuity and vibrancy out of the artist’s work by prescribing good draftmanship, photographic fidelity and perfect panels.

I’ve watched this happen to more than one artist/writer who seemed (at least from my perspective) to have been slowly beaten down by an industry that didn’t recognise or reward their skills, and more often than not, those creators are the ones who grew up deeply influenced by the manga boom of the 90s. This is something worth discussing because I’m sure many readers don’t associate manga with quality in comics – the opposite is more often true in fact! Because the vast majority of Japanese comic creators both “write” and draw their own comics, and comics are closer to being a mainstream medium in Japan, I find that far more manga operate in the “comics mode” than the “filmic mode”, and barely any operate in the “linguistic mode”. In fact, most of my understanding of the unique potential of comic storytelling comes from reading and analysing manga and manga-influenced comics, and many of these ideas come second-hand from Japan, even though that influence can still be a stigma.

However, working in the “comics mode” results in less text and less “literary quality” to grasp onto and praise. This usually results in such comics going unnoticed, but I’d go as far as saying that I’ve seen a specific lack of tolerance for creators working in what I’m calling the “comics mode” from critics and readers. These creators tend to be the ones with the most outlandish styles, the looser artwork, the heavier cartooning, the most experimental page layouts. The further that the art strays from depicting photographically accurate scenes in sequences of boxes, the less it tends to be valued, and the more noses get turned up, despite the fact that photographic qualities have very little to do with effectively portraying a story in comic form. Some of the best comic sequences I’ve read have been by artists with basic draftsmanship, and very little grasp of technical skills like perspective or advanced anatomy.

Thankfully, we’re slowly entering an era where there’s more technical understanding of the importance of good cartooning, symbolic visuals, panel flow, page-density, and the avoidance of the many visual/linguistic pitfalls I’ve discussed in this article, but understanding is still relatively new, and many of the people who push the form are young, and their work is a little unrefined. They aren’t the ones who set the broadest trends, or rake in the most cash, because they do so against resistance (often hostile) from people who are stuck in the linguistic and filmic paradigms our culture is so used to.

The Divided Mind

And so, a comic, a piece of storytelling that can be created perfectly effectively by one person, is split into two. A divided product consisting of “good writing” and “good art” that sit next to one another. Readers often read the words first and then go back to contemplate the images, reviewers often get through an entire review without mentioning the artist, and artists credits always come second. These articles by Keiron Gillen and Sarah McIntyre are both excellent explorations of this fallout from our linguistically obsessed society.

It would be easy to get the impression that this is a diatribe against writers, but it’s not. I know how many writers love the craft, respect artists and understand comics on a deep level. But it’s not writers I’m targeting, it’s the shared cultural values that comics creators all operate under. It’s the act of using words to orchestrate the creation of a visual medium, and the act of ascribing authorship to writers but not artists.

The evidence for this is plain when artists write for themselves or for other artists. Even when I write scripts for myself, I can see it happening, despite how guarded I am against it. I get more verbose, plot seeps into dialogue, visual descriptions get more about the sound of the description and less about what they describe. Words are powerful.

The Invisible Problem

The reason it has taken me so long to gather and articulate these thoughts is that at times they feel something like a delusion. Consensus usually has the final word on artistic merit, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “you just think that because you’re a specialist”. If only a percentage of creators, and a smaller percentage of readers can appreciate the “qualities” and “flaws” that I’ve talked about, what value do they have?

My answer is that you could have asked similar questions when the skill of writing was limited only to a small number of specialists, and that I believe that comics are constantly undergoing a transformation that is in the process of unlocking their unique potential. I think of the writers whose novels I love and their grasp of their medium alongside their grasp of storytelling is so intense that I’m left in awe. Even the very best comics only do that for me in glimpses, like a beam of sun through a bank of  clouds. I’m left wondering what a comic would be like if that light shone through the entire creation, and it both excites and frustrates me that I haven’t read that comic yet…


  1. Lots of brilliant thinking here, applause, applause! When I was working at the House of Tharg, I recall one person higher up the food chain who absolutely was comics illiterate. They’re never read in the medium growing up, and couldn’t follow the simplest of stories told in comics form. They suggested numbering each panel to make it clear what to read next, something we politely declined to do.

  2. Patrice Aggs says:

    This is wonderful. SO GLAD you are going to tell a roomful of writers about all this in September!!!

  3. Michael Cook says:

    Really interesting article(s) with lots to agree with and some not to.

    1) You make some great points about how we don’t use language well to describe how we read comics. But I think the same is true of writing. It doesn’t help an understanding of comics that we use the same word to mean ‘creating a story’ as we do to mean ‘typing the dialogue.’ I think some of what you’ve written here relegates the role of writer to someone who just fills in the word balloons. But a writer is responsible for choosing and shaping setting, genre, characters, events etc etc. You can be a long way into ‘writing’ a story before you’ve put pen to paper or finger to keypad – and, of course, breaking down a story sequence into pages and panels is as much about writing as crafting captions.

    2) “Cartooning” is exactly the right word to describe the perfect combination of words and pictures (story and pictures is probably closer to the truth). Anything else is just illustration. An artist like Dan Clowes is great because of how he controls pace, detail, focus, the rolling out of the story. The fact that he is a terrific draughtsman is a huge bonus, but his comics would still be great if he was drawing stick men.

  4. Bradley C says:

    Hi Paul,

    I’m very glad to see an article like this coming from an artist in the industry. The questions I have are:

    1. What resources would you suggest for the visually illiterate like me to get literate?

    2. What are some examples of the good comics? I’d love to see the comics you’re looking at for inspiration

    1. Paul Duffield says:

      Hi Bradely! :) Thanks for reading the article! Both those questions a pretty vital, and were both things I wanted to expand the article to cover, but didn’t end up with the time/scope to do so!

      #1) I’d say the first thing you could do would be just to buy a cheap sketchbook and a pencil and have fun drawing things and sketching ideas – it doesn’t matter how good you are at drawing or if your drawings make you embarrassed, just relax into using drawing as a way of communicating to yourself and others. If you want to develop your visual literacy further, I’d recommend three books: Drawing With The Right Side of the Brain, Understanding Comics, and Drawn to Life. Between those three, you’ll learn a HUGE amount about drawing and using drawing to tell stories.

      #2 is a little harder to answer – what sort of stories are you into reading/watching/hearing in your everyday life?

  5. Food for thought – thanks, though in this dense text it would be great to see some examples of the comics you refer to. I’ve often wondered (and I know I’m not alone here) if the words ‘comics’ and graphic novels’ are part of the problem. In France where visual literacy is actually covered in schools from ages 3 to 18 and where comics are a respected area of any school, library and bookshop, the term covering all comics, graphic novels and sometimes all picture books – bandes dessinées or most often these days BD -‘drawn strips’ – is more open ended…and simply states what they actually are.

    1. Paul Duffield says:

      Hi Bridget, thanks for reading and for the reply! I’ve got plans to do a follow-up article with some more visual examples (something I really wanted to include, but never found the time to pull together).
      I agree that the words themselves are part of the problem, but the lack of recognition and respect that they get as words is linked to the culture. Also, the lack of appropriate words without negative connotations to replace them with is pretty pronounced!

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