American Thesis #2:

What are Comics?

It is easier to see how comics are related to their readers when the many different terms are understood. Defining comics is the first step. Several industry professionals offer their opinions of what the word “comics” means. Next, several terms of the genre will be explained to clarify future discussions of actual comic book pages. A new comprehension is gained with this knowledge that allows for close analysis of different works. After describing several aspects of the production process, including features like closure and timing, the reader sees how comics are set apart from any other media. Comic books have their own unique aesthetic which evolved over time to appeal more and more to their readers. Understanding the complexity of comic book creation gives a new insight to the reader, making it possible to further grasp ideas about how comics have changed from a form of entertainment regarded as trashy to a form of contemporary art and literature with which an audience can relate.

Fundamentally, comics are a hybrid of language and art; however, there is more to be understood about them to appreciate what they are and their importance. Scott McCloud’s informative graphic novel, Understanding Comics, does more than simply define what a comic is. It is an illustrated guidebook that gives a history and explanation of comic book development and production. In the beginning of the book, McCloud provides the reader with a standard definition of comics that reads, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and / or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer,” (McCloud, 9). Similarly, Art Spiegelman said during an interview in Time Magazine, “I spell it c-o-m-i-x, so you are not confused by the fact that comics have to be funny, as in comic. You think it is a co-mix of words and pictures,” (Bongco, 51). Stan Lee, of Marvel Comics fame, insists on referring to comic books as the combined “comicbooks” because he sees the two-worded version as describing a comical or funny book, whereas comicbooks has its own unique definition (51). Will Eisner, often called the Godfather of American comics, refers to comics as “sequential art” and created his own guidebook Comics and Sequential Art, which was an inspiration for McCloud’s book. After defining comic books, it is possible to discuss several terms from the genre.

Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. has a website that provides a basic glossary with definitions of technical comic book terms which describe several elements of a typical comic book page. A panel is defined as “the basic unit of storytelling in a comic book. Usually square or rectangular, panels frame the action of a comic book and graphic novel,”. Creators must choose carefully in deciding the order, placement, size, and context of each panel when creating their narrative. McCloud refers to the space in between the panels as the gutter, while others might talk about it as the border. Captions and word balloons are two of the most important narrative devices of a comic book story. Word balloons are “bubbles” filled with the words spoken or thought by a character in a story. Captions are text-filled boxes that serve to narrate the story. Many important terms are related to production. First, the penciler creates the basic art work by sketching it out with a pencil. Similar to the chiaroscuro shading technique where shading is added to an illustration to add dimension, the inker enhances the pencil work by adding depth and shadow using black ink. After that, the colorist adds colors and effects to the art; however, many comic books remain in black and white. Next, a letterer is in charge of placing and filling captions and balloons. Finally, an editor revises and might make several changes or additions as final touches to the work. In addition to the many different professions surrounding production, many terms describe variations of comic book stories. Story “arcs” are a single story or chain of events that can span several issues. Continuity is often described as being the timeline of a comic book story. In other words, it is everything that has happened in a story so far, and new events would affect a story’s continuity. Noting the differences between comic books, trade paperbacks, and graphic novels is also important. A graphic novel is a self-contained original story told in a single cardstock or hardcover bound installment. A comic book is typically serialized or could be a one-shot but is printed on regular paper. A trade paperback is a bound collection of previously published material. It can also be cardstock or hardcover. Understanding the vocabulary of a complex genre certainly makes it simpler to discuss; however, discussing the narrative structure of a typical comic allows for an appreciation of how comics are a unique form of entertainment.

As was mentioned before, comics are thought of as a hybrid of words and images. Milla Bongco, author of Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books, describes it more as a “text-image conflict.” The text and images in any comic interact in a wide variety of different combinations to produce an array of different effects and emotions for the viewer. Bongco writes, “The ingenuity of a comics’ artist lies in the manipulation of the contents and sequencing of panels in order to most effectively express their narratives,” (Bongco, 59). Creators must make very careful decisions about how they present the narrative to the reader. Writers and artists must decide what kind of view the reader will have of each scene in terms of a camera angle. They must also decide how close to the action they want the viewer to be as well as which actions to portray in each panel. A storyboard takes careful planning because of many different factors such as page space, view or angle, detail, panel placement, events or actions, and timing. Creators can also show an event through the use of a splash page. A splash page is when a page consists entirely of one panel, usually with heavy importance and portrayed in a very graphic manner. A splash page is often used as a way to show off an artist’s style at the same time as to highlight a significant point in the story. An aspect of comics that sets them apart from any other medium is timing or rhythm.

In the gutter between the panels, something extraordinary takes place. Readers do not realize it, but much of a comic’s narrative takes place in between the panels. This is what McCloud refers to as “closure.” In the image to the left, we see a man being chased by another man with an axe in the left panel. In the right panel, we see a night time view of a city with the word “EEYAA!!” meant to represent the blood curdling scream of the victim. However, the viewer does not see the actual event; he or she is lead to assume that the man was violently attacked through the signs that the artist gave. Anything can happen in the gutters between the panels. Timing and rhythm of comics does not refer to how long it takes to read a comic, it is more closely related to how the creator(s) direct the reader through the narrative. Timing is essential to the enjoyment of a graphic text. Bongco writes, “In comics, time is a function of space, and panels serve as divisions of time,” (80). One single 32-page issue can read like a full-length feature film, or a short sequence in a movie. Below, McCloud provides a diagram which explains the six different timing transitions. The first panel-to-panel transition is moment-to-moment, which can take place over a few seconds. The second is action-to-action, which is also usually quick but is focused on a single action. The third is subject-to-subject, which can take place within one scene. Next is scene-to-scene, which brings the reader across different settings. Fifth is aspect-to-aspect which brings the reader across different scenes, ideas, emotions, or aspects. Finally there is non-sequitur where panels do not share any kind of relationship (McCloud, 70-74). These different timing transitions serve as a creator’s story-telling tools. Surely the artist of these panels could have created a different storyboard with more panels that take place in between the left and right to give more detail of the event. Creators must decide which panels are necessary to create the optimum understanding of the narrative, as well as work that is aesthetically pleasing. They choose what they will put in the panel and what they should leave out for the reader’s closure. A reader’s understanding of the narrative is one of the biggest factors when making creative decisions.

There is a certain amount of intelligence required of a reader in order to thoroughly enjoy a comic or graphic novel. Creators rely on what Bongco refers to as a reader’s “visual literacy” which refers to a reader’s understanding of the narrative from the signs that the creators provide. Artists and writers create their work by “1) having to arrange speech balloons and their corresponding characters in reading order, 2) the inclusion of captions, 3) the need to change camera angle to vary perspective in a sequence, and 4) an artist’s preference or ability to draw close-up or wide angle scenes,” (63). A comic book reader can go at his or her own pace, taking the time to pause in between the panels and elaborate on the events taking place in the gutter. A person watching a movie can not take the time to ponder such events because he or she is immediately presented with the next scene. Much of the story of any comic is left for the viewer to interpret, similar to a novel, but with more visual indicators and less textual evidence. The interplay of text and image found in a comic book produce a healthy medium between the film and the novel. Much thought goes into producing a text that is perfectly timed to produce a coherent and entertaining narrative.

The comic book genre possesses its very own style of art that is immediately recognizable as a genre. The art in comic books is generally perceived to have simplified forms and anatomy. Comic book art in its beginnings all looked very similar in its simplicity, color, and overall styles. As comics evolved, the art became more detailed and colorful. Artists began perfecting their own unique styles, and fans began to appreciate certain artists with more appealing styles. Popular artists, or fan-favorites, are immediately recognized, and many times, comics are purchased because of a preferred artist or style. Stylistic choices of the artist as well as the writer can enhance the story through use of sound effects. Words that symbolize these sounds are often drawn into a panel in a manner that accurately represents the impact of the sound. As the art has evolved, creators have begun experimenting and finding new ways for images and text to interact. A cover of an issue might show the main character holding up the title of the book as a large heavy object, or a character might be crushed under the word “Argh!” The use of such onomatopoeias is often identified with comic books like the way that the word “Snikt!” is immediately associated with the unsheathing of Wolverine’s claws. This idea was displayed by the use of such words like “Kapow!” during fight scenes from the Batman television show of the 1960s starring Adam West. Typically, men in comic books are portrayed as robust, muscular, statuesque and highly idealized. Similarly, the women are depicted as sumptuous, curvaceous, big-breasted, flawless, and gorgeous, wearing very revealing and impossibly tight costumes. Comic art is characteristically infused with bright, elaborate colors and detailed penciling. Artists make it a point to display a wide array of camera angles to give the overall aesthetic of a book a good sense of visual variety. Immediately characteristic of the genre, this type of art is known as the comic book style.

With such a lavish glossary of terms as well as a very meticulous production process, comic books can be understood as a form of art created by many dedicated and talented contributors. Comic books have their very own complex genre with a complex definition, along with a list of terms that describe them. Knowing the vocabulary as well as understanding the different creative positions of comic book production gives the genre a sense of acknowledgement. Much of the effort and professionalism put forth by creators shows how comic books are far from the juvenile junk they are often thought to be. Comics require that the reader be perceptive enough to comprehend the story, emphasizing the intelligence associated with producing and enjoying them. The fact that the comic book genre has its own unique aesthetic is another way it is set apart as its own unique form of art. This entire section was a way to demonstrate the complexity of explaining, understanding and appreciating the medium. Readers might often see bits of themselves in a medium that has evolved over decades, where countless creators have devoted much of their talent. The evolution of comic books from a newsstand magazine into a popular culture phenomenon did not take place over night. Comics and graphic novels as they are known today began with the emergence of mainstream comics, and mainstream comics began with the birth of the superhero genre.

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