These are the areas I’m primarily interested in developing as I make this graphic novel.
i) Defining and exploiting emotional, physical and intellectual responses to comic book storytelling, as opposed to pure prose storytelling.
ii) Exploring the primacy of text (verbal elements), or otherwise, in the comprehension of popular comics.
iii) Manipulating typography to exploit the blurred area between the visual and verbal qualities of lettering.
iv) The effect of writing directly onto the comic page in comics font, using text and image as appropriate, avoiding panel descriptions of any kind.
v) Accurately conveying human experience by depicting reality, memory and imagination interchangeably
i) I’m going to explore the relationship between prose writing and sequential storytelling. One aspect of particular interest is the unique way in which pure prose, and comics, can each convey emotion and information. In my experience prose feels different to information processed through image, stirring feelings in a subtly different way. Furthermore, there may well be specific types of emotional response which can only be elicited via pure prose, or via pure sequential fiction.
Generally, you can trigger the same emotion or reaction in a reader in various ways, irrespective of whether you’re expressing yourself through picture or word, or through the medium of comics or prose writing. In particular, it’s the small subset of emotional reaction unique to each form that I want to learn more about.
My evidence for all this is, at this stage, mostly anecdotal. It comes largely from noticing other people’s reactions and monitoring my own responses. As a simple example, when I do paintings they elicit in me certain feelings and emotions that I can’t replicate in prose. Maybe I’m not a good enough writer, but I feel there’s much more to it than that in that these emotions defy verbal categorisation. The specific nature of words is part of the problem. Words primarily trigger conscious thought which then triggers emotion. Whereas my emotional reaction to a painting seems much quicker, more visceral, more nebulous, bypassing conscious thought altogether and stirring feelings and moods I don’t always understand.
If this wasn’t the case, why would we need art at all?
Another anecdotal manifestation of this is that I don’t read comics before going to sleep. I can’t, they’re too stimulating. A good novel will nourish my mind, comfort me, but also send me to sleep like clockwork after fifteen or twenty minutes. It doesn’t matter if the imagery is violent or disturbing, something about the nature of well-chosen words flowing through my head makes me feel secure, centred, and content. There’s a kind of metronomic rhythm to reading that lulls me to sleep, when I’m tired. It feels like I only have ‘one channel’ open, processing verbal information transmitted from the page into my brain, in contrast to the multi-modal inputs that assail me throughout the day, or by reading comics. When I’m reading prose I’m concentrating on one thing only, a steady stream of ordered thought flowing through me as my eyes scan the page. It has a meditative quality.
In contrast a good comic feels like I’m processing several channels at once, in a less metronomic way, and it’ll often keep me awake for as long as I read it. Verbal description comes and goes; sound effects play a more prominent role; the levels of information transmitted through image, words, gutter and so on ebb and flow in unpredictable ways – and it all links together via a web of shifting meaning to form narrative. There’s something subtly different going on in my brain as I process a comic-book narrative – something more stimulating and complex than prose reading. I’d like to find out what’s really happening with more precision.
Once factor could simply be that decades of reading prose before sleeping has conditioned a ‘sleep response’ in me. Though I read comics growing up too, and noticed this phenomena from the age of about seven onwards. We shall see.
As I look into this more, I’ll no doubt find all kinds of research proving or disproving what I’m describing. If you know of any interesting work in this area, feel free to send it my way.
ii) This leads to considering the importance of text in comics. There’s an argument to be made that the comprehension of popular comics depends principally on word and sound. That may appear at first glance to be heretical, everyone knows comics is ‘a visual medium’. The marriage of word and image within panel and page is what makes comic book storytelling so powerful. If you read any of my comics, including The Hollow Man, you can see I fully understand how to utilize visuals in sequential storytelling, whether through purely visual storytelling or by exploiting the myriad resonances and juxtapositions of verbal and visual elements. But I’ve come to realise, through my own work and by doing research in this area, that the text element is more dominant than I’d supposed, especially in popular comics. How far this verbal dominance extends across the medium is something I’d like to define more precisely.
iv) In terms of process, a technique I’ve been playing with as I work out the art style for this graphic novel, is writing directly onto the page in comic’s font, and then drawing around that. No final panel descriptions. This flies against much contemporary wisdom, and I can see some editors and creators wringing their hands in horror, but it has a few advantages for me which I’d like to outline.
Firstly, it accentuates the importance of prose, dialogue and sound effects. I’ve always considered comics a very visual medium but experience has taught me that the prose element is more significant than I’d supposed, in terms of reader comprehension.
It also helps me plan with more exactitude the position and size of captions, balloons, panels and gutters. Thumbnails have a certain roughness to them that often need rethinking, which wastes time.
But the crux of the issue is this. When you write a script, you’re thinking about sequential art and how things should flow, and describing visual ideas in words. But there’s only so much that can be described in words, and some sequential techniques and emotions are purely visual. Describing images in words limits and changes the potential of the image, and therefore the comic book. Visuals which have been unencumbered by verbal description, or which defy verbal description, can evoke emotions which words alone cannot. Working directly onto the page with word and image circumvents this issue, and allows the potential of both word and image to be realised more fully.
With comic book scriptwriting you take an educated estimation, often after drawing rudimentary thumbnails, at how much storytelling will be done via images, and how much via words; how much space each element will take up, how many balloons, panels, and so on; and how it all interacts. If you’re a good writer, working with a good artist, this works well, and becomes a true collaboration, with both parties bringing elements which neither could create alone. But often it doesn’t work as well as it could: the storytelling becomes a little clumsy, in need of amendment, amendment which alters meaning. A lot of the possibilities go unrealised, a lot of potential goes unrealised.
If your creative process involves drawing, lettering, and writing simultaneously, the solutions you come up with are potentially more pure, fluid, and innovative.
To illustrate what I mean, consider the following analogy. It’s the difference between someone writing a script telling Lewis Hamilton how to drive a fast lap at Silverstone, and Lewis Hamilton driving the lap as he sees and feels it. The latter option is much quicker and more effective, cutting out a lot of unnecessarily specific prose description which can’t match how Hamilton feels and reacts ‘in the moment’.
The downside of this technique is that I’m not Lewis Hamilton. I may be more of a pedestrian Sunday driver, trundling along to little effect. I might create a page and then need to change it all later. If that happens too often, it will become counterproductive. I need to keep monitoring it.
This is not a process that’ll work for everyone. It helps that as a writer I spend a lot of time plotting the story in advance. I know the flow of scenes, character arcs, and what needs to happen in each scene before writing or drawing anything. I know what the dialogue is before I start. So creating the pages is more about how to portray the scene, in word and image, how to elicit the emotional responses I’m after, rather than defining what the scene is or where the story needs to go. Though of course if I have a better idea as I work, I can change things.
The magic of comics lies in how you tell the story, assuming the story is good. So before proceeding further I should check the story works, and gather feedback on that.
For the results, see my post on gathering script feedback.