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The Fundamental Aspects of Comics

Reading Comics: How Comics Work and What They Mean.

The basis of the comics as a medium is its combination of words and pictures in sequence to tell stories; abstract forms representing realities that convey narratives. It usually features short conversations between characters. Unlike stand-alone pieces of art, comics are made up of sequences of pictures using the convention of a segmented frame, often focused on capturing an emotional response from readers. Messages carried by visual images have been part of the human experience since cave paintings. Comic theorist Scott McCloud traces as a reference for the history of comics, The Bayeux Tapestry which used text and images to narrate the Battle of Hastings in a series of episodes. This tapestry is a horizontal strip of embroidered linen representing the Norman conquest of England in a pictorial narrative and used a sequence of juxtaposed pictures (i e. a strip of pictures), usually contributing to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa (Heer & Worcester 2009, p. 26)

Figure 1. The Bayeux Tapestry, (1066 BC)

McCloud notes that comic artists have a range of representations to work with, which varies from the extremely realistic pictorial representations to detailed cartoons. McCloud uses realistic and iconic images and he notes that icons and symbols represent ideas and they can be viewed in different ways according to the reader’s interpretations. He suggests that the word’ icon’ means any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea. The icons we call pictures and these are images designed to actually resemble their subjects but as resemblance varies, so does the level of iconic content. In the non-pictorial icons, meaning is fixed and absolute.

Their appearance doesn’t affect their meaning because they represent invisible ideas. In cartoon pictures however, meaning is fluid and variable according to appearance; they differ from ‘real life’ appearance to varying degrees. We think photographs and realistic pictures mirror real life but in reality, they are less detailed and flat. On the other hand, pictorial cartoons have more adaptable meanings as they are focused on specific details, enabling an artist to enhance the meaning, in a way that realistic.(1993 p. 27-28)

How we express ourselves through body language doesn't break down quite as easily as facial expressions.

Face gestures express emotions from the face and head alone. They are used to describe looks, feelings or emphasize situations. They are also used to send or receive messages of trust, approval or dominance. An artist can represent visual reality by moving from simple representations to purely verbal symbols that McCloud calls ‘language’. By simply drawing two dots, a circle and a line, a cartoon icon could be created which would be understood by people of differing cultures and languages.

Figure 3. A Text Balloon (2012), page 98

A text balloon is a symbol attached to particular characters as a means of attributing dialogue. The use of storytelling devices such as captions and text balloons, can make the themes in a comic especially


Comics combined with narratives are there to enhance the image and add another opportunity to suggest meaning to the reader. (Barker 1989, p.11) In fact, we do not read the words but hear them. When we put the pictures in comic form there is an interaction between the picture and speech balloon, to produce a meaning of sound, we only ‘hear’ with our eyes. It is up to an artist to make readers see what they are supposed to see, by keeping the reader’s eye flowing through the comic.

The complex nature of this combination allows for much flexibility in the manipulation of meaning, but often in a context that is constrained within a small pace. The limited space in which the artist has to work, for example, may entice the creator to use stereotypes to convey information quickly. (Walker 1994 p. 9)

These characteristics have implications both for the representation and the interpretation of images and meaning. (McAllister, Sewell, Gordon, 2001, p.3) Images combine with text to enhance the image and add another opportunity to suggest real situations.

Eisner suggested that;

“In it is most economical state, comics employ a series of repetitive images and recognizable symbols. When these are used again to convey similar ideas, they become a language a literacy form if you will. And it is this discipline application that creates the ‘grammar’ of Sequential Art.” (Eisner 1985, p.8)

In Comics and Sequential Art (1993) Eisner describes the format of comic books. Eisner presents a montage of both words and images and the reader is thus required to exercise both visual an verbal interpretive skills so as to create meaning. (fig. 4)

Furthermore, McCloud argues that the cartoon, by virtue of its greater iconicity and abstraction, is something we are compelled to identify with. “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favour of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts…” McCloud explains, “Through traditional realism, the comics artist can portray the world without and through the cartoon, the world within” (p.41).

Comic artists have exploited this correlation between the realistic and the iconic in effective ways; main characters with whom one is to identify are often drawn more schematically on the other hand, other characters can be drawn in great detail. Also, when a setting is particularly important to the storyline, as in Tintin’s adventures, the background can be drawn in great detail, while the characters are drawn more simply to assist reader identification.

Tintin combines very iconic characters within unexpected realistic settings. Herge’s Linge Claire (Clear Line), carries an obvious ideological as well as stylistic burden: his comics not only parody racist stereotypes redolent of Tintin’s colonial ethos, but also reveal a fascination with blurring the distinction between organic and inorganic form for both children and adults. (Heer & Worcester 2009, p. 144-145)

There are so many elements to observe in each Tintin story, for example, Herge alternates between pictures with and without background imagery in which he shifts between highly detailed pictures and ones with lots of empty spaces. This technique is determined by a clear storytelling principle, he meets this challenge by creating fine drawings, yet in an effective way. In comics there’s a certain convention regarding action or movement: when characters move, they very often tend to move from left to right, of course following the direction in which many cultures/ethnicities read. Most of the Tintin-stories are read from left to right, but Tintin in Tibet uses a different route throughout the entire book, a lot of physical action is described, and everything follows the left to right rule but on the final page, this rule is broken.

Resources: Eisner, W. (1985), Comics and Sequential Art, (Florida: Poorhouse Press) McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding comics, (New York: Harper Perennial) Pustz, M. (1999) Comic Book Culture: fan boys and true believers, (USA: University Press of Mississippi

Moor, D & Dwyer F. (1994) Visual Literacy: A spectrum of Visual Learning, (New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications)

Farr, M. (2001) Tintin: The complete Companion, (London: John Murray ltd.)

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