Mark’s Remarks – Iron Man #224 (November 1987)

I’ve been talking about comics as a communications medium in my other two Mark’s Remarks columns this month; why should this one be any different? This time we’re going to discuss the uniqueness of the comics medium – what comics do a bit better than the two other media that are its cousins, prose and film.

While there are certain advantages that prose has over comics (for instance, a flexible amount of space to devote to abstract unvisual ideas), the major advantage I see that comics has over prose is the comics’ capacity for subtle visual subtext. What this means is a panel of comic art can contain information in its visual image, not elaborated upon in the accompanying prose text, that can add texture, irony, or commentary to a story. To accommodate these things in straight prose and not give them equal emphasis as the main text, it would be necessary to visually vary the typeface in some way, by putting the subtext in (parentheses), italic, boldface, CAPTIALS, or in*. Far greater subtlety can be accomplished by a good interplay between words and pictures than mere words alone. For example, one could plant a visual clue to, say, a murder’s identity, in a comics panel (without a captain saying “Hey, kids – look! A clue!”) in a very subtle way in plain sight, while to plant a similar clue in straight prose requires camouflaging it in words. I contend that one can achieve greater subtlety in a visual clue than a verbal one.

While there are certain advantages that film has over comics (for instance, sound and movement), there are three major advantages comics have over film. The first is the ability to simultaneously present multiple images for a “collage” effect on the viewer’s consciousness. No one can totally block out the adjacent panels to the panel one is reading while reading a comics page due to a phenomenon called peripheral vision. A gifted artist will take advantage of this and lead the reader’s eye from panel to panel, around the printed page, by his or her selection and arrangement of images. In film, the split-screen effect has been attempted (anyone remember “Woodstock”?) but it is done so infrequently that one can but conclude that filmmakers tend to think of it as a gimmick rather than a technique of legitimate storytelling. In comics, there’s nothing gimmicky about putting multiple images (panels) on a page; it is done all the time. The second major advantage comics has over film is that comics can totally control elapsed time. The duration between panels on a comics page can be split-seconds, minutes, years, or eons – whatever the creators want. In film, it again is possible to play with elapsed time, but using slow motion or speeding up the film, but again it looks artificial and gimmicky. In comics, it doesn’t look artificial because there’s no kinetic movement to the succession of images. The third major advantage comics has over film is that comics can control image area or shape. In film, the filmmaker is restricted by the dimensions of movie screen (or video screen these days) as to how large he or she can make an image. In comics, a creator can make the image area small (by putting, say, 12 panels on a page) or large (one panel on a page or even a double-page spread!), using size of said image area for dramatic effect. In film, it is possible to make the image area smaller than the entire screen (surrounding the shot by a think black frame of no-image) but again it becomes a trick shot whose artificiality calls attention to itself. Comics can also vary the image shape, creating square, horizontal or vertical rectangles, or even more fanciful shapes for the image to be framed in. Film is stuck with a horizontal rectangular image area. Comics’ advantage over film in these three areas listed above is that it can do all these things naturally, without looking clever or artsy.

Well, I’m eating into precious letters page space again, so I’ll wrap this up. Any comments about this month’s discussion of the media, address ‘em to me c/o Mark’s Ramarks.

–Mark Gruenwald

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*footnotes