Cultural phenomena that use visual and verbal means in the shaping of the factual or fictional narrative constitute our world republic of comics.  Across the globe, we see how these objects known as comic books function as blueprints (or designs) that guide how audiences in all parts of the world consume these visual-verbal narratives.  No matter the time or place, artists working with authors or single artist-author entities use all variety of verbal and visual shaping devices to create blueprints that invites audiences to co-create storyworlds—and with this, to make new their perspective, thoughts, and feelings about the world they inhabit.

The choice of line or layout or color or phrase or angle of vision, and much more guide global audiences in the way they imagine character, setting, and theme. Each element in the making of the comic guides audiences in what we might consider to be a co-creation of story. As readers turns right to left of a manga or jumps back from a splash page or scans a page layout, the marks on the page guide them in how they fill in the blanks; how they imagine external and internal movement—movement of body and mind—within what becomes fully imagined storyworlds in this co-creative process.

In this co-creative process one’s attention moves back and forth between the reading elements (verbal) and the drawn elements (visual) one makes sense of the story: perceiving, interpreting, and feeling.  That is, the visual and the verbal shaping devices used in the world republic of comics make for a design (and each in with its own distinctive blueprint) guides us in our sense-making (our thoughts and feelings) activities. However, they don’t determine absolutely where we go with our thoughts and feelings as we read and view the comic. They guide, but still leave room for our imagination to fill in gaps with our own individual and idiosyncratic experiences, memories, and emotions. In this co-creative process, then, the sky is the limit both in terms of the making and consuming of comics.

Creators of comics dedicate much of their day creating objects that establish an aesthetic that is located not in the comic book nor in the audience but in the relation that the narrative blueprint establishes between the object (comic) and subject (the audience).

In so doing, the creators draw and distill from and distill from then use the shaping devices of comics (and these are constantly growing) to reconstruct anew the reality we inhabit.  Recall, too, that this reality is not made up of, say, the chair that we use to sit on; comic book creators can and do distill products from the cultural and intellectual parts that make up reality, too: from literature, painting, film, photography, and all else. This could be a Frank Espinosa drawing from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with his creating of Rocketo or a Milton Caniff drawing from the “talkies” in his Steve Canyon series (1947-1988). In each instance, the author/artists strip down the chosen aspects of reality then rebuild using their own idiosyncratic use of the comic book shaping devices.

This distillation and reconstruction of reality in the comic book format takes place in time (history) and place (region). For instance, the social, economic, and political circumstances for a 21st century creator like Espinosa differ radically from that of Caniff. Likewise, the technological advances (from paper to printing machinery and color types) allow for a greater range of shaping devices used by an Espionsa and a Caniff; and, so too does the object that’s being recreated shift in time and place.  In terms of simple demographics, the way the US looks today with Latinos as the majority minority is not the same as it did just after WWII.  The globe proper doesn’t look the same. With the global capitalism increasing the gap between the few Haves and the many Have-Nots, many today risk decoupling from family and homelands in search of ways to survive.  Comic book creators around the world can and do choose to recreate this reality—and all other aspects of our material and cultural reality—in their distilling and reconstructing in the making of their visual-verbal shaped narratives.

There are several ways to get at the question: what is a comic? One would be to continue to pursue a line of thought that discusses how comics reconstruct in different historical periods and from different regions of the world the impact of socioeconomic forces (colonialism, imperialism, global capitalism, say).  Another, and would be to consider how comics as blueprints are built both to reconstruct this reality—and to potentially open audience eyes, thoughts, and feelings about the world we inhabit.  For the purposes of this piece, we are going to focus more on the latter.

If considered within the arts generally, comic book narrative (fictional or factual) is a relatively recent phenomenon. While we see incipient instantiations in earlier epochs (in the 18th century Hogarth and the 19th with Töpffer, for instance), it came into its own in the 20th century.  As a result, the field of its interpretation is likewise relatively new. Indeed, carrying the burden of it being identified as a juvenile narrative form or another sub-literature type, for much of twentieth century (especially in the US), we really don’t see a steady stream of scholarship on comic books till relatively recently. As Jared Gardner nicely sums up, “until extremely recently, there were few serious attempts to study comics, either formally or historically” (Projections 51).

Within this embryonic scholarly field, today we see several threads of thought giving it life.  Some that tend to analyze comics strictly from their capacity to represent, and in this capacity to overturn ideas about humans and the world we inhabit; these studies include analysis of issues that gravitate around topics of race, class, gender and sexuality. (See the work of Adilifu Nama and also Hillary Chute, for instance.) Other approaches seek to sleuth out how comics are built. Here, there are those who attend to the verbal shaping devices—and others the visual. (See the work of Mario Saraceni’s The Language of Comics and David Carrier’s The Aesthetics of Comics, for instance.)

Within the scholarship that focuses on the visual shaping devices, there are many further divisions and specifications. For instance, practitioner-theorist Scott McCloud considers the importance of sequentiality; that a panel alone even if it includes visual and verbal elements does not a comic make, but rather that it is the placement of panels in sequence. Like McCloud, Henry John Pratt places the emphasis on the sequencing of images on the page. That is, for Pratt it is the graphic arrangement of the sequencing—its tabular configuration—that is the fundamental unit of comics (“Making Comics into Film” 161). Likewise, Darren Hudson Hick it is the position of a given panel within the sequenced layout that creates meaning.  For Hick, “the inclusion of linguistic text in the comics form serves to complicate this system, but still operates in part as a meaning-bearing image” (140). He concludes, “comics sequence itself is typically broken down and organized on discrete pages, or else in strips, each of these serving as a visual unit, itself an irreducibly dense vehicle of meaning” (“The Language of Comics” 140).

While we consider that comics are unique in the way they can use both verbal and visual devices to give shape to their narratives, we consider the visual elements as slightly more significant. So where in alphabetic narratives the artistry comes in the way an author chooses words and syntax to complicate person and scene–the use Free Indirect Discourse to convey the character’s worldview as percolating through a third-person point of view, for instance—the narrative acrobatics in comics usually happens at the level of the visual.  That is to say, we consider comic books to be a specific assemblage of those building blocks taken from reality and turned into a geometry of story. Comic book creators reconstruct the building blocks of reality in their particularized assemblage of geometric forms. As Aldama argues elsewhere, creators that make up the world republic of comics use visual shaping devices to geometrize their story; they do so to energize elements of plot, theme, and character.  It is their choice of panel layout, line (thin or thick), color, perspective, object shape, balloon shape and placement, lettering, and gutter size and width, among others, that we consider to be the sine qua non in the making of narratives that move and to creating protagonists that pop.

Beginning in our infancy we grow perception systems that recognize depth, width, height. This allows us to give weight of objects in our everyday activities. As Stan Lee insightfully writes, “most things around you are based on three essential geometric shapes: the circle (or sphere), the square (or cube), and the cylinder. Even a human being!” (36). The growing of this everyday perceptual encounter with the world can be used when creators of comics draw 2D shapes in ways that seem to have 3D; whether a circle, rectangle, or even angle of perspective, they’re intuiting how their geometric shapes distill then recreate and give energy, weight and volume to all that make up reality: people, animals, places, and things. So an oval shape drawn straight on would not provide the foundation for creating a head with volume, but an oval drawn at a slight tilt would.

Other practitioners with a pedagogical inclination also emphasize the central importance of the visual in comics. For instance, Matt Madden and Jessica Abel articulate how comic book narrative art generally is “drawing words and writing pictures”. For Madden and Abel, it is the careful use of visuals in the creating of “page-wide compositions” that bring the story “to life” (85).  And, for Martin and Melissa Ellis for a given comic book to work, the creator “must understand character design, perspective, proportion, light and dark values, and, perhaps most importantly, how to tell a story in a sequence of images” (62).

And, I also think of the recent work by comic book theorists such as Karin Kukonnin, Pascal Lefèvre, Jared Gardner, and Thomas E. Wartenberg. They attend in particular to how the visual shaping devices work—all while understanding that in our gestaltic experience of comics, the visuals are ultimately inseparable from the verbal elements.

Whether one chooses to focus scholarly and pedagogical efforts on the visual or the verbal elements, in the end, we know that the comic book is created to create a gestaltic effect on the reader-viewer. It is impossible, as Wartenberg nicely sums up, “to specify the story-world created by the comic without making reference to both the text and the image” (“Wordy Pictures” 101).  And, while Kukonnin focuses on the visual shaping devices, in her final estimation, the comic book is a narrative format that uniquely slices “across the categorical distinctions between words and images and their functions” (37).

Pascal Lefèvre focuses our attention on shaping device of the word balloon. For  Lefèvre this allows the creator to combine the visual (line thickness and shape as well as font style, for instance) with the text (speech or thought) not possible in other storytelling formats. For Lefèvre, it is the visual sequencing, layout, and speech balloon placement that educate the reader in how to make sense of the narrative. Karin Kukonnin also focuses on the visual elements, especially those used to give spatio-temporal dimension to the narrative. Unlike the alphabetical storytelling arts, the visuals allow comic book creators to simultaneous represent time and place in one perceptual, attentional gestaltic moment. For Kukonin, it is the visual poetics that guide in a more than suggestive way how we are to perceive, think, feel—give meaning to the storyworld.  And, we see in the scholarship of Jared Gardner an even tighter focus on the visuals: the drawn line as the basic “diction and syntax” of comics (57). For Gardner, the line of the frame, the gutter, around dialogue and thought balloons, the and of the lettering create boundaries that other visuals push up against—and ask readers in our imaginations to push up against.  Moreover, it’s necessary and constant presence reminds constantly of presence of the author as “graphiateur” whereby the reader’s encounter with the line “compels a physical, bodily encounter with an imagined scene of embodied enunciation, one necessarily effaced in print” (66). As a visual shaping device, the line is the prime material used by artists. And, for Gardner, the infinitely idiosyncratic ways in which they use the line is what distinguishes one comic book artist’s style from another. It’s what distinguishes, say, Frank Giacoia’s smooth, thick lines lines from the ligne claire of Hergé.

Line work like all the other visual elements give shape to the story as well as convey its content.  They can be used to describe a landscape or a character in one gestaltic blow, but the way they are drawn gives particular stylistic shape to the landscape and character. The style of the visuals conveys the mood of a scene at the same time that they describe a character’s physiology, movement, and action (the willed intentional behavior of agents acting within the panels).

There are many visual elements one must attend to when identifying the way comic book creators give unique shape to fictional and nonfictional narratives around the world. Within each country’s comic book tradition, readers have come to identify how the visual grammar conveys by convention certain meaning. In mainstream European and US comics, the jagged lined balloon or panel suggests a shift in emotion or spatial-temporal mode, for instance. And, the way any given word or phrase is drawn (font style, size, thickness, and angle) can and does add to meaning, including even that of sound. In this sense, the visual language of comics springs from a universal grammar: fixed, 2-D images in sequence, inking, coloring, perspective whereby the visual is the dominant in the conveying of story. However, its expression is idiomatic. Much like Chomsky’s formulation of language, comics spring from a shared universal grammar, but each is realized differently depending on the soil that it is grown in. For instance, in Japanese manga there is the use of the gutter (what the French identify as the “intericonic space”) but they are typically much larger than in US or European comics; this and other conventions not only put certain constraints that lead to different creative results in manga but the gutter can also mean differently to its use on other national traditions. For instance, the widening of a horizontal gap in manga indicates a change of scene.

The visual devices used to geometrize the narrative are numerous. They help create the pace, tempo, and rhythm of the viewing experience. They guide our thoughts and feelings. They guide our meaning-making mechanisms. And while comic book creators use visual grammar conventions the world over, they are also constantly looking for new ways to enrich the experience we have when encountering comic book narratives. Finally, it is our sense that the visual devices in comics are the story as much as if not more than textual narrative is the story. The idiosyncratic way each of the creators that make up the world republic of comics uses the visuals (from line type to sparse or cluttered geometric shapes to intensity of distortion, to color and lettering) reflects their unique style and worldview. Finally, however, we consider the experience to be a visual-verbal gestalt that makes comic books unlike any other narrative format, whether it be film or literature or photography or painting. It is what makes it, in the words of Paul Gravett, “an autonomous art with particular systems and cultures” (Comics Art 9).

— Frederick Luis Aldama

Works Cited

  • Gravett, Paul. Comics Art. New Haven, Connecticut : Yale University Press, 2013.
  • Ellis, Mark and Melissa Martin Ellis. The Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media, 2008.
  • Gardner, Jared. “Storylines”. Substance 124, Vol. 40, 1 (2011): 53-69.
  • Lefèvre, Pascal. “Some Medium-Specific Qualities of Graphic Sequences” Substance #124, Vol. 40, no. 1, 2011: 14-33.
  • Madden, Matt and Jessica Abel. Mastering Comics: Drawing & Writing Pictures Continued. New York/London: First Second, 2012.
  • Meskin, Aaron and Roy T. Cook’s The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackewell, 2012.
  • Wartenberg, Thomas E.  “Wordy Pictures: Theorizing the Relationship between Image and Text in Comics”. In The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach. Wiley-Blackewell, 2012:  87-104.
  • Kukkonen, Karin. “Comics as a Test Case for Transmedial Narratology.” SubStance 40.1 (2011): 34-52.
  • Saraceni, Mario. The Language of Comics. LONDON and New York: Routledge,  2003.
  • Lee, Stan. How to Draw Comics. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2010.
  • Carrier, David. The Aesthetics of Comics. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2000.
  • Pratt, Henry John. “Making Comics into Film” in Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook’s The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackewell, 2012: 147-164.

Further Reading

  • Aldama, Frederick Luis. Latino Comic Book Storytelling: An Odyssey by Interview. San Diego State University Press, 2015.
  • Baetens, Jan. “Abstractions in Comics” Substance 40, 1 (2011): 94-113.
  • González, Christopher and Derek Parker Royal, eds. “The Worlds of the Hernandez Brothers.” Spec. issue of ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 7.1. (2013).