A few days ago, esteemed cartoonist Rod McKie wrote a very flattering blog post about my 2006 graphic novel, Sortmund. He seemed to like the art a lot, but what makes the review more interesting to me is, he got the story perfectly right. That may sound like I’m dissing Rod’s literacy, but quite the contrary—you see, the book was only ever published in Danish, a language he does not speak or read.
I find that incredibly fascinating; that a book, which I have always thought of as rather dialogue-driven, narrates so well visually, too. Mind you, I’m not blowing my.own horn here, a lot of water has run under the bridge since I finished Sortmund, and I’ll be the first to point out its flaws.
Once again, it’s mostly to Rod’s credit that he got it. What follows is a rambling meditation on the comics form, which fell out of my head after reading his post:
You often hear the question from non-comics readers, “How do you read these things?” People don’t know if they’re supposed to read text or image first, where I suppose we trained readers take both in at a glance. So yes, Rod is not just a reader, he’s a professional drawer; he knows the language of comics, as his review also shows.
But everybody can read comics, it’s just a matter of the visual grammar used in the individual work that might pose an obstacle. There are different kinds of visual shorthand that make sense to readers accustomed to the genre, form, or even culture in which the comic is created—but may be incomprehensible to beginning comics readers.
Take the banner image at the top of this site, which is my own joke on those clouds of dust that follow people running in gag cartoons and strips (only in my drawing, the cartoon-me isn’t moving, so oh man, I just ruined the joke). It may originate in animated cartoons from the ’40s, where Tom & Jerry, et al would leave a cloud behind when they broke into a sprint.
Or, remember when DragonBall appeared in the West? Didn’t take anybody long to figure out what those instant nosebleeds meant, but I’m sure we all had a short, head-scratching moment before the shoe dropped. That. That’s how untrained readers feel about comics all the time.
Provided of course they only pick up manga, or superhero comics. Those things are like being thrown into Advanced Mechanics class when you just want to learn to drive a car. No, everybody can read comics, across language barriers. It’s mostly the idiomatic trappings that cut off new readers, or the required trivial knowledge of, say, Wolverine’s past as a mercenary in WWII. That was all the cape-bashing for this post, I promise.
Everybody can read comics, and most of us do on a daily basis. If not daily strips in the newspaper, then instructional infographics. They help us not going into the wrong toilet, finding the emergency exit, or using chopsticks in Asian restaurants, etc. Of course, polemics aside, what we think of as comics tend to be a tad more narrative, or even expressive, than the assembly of a Billy bookcase.
Instead of just using framing for clarity and focus, cartoonists use it in a narrative manner, to convey setting, ambience, mood, tension, or release. The same goes for layouts, pacing to time the page turn; light, shadow, colours. Those are the elements of grammar used by the comics creator.
And intuitively so—making comics, we play on the heartstrings of the reader no less than the Don Drapers of the world, or any other propagandist. The most important part of that is not letting them feel it when we play them. Or making them like it (and by “them” I mean “you,” but ignore that for now).
Even when you learn to recognise the techniques and slights of hand, a story well told suspends that cold rationality, because it is more interesting than the mechanisms that switch the backdrops and make the puppets move.
At their finest, comics are not the even balance of text and image that some people would claim; they are visual narratives, using text only for emphasis, or for elaboration. For those things that absolutely must, or cannot, be told, not shown. Most of the time, however, the words just fly out of the characters’ mouths in abundance, like the celebratory pomp of an Olympic opening ceremony (that was a pun on “balloons”. You’re welcome).
Circling back on our starting point: Aside from the fact that Rod works with visual storytelling for a living, I think the language “barrier” became a reason in itself for him to read the images more intently. I’ve had some great experiences personally, trying to wrench meaning from foreign-language comics. You become more inquisitive as a reader when you approach the work as a puzzle to be solved.
Rod speculates briefly on how his comics horizon might have expanded if he were not an English reader, or if he had learnt more languages and been able to read more works untranslated to his native tongue. I’m in the same situation by proxy, so to speak, teaching myself only english so I could read the US comics I was mostly interested in, in my pre-teens.
I’m not sure anymore if we should regret it so much. We share another language.