Apropos comics, a conversation with Dave Crane

Ever so often I have interesting conversations on twitter – more often than not about comics – that I want to preserve here in their entirety. I’ve tried different formatting in the past, but to avoid the screenplay look in this exchange with improvisational cartoonist Dave Crane, I have edited the tweets down to paragraph text with links to the source marked by hashes (#). as all noteworthy conversations on twitter, this one begins with one party sharing a snarky image:


Allan Haverholm: oh man, I missed this by watching only the documentary channel all night :-( :-( :-( #


Dave Crane: The essence of comics is combining words and pictures in a way that generates friction. (Also — hee! hee!) https://t.co/gpxGVKfj2Q #

AH: Oh no, don’t involve me in hybrid theory! Comics are a visual form, words are only accessories 😛 #

DC: Yeah, but even when there are no words, the lack of words adds to the meaning 😛 (same goes for pictures too) #

AH: Nnnot really. That’s like saying instrumental music “lacks” singing. Or that movies pre-Avatar lacks 3D… #

DC: I don’t buy the avatar/3D argument, that was a tech-driven gimmick. But the music analogy raises an interesting point. #  My thinking was comic readers will typically expect words (90-odd% of comics have them), so choosing not to is deliberate choice # …but music, hmm — traditionally, that’s been more like 50:50, so my argument run aground a bit there. # I’ll have to have a think about that one… # Oh, and yeah, I know there’s a truck-sized gap in any argument based on cultural norms — which we’re all free to ignore :) #

AH: Oh, no need to think about it. I’m right :-) # Correction for cockiness: It’s the basis for my work and thinking re: comics, and I’m pretty sure it’s accurate… #

DC: Yep, you are on an entirely valid path, placing the visual elements as central (not that it’s my call whether it’s “valid”) # …and not alone. Lorenzo Mattotti says he “illustrates” the pictures with his words, for example (similar-but-diff emphasis on visuals). #
AH: I think Mattotti is spot on. Images and text both have shortcomings and may supplement each other. #

DC: But there are other approaches too, that take a different emphasis. Nothing inherent in the medium that puts visuals first. # The obvious counter-example is words, but this discussion makes me wonder if there are others e.g. rhythm: # If an abstract sequence is based on, say, rhythm (e.g. alternation between black & white panels, or alternation in shape), # then is that the “visual” element predominating, or a temporal one? (I don’t know the answer to this, btw). # Such an exercise would be limited in appeal to the scholars/wonks like us who do this sort of thing, but that sort of exercise # could also inform more “mainstream” storytelling (i.e. stuff with narrative) — in addition to being complete in its own right # PS: I totally dug your “cocky” reply 😛 :) #

AH: But the matter of dominance: yes, comics have historically mostly included text. That doesn’t make the words essential, though # It’s just evidence of the direction taken by early comickers and later generations following their lead. # If we imagine early comics had also allowed simultaneity and non-linear juxtaposition, the image/text balance might differ. #

DC: Agreed. We operate in a cultural context, and can choose to step outside it (and comics’ context is darn weird!). # McCloud’s good ol’ book has that section w histograms, and structural differences between manga and Euro-US tradition #obviousexample #

AH: Because early-1900s comics could have been employed as a modernist art tool. The cubists would have loved it. # In my work and teaching I’ve tried to dismantle comics and throw away non-essential parts. Words went rather early… #
DC: That too is an aesthetic choice: do we throw away non-essential or elaborate it (e.g. rococo architecture)? #
AH: Of course, but for the sake of analysis we cut off parts of the patient to see how long he survives without them :-) # If you look at comics as a form rather than genre or medium, it becomes clear that words are absolutely non-essential. # That doesn’t discredit genre work or the works of comics writers. I’m just pointing out a larger territory to explore. #

DC: it’s definitely not a genre. But distinction between form and medium is new to me: thanks. #
AH: Print or Web are media; comics or literature are forms (of art or communication, take your pick). #

The text/linear narrative (+ humour/adventure) aspects af early comics were dictated by the requirement that they entertain. # So if we don’t need text, do we need the linear narrative? If that goes, the space=time convention in comics is meaningless. # But there are still formal elements of comics that hold water without the time/space illusion/sleight of hand — like montage. # (I rant about that here) # Think Kuleshov/Eisenstein montage, pulled out of a cinematic context and into a graphical juxtaposition. # Basically McCloud’s closure concept, with the (optional) temporal aspect peeled away. So we arrive at your rhythm example 😉 # In music and cinema, rhythm is temporal. yet in architecture and pictorial arts it’s considered visual/spatial. # (rhythm is both auditive and visual in cinema of course, oops!) #

And here the line went dead. Dave and I had carried out our discourse over the evening of one weekday and the morning of the next — menial (and paid) work called for our attention and left the thread hanging. Perhaps to be picked back up in the comments section below?

Here’s another thought about strategic, spatial arrangement of images


In the sequence above, Crepax utilizes the comics storyteller’s most reliable tool, the grid,  but subverts it with an understated grace as potent as that of his pen strokes.  As they’re most often laid out, grids work the same way as lines of prose text, moving across the page in straight tiers that read right to left before resuming below to lead the eye along the same path once more.  It’s an effective, reliable tool for putting across information with comics — it’s easy to follow, and it also places readers, consciously or not, into something of the same headspace as reading prose (which bypasses visual impact and goes straight to the mind) does.  Crepax, however, eschews the lockstep, straight-lined march of panel tiers in his grid, instead jumbling the frames together into lazy stretches and sudden bursts.  There may or may not be a “correct” order to read this sequence in — is it across the page four times? or around it in a backwards “C” shape? or some spiralling combination of the two? — but what matters is that there isn’t an immediately apparent one, that the eye is drawn to examine the page on a visual level, to move around inside it and be affected, before it can read anything.

– Matt Seneca, many moons ago on Robot6

This is a good example of classic, sort-of-conventional comics utilizing non-/multi-linear qualities like I put forth in my attempted, formal definition last year (and I swear, I’ll stop banging my drum about that post and write something new soon!). Although there is certainly a progression in time from the top left image to the bottom right one, the order of the smaller, mid-sequence images is less obvious and can be read as discrete montage groups (or compunds). With the spatial strategy of slight grid misalignments between panels, Crepax disrupts the linear reading in favour of a simultaneous one and mirrors the emotion of the images with a haze of jump-cut close-ups filling the space between the first and last panels.

Seneca has many good points in his post beside the excerpt above, and I recommend taking the time to read them!

Here’s a thought about comics and context

Too often, people approach Jack [Kirby] as an illustrator and liken his individual pages and panels to works of art meant to be complete in themselves. Jack was an illustrator and yet again, he wasn’t. To get the “big picture” (to use a term he used often), you have to view him as a storyteller if not a writer.

That was the only way Jack viewed his work: Not whether he’d done a good drawing but whether he’d done the right drawing. To him, if it conveyed what he wanted the panel to convey, it was a good drawing. When I spoke at the wonderful, recent exhibit of Jack’s work out at Cal State Northridge, I tried to make the point that to fully appreciate and comprehend his work, you have to consider the art in the context of its intention.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t hang Jack in galleries and discuss him in the same breath as guys who unquestionably belong there. It just means that in addition to looking at panels or pages, you ought to read the comic.

— Mark Evanier, in Kirby, konsidered

This addresses perfectly the role of single comics panels in relation to the page — and the larger context of the work — as a critical puzzle piece rather than an individual work of capital-a Art.

Take image composition; I’ve been trying to formulate a post on the way surrounding panels and placement on the page affect the construction of each panel in a comic. I think there are different rules at play in composing a comics panel than any old photo or painting, and this way of looking at comics as a whole is key to that.

On writing in comics: errata

And then everybody with an opinion or less weighs in about the essence of comics. Excellent.

— me, on twitter just now

That was on a sudden discussion about writers and artists in comics, who does who, whose is larger, and which part of the storytelling is more important. That’s a rather simplistic approach of course, but I still managed to get involved in a debate about the semantics of “writing” in comics.

If a wordless comic is made by a single creator like the above by Henning Dahl Mikkelsen, is it per definition written? What if that artist’s work process includes no verbal stage directions or other text at all? In my view, it isn’t written, though it does tell a story. One could be even more pedantic and say it shows or demonstrates a story, as in the adage “show, don’t tell”.

Writing is a subset of narrative, but it’s absurd to say that all storytelling is writing. Ostriches are birds, but not all birds are ostriches. The major, outset bias of the discussion, however, lies with a specific perception of comics — that the art form is defined as storytelling, specifically linear narrative. The below “visual poem/abstract comic” by Rosaire Appel was posted to the Abstract Comics blog, and brilliantly discards that notion:

While I stand by my arguments in today’s discussion, I regret not taking a broader position on (and beyond) the subject. While some comics are certainly written, and others are shown, not told, still others are put forward in kits to be assembled (eg. Chris Ware’s Building Stories), or deliberately non-narrative conceptual pieces, like my own When the last story is told.

So instead of discussing whether writing or image is more important in comics, I should have asked why more comics aren’t built, or walked, or sculpted, or performed. Writing is fine in its own right, but it’s only one lens through which to view comics as an art form of many uncharted potentials.

Here’s a thought about neglected structural aspects


Of course, video games, like movies, are an amalgam of many different media. Some lean on the time-based pleasures of narrative while others resemble the spatially-oriented work found in galleries and museums, visual and plastic arts that bend and shape the space surrounding them. But in the ongoing argument that would claim video games as an authentic, legitimate art form, the medium’s narrative aspects have been overemphasized while its structural aspects go neglected.

—Adam Fleming Petty, in The Spatial Poetics of Nintendo

The last sentence here reflects pretty well my feelings in regards to comics research and analysis.

Here’s a thought about comics grids invoking rhythm


I was asked why I always stuck to that nine panel grid in From hell and Alec and I said it was all about the patterns, and I referred to the game of noughts and crosses, or whatever you call it in your part of the world […] And how this opens up all the directions, all simultaneously. You can’t have patterns with 2. That’s just coincidence. You need to be working in 3.

– Eddie Campbell, in a blog post dated 8 September 2011

Here’s a thought about strategic, spatial arrangement of images


In a gallery, sequence and character are unmoored from an explicit narrative, but that doesn’t make an application of McCloud’s or any other theorists’ ideas invalid. In any case, I predict that our narrative facility is still engaged without it, and I’d argue that much recent, brilliant work in comics allows its gutters, sequence, and associative qualities to thwart clear storytelling.

– Kailyn Kent, in Gallery Cartoonists on Hooded Utilitarian

The article is 3½ years old, but I post the link here in support of my tongue in cheek inclusion of gallery hangings in a comics definition :)

A working definition of comics

A strategic, spatial assembly of separate images

There you go. I’m picking up on my comics studies reading, currently a good way into Nick Sousani’s Unflattening, and as usual when somebody delineates comics I wince just a little and go “Yeah, except…” – so I foolhardily hacked out the short description above. Just a quick note to say that I’m wholly enjoying Sousani’s book, it was just an unfortunate springboard for me to finally write this.

This is not to say that my version above is more “right” than others, but it’s probably more open to different modes of comics making; based on my own experience experimenting with the form (not genre or medium), and may also unveil some new perspectives for comics studies*.

If we dissect the contents and deliberate omissions of my description, we can start with the choice of “assembly” rather than “juxtaposition”, which is an attempt to dodge any notion that the images must be made by the comics maker. Obviously, this is based on my recent collage work methods where I have worked from a base of found materials. Also, there’s enough mixing up between comics making and the act of drawing already, let’s keep that hornet’s nest out of this equation.
I call it a “spatial assembly” to avoid the hoary comparison to film, as well as embracing both sequence and the segmentivity approach to comics analysis (and reading!). That’s why it’s also a “strategic” assembly because that hopefully covers any execution of intent on the maker’s part, whether the message conveyed is linear narrative, poetic or other. I chose “strategic” over “deliberate” to not only emphasise intention but also the considerations involved in the arrangement of panels. Going with “strategy” you may imagine the maker at their worktable in an admiral’s uniform, brooding over whether the next day’s battle should be in the form of a full page spread, or several smaller panels scattered across the page.

The “images” part, then. In When the last story is told, I have a few panels that are just one solid colour, so we’re talking the very basic level of images. You might say “visual information”, or “visual content”, but a) those sound unnecessarily technical for what is meant to be a short, even glib term, and b) once we open for visual information, writing is right outside the door.
There’s the major point of divergence from other definitions of comics: I don’t buy the bit about comics being a hybrid or compound form of text and images. True, most comics integrate the two, but what people forget or overlook is that like music, comics work perfectly well without words. There are surely things you can only tell, not show, or which are less complicated to say than to illustrate, so you write them – or, perhaps, leave them out because you’re making a comic, not a frigging essay. In any case, the assumption that most comics use text, so by default comics must use text, is a logical fallacy. Comics aren’t by definition hybrid, so I’m leaving it out of the definition (without being blind to the obvious).

What I said about putting it short to the point of glibness? At least I may have succeeded with one of those… I hope readers have winced “Yeah, except…” repeatedly during this transmissions. Please post your objections, corrections,  and demands for satisfaction in the comments.

* Or at least new to me, I claim only a limited perspective of that field.