I think the wall of text sequence does some interesting things with notions of foreground/background, especially as text usually functions independently of that division. I’m one who wants to inject narrative progression somewhere into the definition of comics, so I’m inclined to describe these wall of text pieces as a narrative of structure…
Thanks for the interesting comment.I was experimenting with the idea of not using word balloons and trying to use text in a different way in this comic.
I would be interested in hearing your definition of narrative progression? Did you see the Grant Buist’s piece in Pictozine II? That is a wall of text with an image within it.
Thanks also. I might have to think of another experiment with this idea.
comic panels have a temporal as well as spacial relationship, and most comics use that temporal relationship to create narrative. That’s the progression I mean.
If you’re interested in text and comics try and track down David Carrier: The Aesthetics of Comics. Been a while since I read it but if I recall correctly he discusses the problem the use of text caused in the history of painting as opposed to its use in early cartoons/comics.
I found an old draft of a summary/review I made on Carrier’s book which might be of interest:
“The Aesthetics of Comics”. Carrier, David Pennsylvania State University Press Pennsylvania Publication date March 31, 2000. pp139 Hardback US$ 29.95 Aesthetics and comics, words that don’t often share space in the same sentence, let alone the title of a serious academic book. For those of us trying to get over a vague feeling of guilt at taking the medium seriously this book offers a mixed bag. It contains serious consideration and discussion of the topic but I found that it left me with the vague feeling I’d just seen a friend being insulted.
In Chapter One Carrier looks at their origin in what he calls caricature but which might be better described as one panel cartoons. He briefly examines the origins of such cartoons then moves on to the work of Gary Larson, explaining the role of imagination in understanding the implicit successor to a single image. In his view cartoons rely on the audience’s ability to see the consequences in time of the events and actions displayed in a single image.
The speech balloon is the focus of the second chapter where he argues that they are a defining feature of the comic. They add what the person depicted is feeling (their internal states) in a direct way that painting is not able to achieve without somehow cheating. Painters in the old-master tradition are unable to make use of speech balloons because they are not “real” objects so disrupt any attempt at representation. Apart from the use of a title or the occasional piece of text slipped into pictures as documents, words were banished from the canvas.
Then in chapter three Carrier discusses how understanding an image sequence relies on the ability to imagine successive action (as for caricature), which allows the sequence to be read as linked in time. While Scott McCloud, writer of Understanding Comics, argues that our ability to form such links mean that any two images can form a sequence, Carrier feels that there are limits to how dissimilar the two images can be.
Carrier then links these two features together and points out the unique features of comics as apposed to other narrative mediums. In the novel the reader focuses on one word at a time, remembering events from the book in isolation. Reading is also a solitary activity; we are distracted when other people try to read over our shoulders.
With painting we can see the whole of the work at once, and always see the whole of it. Painting, as well as movies, is also a shared experience: there are other people with us at the time of viewing and they constitute part of the viewing experience. With movies the lack of other audience members may even disrupt our appreciation of a film.
If literature is the art of time and painting is the art of space, as Carrier argues, then comics combine the two. In comics the sequence drives the narrative so the reader doesn’t usually linger on individual panels, but can comprehend a page as a whole. McCloud pointed out that it is also easy in comics for the reader to go back and re-read particular sequences, the pages being easily identified.
In argument Carrier often seems to be jumping from topic to topic without fully developing the ideas. In the space of a few pages he points out that comic strips that appear in newspapers allow new readers to start following them at any point. On the other hand movies and novels require you to start at the start. Then he points out that in strips such as Krazy Kat the creators make us aware that each individual strip is a permutation on a theme, so individual strips are not a self sufficient objects. Then he brings up the ideas of allographic and autographic forms: with the former even the most exact duplication does not count as genuine, whereas with the latter the distinction between original and forgery is [in]significant. Then he moves off this idea without explaining to the reader where comics fall in this division.
Comics come about through the unity of words and pictures working together. They are not textual narratives with illustrations or pictures accompanied with texts. This unity is sometimes perceived as a deficit. Carrier outlines Frederic Wertham’s (author of “Seduction of the Innocent”) argument that such mixing hinders reading skills, and refers to Roger Fry’s objection to opera as so many things going on at once that the viewer can’t concentrate properly on them all.
In Chapter Four outlines the scale of comics. The edge of the page is the frame, a visual compliment to the image such as golden frames are to painting. Thus Carrier has produced a definition of comics: “They all use word balloons and narrative sequences to tell stories visually in book-sized formats2.
Chapter five provides an analysis of how comics function in regards to the role of the intentional fallacy where people place too much importance on the intentions of the creator of a work. Carrier argues that comics are a prime example of Roland Barthes “Death of the Author” theory which argues that readers are free to do what they wish with a text uninhibited by concerns regarding what the author had in mind. Carrier feels that this is supported by the common practice of comics being a group process: in some cases the work of a particular creator is taken on by other artists after their death. As such, Carrier claims comics are mass media that tell us about the nature of the audience; where as high art is “complicated”, “esoteric” and can’t be understood by merely looking.
Because he feels comics are so close at hand and easy to understand, Carrier argues in Chapter six that they tend to be ignored as a object of study. Comic criticism to Carrier’s mind is too simplistic and focuses on “this is like that art work, like this painter’s work” instead of an analysis of how comics function internally. He points out that readers can identify with characters in a comic easier than a figure in a painting (McCloud’s contention is that the iconic nature of representation in most comics allows us to project ourselves onto the figures shown because they aren’t portrayed as “real people”). He also comments that comic characters such as Batman, Charlie Brown and Krazy Kat don’t develop overtime or learn from their experiences, and that in fact the pleasure of strips such as Krazy Kat is in the repetition of themes and the characters actions.
In the concluding chapter Carrier suggests that comics are a posthistorical art. They arose out of the newspapers’ need to attract a newly literate mass market. The format was firmly established at that point. There are no deep ways in which present day speech balloons or image sequences differ in kind from those of the pioneering artists and no history of individual development in the form. While there have been introductions of original content and styles of storytelling in to the medium , the essential properties remain unchanged. So a history of comics must be reduced to a social history where as, and here Carrier name checks the Formalists as well as E. H. Gombrich for support, the history of European painting does not allow such a reduction. In the field of the fine arts modern works can’t be understood by earlier generations: Warhol’s Brillol boxes would baffle an artist from 16th Century, while modern comics could still be understood by the same 16th century artist even though the content might be surprising to them. Carrier doesn’t want comic creators to take offence at this; the possibilities for comics are endless and comic producers are just as creative as novelists in their focus on new subjects and original characters, though Carrier is diplomatic enough not to comment further on where exactly literature falls in his scheme of things.
So comics have no history. Carrier doesn’t let artists feel smug about this for long. He points out that the history of painting stopped, according to Arthur Danto, with readymades. Comics, in Carrier’s view, thus offer some quasi-spiritual opportunity for humans to come to terms with a lack of history. I’m sure this offers all the comic creators great consolation: now they know why no one takes them seriously.
Carrier certainly brings a wealth of knowledge to his examination of the comic medium, in fact he often overwhelms the reader with so many references, quotes and allusions that his argument drifts out of view, only to reappear suddenly with a “So we can see that..” resolution. This style often means that he leaves important features unexplained, such as how the speech balloon was so swiftly accepted as a convention in comics. How do readers figure out what a speech balloon means, how do they work out the difference between a speech balloon and a thought balloon? At only 120 pages there is certainly no reason he couldn’t have included such an enquiry, but then I guess as comics don’t have any history we are lucky he even gave them the number of pages they got. Thanks heaps David.