Reaching the parts other literature can't reach

Comics legend Jean Giraud AKA Moebius, 1938-2012
Comics legend Jean Giraud AKA Moebius, 1938-2012
Posted 8 November 2012 by Hannah Berry

I'm a comics practitioner. There's a certain expression that crosses people's faces which I've learnt to recognise quickly, so that I can respond with 'but comics are as good as prose' before they turn from me to talk to someone else. It comes naturally, like a kind of reflex. Like retching.


Fortunately, little by little, comics are creeping into national consciousness. I find I have to blurt clarifications into people's disapproving faces a lot less these days.


It's accepted that the comic format can and regularly does have the same depth as a prose novel. It can have the same level of subtlety, the same ingenuity, the same maturity, the same characterisation, the same passion, the same wit, the same poignancy; and though harsh words are muttered under the occasional breath and tensions are still high in places, the graphic novel at least is broadly accepted as an equal citizen in the literary world.


So now that that's settled, I'm going to twang the frayed cord of tense co-habitation: sometimes, comics are better than prose.


It's a bold statement, but these are bold times for the comic medium. As Nina Simone said: it's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life, and I'm feeling bold. (She did say that. You probably just heard the lyrics wrong.)


Clearly comics and prose are two very different modes of storytelling, and very rarely do you find a story that can be told in both formats with equal success. There are some aspects that don't translate well to the comic medium; extended amounts of dialogue, for example, are rather unwieldy. But there is one very important way in which comics have the ability to communicate more than prose:


Comics use pictures.


They genuinely do. If you happen to have one near to you, you can check this for yourself. And rather than simple words propped up by pictures, comics feature two languages - one written, one visual. The power of art and the power of words combined. The basis of comics is this interplay between the image and the words and narrative: a harmonious balance that creates a third meaning greater than the sum of its parts.

I've written before about visual language being universally recognisable - we can all read a picture, and give or take a few cultural differences we will all glean a very similar meaning from it. Of course, not all pictures have to be direct: they can be ambiguous, or reveal details very subtly, or they can give mixed signals entirely, leading to feelings of ambivalence. Some pictures make us work harder than others.


An argument I hear quite often is 'prose lets you use your imagination, but in comics you see a picture so you don't have to work so hard'. There's no denying that an integral part of the delight of reading is letting the words conjure up images in your own mind's eye, but to assume that the same delight doesn't exist in comics is short-sighted.


Consider this: you're reading a story, in prose form, about a man who lives on a space station. Having never been on an actual space station - I'm not sure what the ratio of astronauts to Earth-dwelling folk is within the readers of this blog, but I think I'm safe to say that - having never been on an actual space station, you take your descriptive cues from the author and imagine what one might look like. Perhaps your mental image will be made up of elements of space stations you've seen on the news, or at the science museum, or in films. Perhaps it'll be coloured by the era of science fiction you watched on television when you were younger, or by your own technological capabilities. So you imagine this scene, and the characters in the story will be inhabiting a place that is totally alien but also somehow familiar to you.


In a comic, the space station will be lovingly rendered by the artist; made up of an accumulated selection of the artists' experiences and understandings of space station imagery. And unless you are the artist's twin and have gone through every experience of their life with them, it won't look at all familiar to you. You won't know where that hatch leads, or what those buttons do, or what that little flashing light means. Most of all, you won't understand how the character functions here, or how he could possibly feel at home. So you find yourself piecing together the context; backtracking the character's attitude to imagine life in these corridors, to understand how he could feel at home; wondering where this chute leads or what damaged that panel over there and what the hell is that weird contraption on the floor? A good illustration raises more questions than it answers. While you don't have to imagine the immediate visuals you still find yourself wondering about that which you cannot see: the suggested world beyond the panels. It's human nature to do so. We're curious creatures.


In actual fact, this is neither conclusively better or worse, just different. It really depends on your own opinion. So how are comics better? What do the images bring to the table that prose goes hungry for?

Pictures have the ability to define those things that are without definition - those important moments between specific moments or those indescribable emotions for which we have no name. Those subtle parts that make up who we are that can't be adequately described with words. Or the pauses for thought that run through comics in rich seams.


Sometimes while reading a story you need a moment to reflect. Words are noisy things, demanding attention, and at times they get in the way. They trip your thought processes. They can be used to lull and to hypnotise, but when you want to step back and digest, you need to physically close the book to stop the words.


I don't mean to underplay the power of language or the joy of words, of course - I'm quite the logophile myself. I like to think I have a firm yet playful grasp of the Queen's. But words are so clearly defined and, as with all things so clearly defined, there are gaps. Choosing words can sometimes be a limiting endeavour.


There are also a myriad of subtleties that can creep into the storytelling unannounced. An illustration can bring something to our attention without us realising it, something insidious that affects our view of what we are reading but which we'd be hard pressed to ever recall having seen. Language has to be used in a deliberately obtuse manner to achieve the same effect, and can become cumbersome in the process.

But these are just my thoughts, and I don't want you to take my word for any of this. (Or even my picture for any of this.) This is frankly something that needs discussion, and it will have one. Book Trust and international comics festival Comica are teaming up to host a night of discussions, appropriately titled 'Comics: Reaching the Parts Other Literature Can't Reach'. There will be an embarrassing amount of talent present to throw their thoughts around, including Dave McKean, Simone Lia, Sarah McIntyre, Karrie Fransman, Glyn Dillon and Paul Gravett. And myself, of course - I'll be there, waving the flag. Come along, hear their thoughts on the matter and join in the discussion!

The revolution will be illustrated.


Comics: Reaching the Parts Other Literature Can't Reach will be held on Monday 19 November, 7pm, Free Word Centre, Farringdon. Entry is £6.


Alles Neu by Peter Fox

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