The Freedom of Comics

posted June 23, 2010 by Jer


Comics are harder to write than books. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Comics are easier to write wrong.

Books are natively linear. Latin text flows from left to right, top to bottom. English language prose very rarely deviates from this expected structure. The narratives written in English prose are structured parallel to the form - very linear. Time flows in books much the way we perceive it in life, moving consistently forward with the past presented in memory. There are, of course, many noteworthy deviations from this standard, but most often when the timeline is broken in good prose, it is still relatable to a traditional timeline.

Comics do not offer the same inherent structure. There are several established standards, but there is no MLA Handbook for writing a comic. There is no one set of rules, a "correct" way to structure sequential art. In the newspaper, we see both single panel cartoons (which Scott McCloud argues are not comics by definition) along side horizontal 3-4 panel strips. These horizontal strips do not necessarily need to be divided into panels, as often artists will use the whole space to illustrate a single panoramic moment. When Sunday comes, the format shifts again to allow a larger, full color space upon which tradition expects two rows of panels. However, over a century of American newspaper comics have inspired artists to produce a myriad of deviations in this space. Even within constraints and expectations, comics inevitably find ways to break the rules.

This inevitability challenges my original statement - these deviations are often successful, so how can they be labeled as "wrong" simply for not following the expected order? In fact, the very nature of sequential art is to push the boundaries of structure, so it could be argued that the structured comics are more "wrong" than the experimental comics. To clarify this, I will define a comic that is written "wrong" as a comic that fails to to communicate.

Let me take an example from my own work. When I was writing "The Elves of Iax," I enforced upon myself very strict rules about structure and craft. In retrospect, I realize these rules made the finished piece less successful. I tended to focus obsessively on certain details while neglecting others, creating some very odd visual moments. Despite this personal frustration, many people enjoyed the work as a whole, and got the (albeit incomplete) message I was attempting to articulate. The downside to this obsession with detail was that the process of completion became more and more work, until I simply gave up in frustration. When I started The Indies, I actually set for myself the opposite rules. I explicitly decided never to measure my panels or use a ruler to make straight lines. The outcome has been interesting: I'm much more satisfied with the finish work - flaws included - and I'm enjoying the artistic process much more. I'm having fun creating again, something I had lost with The Elves.

However, this relaxed process has created some very interesting flaws, which have lead to this very essay. Take for example, the second panel of this page. Rain questions Natalie's moment of clarity with the awkward phrase "What is?" This, in my imagination, was a sort of interpersonal grammatical slight that the two, as friends, were familiar with. Natalie then explains "I love hard work. I mean I really enjoy it. But what do I do for a living?" Written in prose here, the order of the dialogue is clear. On the page, however, I chose a very odd placement for the speech bubbles. Often when I re-read the page - despite having created it - my own eye follows Rain's question to Natalie's second word bubble, "I mean I really enjoy it." and only after the disjointed conversation do I realize I was intended to start with "I love hard work." This is an example of what I mean by a comic written "wrong."

This sort of error is a problem unique to the comic medium, the result of an art form resistant to structure. This is not, however, a bad thing. Though I feel the panel above to be an error, none of my readers have complained. I still enjoy making the comic and people still enjoy reading it - so an error does not equate to a failure. In fact, my experimental approach to speech bubble placement lead to a discovery I rather enjoy using. I've found that using the space of a panel to write long dialogue is a persistent challenge. One solution is to use the "tails" of the speech bubble (the arrow that connects the bubble with a character) to create a visual wall between one set of bubbles and the next. This is visually synonymous to using two columns of text in a magazine. Returning to the comic I mentioned above, look at the third panel and imagine that the tail attached to "...and it took a lot to get this job" was instead connected to "not like making comic books was." Suddenly, the eye isn't sure where to go from the first bubble on the page. Inversely, this same effect can be used deliberately for the sake of mood. In the last panel of this page, the chatter between Rain and Natalie has no intended order. I enjoy the fact that the reader might have to think a bit to decide what is said when, and that loose interpretation adds to the mood of the panel - a little bit frantic, yet playfully so between friends.

When I say that comics are easier to write wrong than books, I am equally suggesting that they have more freedom. Comics are the art form closest to pure imagination. They can be created with structure or present a complete non-sequitur. (A paradoxical example would be Wiley Miller's syndicated strip "Non Sequitur" who's individual strips are actually very well written and professionally structured - though the strips together rarely have any correlation to each other.) This freedom is what makes comics both the greatest and most misunderstood form of art our species is capable of.