There’s the conventional text, rows of inky print on ivory.
Then there’s the audio book on one side and the graphic novel on the other. Audio books replace the visual aspect of reading with an aural one, whereas graphic novels introduce additional visual elements at the expense of words.
Occasionally, the internet debates whether consuming either of these counts as reading, so let me first state my opinion—it depends how you define reading, and in any dialogue I’m willing to be as liberal with the terminology as is needed so long as it’s consistent—and now let me move on.
It’s more interesting to consider how different means of storytelling combine our senses into a coherent experience. After all, we hear in time, but we see in space; to my mind this affects the chosen medium and the experience more so than most other aspects.
Let me explain why.
In storytelling, written words convey both sounds and pictures. You hear that gunshot, you see the victim sprawling. Of course, words can make you cringe or break out in goosebumps; they can make you laugh or teach you a lesson. Like any story.
But it’s also true that sounds—spoken words, music, noise—convey pictures (and words) and more.
Indeed, pictures—moving, stationary, on the page and off, fine art, doodles—convey sounds (and words) and more.
So audio, illustrated, and written mediums, whilst not interchangeable, lend credibility and imaginative capacity to each other like a set of connected siphoning chambers in the reader’s mind.
I’ve pondered this before, but Will Eisner’s book Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative led me to revisit the idea. Some of his advice applies to writing in general, but most of the book teases out aspects specific to comics.
In general, aside from having to employ simplified or symbolical imagery to convey certain tropes efficiently, comics deal with a unique set of problems:
- On every panel, the words jostle with the pictures for space—and I mean the physical length-by-width space on the page that is separated from other panels by gutters;
- Because of this jostling, the author and illustrator cannot completely control the order in which the visual and written elements are interpreted within a panel or page;
- The size and arrangement of panels and gutters on the page can be used to guide the reader through the story, to elicit excitement and anticipation (sequence of small panels of a punch in slow-mo) or a sense of sweeping grandeur (one wide, short landscape shot) or a sense of dropping off a cliff (one narrow, loooooong panel down the side of page—the comics equivalent of all those o’s in my long).
- Portraying the passage of time is crucial and is done by meshing panel content with panel size and arrangement. To paraphrase a question Eisner asks: how long a period of storytelling time can a single panel support before its plausibility is exhausted? The jumps in storytelling time affect how much actual time is spent on each panel.
In my taxonomy of storytelling mediums, time is the crucial classification factor. Unlike sounds, words, pictures that drip-drop into each other via the siphoning metaphor, time can be measured accurately. This Quote from Eisner’s book helps pinpoint the role of time.
Quote: A film watcher is imprisoned until the film ends while the comics reader is free to roam, to peek at at the ending, or dwell on an image and fantasize.
Think about it: film, music, theatre, and anything that contains an aural component cannot be sensibly enjoyed at variable rates. You’re not meant to fast-forward, pause, and in real-life performances you can’t. Moreover, the experience is, in scientific terms, of equal duration for everybody. (Of course we may debate the personal perception of time or the artistic concepts thereof, but here I mean take out your chronometers not your copies of T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding where The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree / Are of equal duration.)
On the other hand, literature, graphic storytelling, individual art pieces, and anything that is purely visual can—and is—sensibly enjoyed at speeds that vary over the course of the experience and from person to person, because, like Eisner says of comics, we are free to dwell and fantasize.
That’s how I came about the little mnemonic for my fundamental division between storytelling mediums: we hear in time, but we see in space.
If a medium relies on time to convey its content in the correct sequence, it is inelastic (to a degree, because if it contains a visual component the eye can still roam).
If a medium is purely visual it is elastic.
This is not to say that one kind of story experience is superior to another—and both ultimately rely on the definition of a story being a sequenced narrative—but it does illuminate a less-discussed aspect of any comparison between mediums. For example, consider a book and its film adaptation. The former can take between fifteen minutes and fifteen years to savour completely; the latter will take exactly 97 minutes and you’ll be home in time to take out the garbage and write a batch of emails before bed.
Comics rely on a successful resolution of many issues, some fun, some difficult, and some of potentially dubious ethics. Of the latter, perhaps the most germane to today’s society is stereotyping.
Shared visual and cultural experience of the author and the audience is far more crucial in comics than in purely written media.
Eisner gives a striking example: he draws two panels side by side, in which the same villain has the same damsel tied down to a table in the same squalid basement, but the door is being swept open by a different rescuer in each case.
In the first panel the rescuer looks like a beautifully coiffed blond Superman, in the second like a drooling, goggle-eyed humanoid version of Tolkien’s Gollum. The first panel is titled Romance, the second Humour. Comics rely on the readers recognising them as such.
The issue of course is that both rescuers are male, and the left has the traditional godlike proportions, while the right is the traditional “loser”. These may not be the paragons of romance and humour forever; tropes are slowly changing. We could have a romantic heroine like Wonder Woman coming to save the damsel (well done, Australia!), or we could have a nerdier version of Zuckerberg, or indeed a robot, or more popularly, a vampire, a zombie, or a Mr Grey with handcuffs dangling—and see all of those as romantic. But nowadays the author still has to work harder to convey the backdrop before the reader recognises such characters as heroic and desirable in a non-humorous way. A single unanchored panel is unlikely to strike the correct nuanced chord with a general Western audience (although it would in some cultures and subcultures).
Let’s talk again in a hundred years.
Other sources on comic books:
The crucial issue of time in comics, which got me thinking of time in other mediums, I first encountered in William Kuskin’s MOOC on Comic Books. Further insights on time—and so much more including what I call “jostling”—is explored by Scott McCloud in his brilliant book series on Understanding Comics.