Comics are read by everybody at some point. Whether we are children voraciously reading the latest four colour adventures of our favourite superhero, or adults laughing at 'Peanuts', the long-running classic by Charles M Shulz, we all accept comics as part of our everyday lives; but how many of us actually understand the medium?
The biggest misconception of comics is that they are aimed at children because of their simplistic nature. Comics, therefore, have no artistic or literary value. Such a thought could not be further from the truth.
This popular misconception is usually borne from a confusion between the popular genres of comics and the medium itself. Comics feature superheroes or furry talking animals; therefore, they are childish and beneath other forms of art or literature. The truth is that comics can be one of the most potent and direct mediums available.
What Are Comics?
Comics are the conveyance of information through a series of illustrations. One illustration does not a comic make, but once you have two or more, they work together to convey information in a variety of complex ways. Will Eisner, one of the greatest comic writer/artists of all, coined the phrase 'sequential art' as a more fitting title for the medium, the word comics having come into common usage because of the funny pages of newspapers early in the last century. In fact, sequential art has been around throughout history. Examples can be found on cave walls, Mayan temples and even on the Bayeux Tapestry1.
A sequence of illustrations causes a reader to make links between the information portrayed in each. For instance, a picture of a man pointing a gun at another man followed by another picture of the second man falling to the floor creates the assumption in the reader that the gun was fired. We don't see the gun being fired, but we know that it happened. This effect is called 'closure' and is one of the main tricks of human perception that gives comics their power. Through closure, even seemingly unrelated pictures can be linked to create a sequence of events, or elements of a theme.
The language of comics is also very complex and relies on a whole series of tricks of perception. What some people may perceive as simplistic art or cartoon styles actually is one of the most direct form of iconographic communication available. The progression of art throughout history towards a sense of realism denies an immediate sense of communication of ideas. People do not consider a highly realistic painting as having 'meaning', although they do gain a sense of meaning or message from a more abstract or less realistic rendition of art. This is because the process becomes more visible in the art. The choice by the artist of which lines to use in forming the picture, suggests interpretations to the audience. In comics this becomes very important. The many, many different styles of comic art are used to communicate different ideas, working with the reader's perceptions.
The other criticism of comics is that because there is little text, there is next to no literary value; but text is not even necessary to comics. More information is often conveyed through the sequential art and the trick of closure. The quality of text in comics should not be judged by the standards we have come to associate with prose. Prose has vastly different requirements of communication. A long, poetic description of a scene is unnecessary in comics as the same information can be conveyed in a variety of ways through illustrations. However, because the information is processed in a quicker, almost subconscious way, many people do not realise that there are very complex processes at work.
Comics are incredibly useful in teaching concepts to people because of this very fact. Everyone can process pictures, regardless of text, and the text is often easier to decipher when there is a context provided by the illustrative sequence. That is why some teachers encourage children to read comics to aid in their reading practice. Asterix is found in every school library for this very reason.
The moment that people realise that comics, or sequential art, is actually a valid medium with a lot to offer, we may be able to get away from the superhero and cartoon animal genres that dominate the medium at the moment. Some people, such as Alan Moore, are already writing award winning comic works that fully deserve a much wider literary audience.
For some examples of sequential art at its best read From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, an intriguing and well-researched dramatization of the possible events surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders; Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore; Sin City by Frank Miller, a series of noir-ish crime tales; and 300, again by Frank Miller, the history of the greatest Spartan victory.
For further information about the language and power of sequential art, read Scott McCloud's absolutely essential and fascinating book, Understanding Comics, from Kitchen Sink Press. You'll never look at a comic in the same way again.