The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 61 | Storytelling 101: The Grammar of Comics

Leaving Proof 61 | Storytelling 101: The Grammar of Comics
Published on Friday, December 23, 2011 by

In the first chapter of his classic Comics and Sequential Art, the late comics legend Will Eisner proposed that the effective use of images and symbols in comics to convey events occurring across time is governed by a consistent grammar (in the specific, linguistic sense of the term). That is, similar to how our usage of natural language is subject to an acquired set of syntactical and morphological rules that describe what is a properly formulated and functional utterance, an acquired set of similar rules also exists that characterizes what is a correctly constructed and functional comic book panel.

To be sure, Eisner was not the first comics artist to expound on what he considered “good” visual storytelling technique, but he was the first person of note to point out the quasi-linguistic and quasi-graphemic features of comic book and comic strip sequential art and attempt to codify them in a systematic manner.

Detail from "The Story of Gerhard Shnobble" (05-11-48), as described by artist Will Eisner: "... the action in this panel can be diagrammed like a sentence. The predicates of the gun shooting and the wrestling belong to separate clauses. The subject of 'gun shooting' is the crook, and Gerhard is the direct object. The many modifiers include the adverb 'Bang, Bang' and the adjectives of visual language, such as posture, gesture, and grimace."

Detail from “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” (05-11-48), as described by artist Will Eisner: “… the action in this panel can be diagrammed like a sentence. The predicates of the gun shooting and the wrestling belong to separate clauses. The subject of ‘gun shooting’ is the crook, and Gerhard is the direct object. The many modifiers include the adverb ‘Bang, Bang’ and the adjectives of visual language, such as posture, gesture, and grimace.”

To make ourselves understood when we speak or write to another person, it’s not enough that we utter or jot down words in random order (“are monitor these computer reading on you a words”). We have to string the words together following a language-specific syntax to create a sensible phrase or sentence (“you are reading these words on a computer monitor”). Eisner argued that the illustrated and lettered elements within any well-formed comic book panel also follow a structural framework, a spatial syntax of visual storytelling, if you will, that in turn enables the events depicted in the comic book panel to be translated or glossed to and from a sensible phrase or sentence. It is an intriguing theory, with implications that extend beyond popular art and literature and into the areas of knowledge representation and related topics in the cognitive and computational sciences.

These unique grammatical rules of comics, Eisner averred, are implicitly and unconsciously derived by comics artists and readers from mapping their competencies in reading text and their knowledge of the physical world onto the events depicted in the comic book panel. For example, those of us who read material primarily in English (a language that is conventionally written horizontally from left-to-right) peruse English language comics with the expectation that sequential word balloons and comic book panels are ordered in the same left-to-right directionality. Comic book readers know from experience that the nearer of two same-sized objects will appear to be larger to the viewer or that viewing an object along its length at an angle will foreshorten its appearance, and that intuitively, these distorting effects should also be seen as appropriate in comic book illustrations. Most comic book readers can also readily interpret simple visual cues such as speed lines and other shorthand illustration techniques meant to suggest movement and momentum, and they anticipate the events of the next panel or page based on their real-world observations of the behavior of objects moving through space.

When these and other inherent “common sense” conventions are violated or subverted in comics, the likely result is a panel or a page that appears confusing to the reader, although the reader may not be conscious of where the confusion stems from. In the same way that a native speaker can often immediately sense that an ill-formed sentence uttered by a non-native language speaker “sounds wrong” without being able to articulate precisely why it is ungrammatical, even the naïve comics reader will often note that an ill-constructed comic book panel “looks wrong” or a poorly laid-out comic book page is awkward to read without knowing offhand what exactly the problem is. Even the veteran comics artist will sometimes have what could be largely considered as subliminal procedural knowledge of how to make a “grammatical” comic book panel without having explicit descriptive or propositional knowledge of what elements constitute “good” storytelling technique. As long-time DC and 2000 AD comics artist Brian Bolland remarked in Artists on Comic Art

I’ve always found this very difficult to explain, because to me storytelling is not some secret process you have to learn, it’s just what you do every time you draw a comic.

Discuss this article in the Column Forum or e-mail zuludelta (please put “Leaving Proof” in your e-mail’s subject line)
6 Responses
Advertisements

Connect With Us!
The Geeksverse on Instagram
Recent Comments