Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Language of Comics

John Kricfalusi has an important post on his blog today, called "What is a Cartoon?" May I recommend you read it both for its own sake and as a warm-up to considering my poser, "What is a Comic?"

The point I've been developing in my editorial posts is that comics are a story-telling medium that uses a language of short-cuts. Actually, a fair amount of my thinking on this is unpublished and waiting to drop out the blog chute, but John has forced me to move fast to exploit the segue-way between the topics.

Your mastery of this language, as a writer, artist or reader, is key to the success of a strip.

Regardless of whether your style looks highly detailed, like Spiderman, or streamlined like Beetle Bailey, it is still a short-cut from doing Realism. Genres may have their own conventions -- super heroes stand eight heads tall, not seven, like the rest of us -- but they all have more in common than they differ.

They all use frames, or implied frames, and dialogue balloons, or implied balloons. Successful ones create a believable world for their characters to move in. Detail in architecture and landscape is scaled to the rendering of the characters. Reference points like trees, cars and sofas help us calibrate how hard or soft the universe is, implying what sort of events are slapstick and what ones are fatal.

Many of us insert miscues into our strips while we are learning.  A relative over-abundance of detail, or cross-hatching, or shadows in one area can make everything else go out of balance. Simply jumping five font sizes for an exclamation can cause imbalance.

Comics authors have discovered a library of shortcuts that work. The floating light bulb to indicate a brainstorm is one.  Those of us who are still learning often work in clunky, "ungrammatical" effects that make the strip "read" poorly, and I'm not just referring to the words.

"Cartooniness" is a quality that can be ratcheted up and down. It's like an accent on the comic language. It's an indicator of how much the rules of reality apply, as well as a measure of how merry is the whole affair.

Please remember as you read that I'm learning too. My wife handles the art for our strip, Scratchin Post. But I want to hand her story boards that are as well written in the comic language as I can make them. She is the first focus group for whether the action and the words work together to make fluent comic-ese.

I'll stop, and leave time for you to read John's post. We'll talk more about the language of comics.