Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Book (obscenely condensed version) Because who am I to ignore interested lurkers? What follows is the section on comics and rhetoric I wrote for The Student Guide to Writing at UCI. The book I'm co-authoring this summer is a vastly expanded version of the same (only with panels from actual comics instead of examples drawn from my none-too-fertile imagination). The basic unit of analysis when dealing with a comic is the panel. The visual elements of a panel can be described using the same vocabulary used to describe a frame from a film: background and foreground, diegesis, high or low key lighting, etc. Pointing to the similarities between film and comics highlights what makes comics unique as a medium: the interaction of these visual components with the written word. The word-picture relation can word specific, in which the words convey the meaning and the images merely illustrate it, as in a children's book; duo specific, in which the words and images both convey the same meaning, as when a picture of an irate man yelling is accompanied by a caption box that tells you the irate man is yelling; and interdependent, in which the words and images combine to convey a meaning neither is capable of conveying alone. Most of the comics you will read in this course will rely heavily on interdependent word-picture combinations. Comics are also unique in the manner in which they relate to time. No matter how the words in the panel interact with the visuals, there is a tension between the static image and the words in the caption box. Picture a panel that depicts a medium close-up of a young man in a bright orange shirt. A caption box extrudes from his open mouth and occupies the space above his left shoulder. The text inside it reads: "The bride? You wanna know about . . . the thing it is that happened to her? Because sure, I can tell you, but . . ." All these words didn't spill from his mouth in the open-mouthed moment depicted in the panel. The words propel the narrative forward in time in such a way that we cannot be sure which word the panel depicts the man enunciating. (It may not even be a word: the panel could be depicting the pause indicated by the ellipses.) This tension between static image and narrative progress exists not only in panels but between them. The empty area between panels is the gutter, and it is where the reader is called upon to become an active participant in the creation of the text. Unlike a film, in which the twenty-three imperceptible gaps between the twenty-four frames flashed per second create the illusion of movement, the gutter produces breaks in the narrative that require interpretation to repair. If the panel following the one of the man in the bright orange shirt is a medium-long shot of a different, shabbily-dressed man in a prison garden holding an open stenographer's notebook and saying, "Yes, I want to...

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