New Media Seminar Week Final!: Comics and Design

We ended this seminar with a reading from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics which was presented in…comic format.

Frames and Time

The topic was “Frames” or how we interpret the passing of time based on the sequence of panels. Perhaps the most interesting observation is that even most panels are still images, very are are actually single moments in time. McCloud points out that if there are 2 or more dialogue balloons in a panel, we have to infer a time/sequence that the characters would convey the dialogue. Other panels may also feature motion lines or other conventions to convey the passage of time in a single image. In other words, comics have to compress reality a bit in the images in order to push the narrative forward.

Design Question: How do we learn this?

I actually read the whole thing many years ago, and I recall thinking “Duh”. It’s not that McCloud is not accurate, but that these conventions are so well designed that comic readers tend to pick them up unconsciously just be reading them. In other words, there no comic book literacy lessons that readers have to learn beforehand. Most of understand that THWACK! is a sound effect, dialogue takes time and the difference between omniscient narration in boxes at the edges of the panels and character dialogue balloons.

Not even Twitter and Facebook are this easy.

How did this happen? Partly because comics do adapt from other conventions like text. For instance both Western comics (images & dialogue) and Western text are read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. In Japan though, manga comics might be published so that images and text are scanned right to left (they are reversed when they get translated to English).

What I think is more interesting are the new conventions that were introduced with minimal fuss. Illustrators drew in some lines to simulate motion, and readers generally got it. We also figured out dialogue balloons and that the line pointing to a character meant that the character is the speaker. More interestingly, these conventions have been translated across cultures into places like Japan, China and Brazil.

Are comic book artists tapping into hard-wired visual processing algorithms? Or is it just that they understand our cultural visual vocabulary so well? I think you can debate either side, but we can learn a lesson in adaptation here. Comic book illustrators, for the most part, have been able to develop a visual vocabulary that is easily learned. I’m sure there are lots of lessons here if we could expand on this study from creating better diagrams to understanding how to make new interfaces.

The S word – Semiotics

Another interesting point for me is that McCloud is delving into a lot of semiotic theory…without ever once using the word semiotics. He really does an excellent job of explaining the mechanics of delivering the narrative in comic form without ever getting too technical (it wasn’t just the images – it was the combination of images and pithy explanatory text that worked). One of the target audiences may be instructors, but it really does work for a comic book reader wanting to learn more about the craft.

This is a great example of making an esoteric topic accessible to general audiences. And that’s a skill we all wished were a little more common this semester.

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