Blood in the margins

Previously I wrote glowingly on Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. While I gushed how thoroughly McCloud dissects the language of comics, I didn’t spend much time (if any) on how Understanding Comics has affected me as a fiction writer.

Rather than expand my review to, oh, 10,000 words or so, I’ve broken up lessons I’ve drawn from Understanding Comics into separate posts. Most of these posts will deal with narrative structure in fiction, so they might be viewed as a supplement to the series I’ve been developing on fiction treatments and outlines.

Gutters & paragraphs

I write fiction: novels, short stories, the occasional novella. My chosen art form is pure text: letters to words, words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters.

Scott McCloud’s chosen art form synthesizes images and written language into panels and panels into pages—comics. (Most people forget comics deal with text as well as images, another reason he calls comics “the invisible art.”) Word balloons, descriptive headers, even Batman’s BLAMMO!! coordinate with pictures in cell-like frames.

This doesn’t seem terribly applicable to writing fiction. What lessons can a fiction writer possibly glean from Understanding Comics?

Comics are a sequential art. Their “motion” depends on the layout of images across a page and the order with which they’re consumed by the reader. This is not so different than a story or a novel, only that they are built with a single component, words. But like comics, that single component is laid out sequentially, with words grouped into sentences and paragraphs. It may seem like a stretch, but I say these groupings act as narrative “panels.”

If you look back at my last post, you’ll notice McCloud identified written language as the ultimate pictograph in his “Picture Plane” diagram. By his reckoning, fiction is like a comic book with all the imagery stripped out. In comics, image and language spin together like dancers on a dance floor. In fiction, language is a solo act. Words are delegated to do all the heavy lifting.

Also like comics, fiction has a narrative “clock” which may be slowed down or sped up panel-by-panel, sentence-by-sentence:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Probably the most-quoted section from McCloud’s book is the chapter “Blood in the Gutter.” Gutters are the blank space between panels (although some people question if even a space is required). For proof of McCloud’s obsession with the language of comics, look no further than his exhaustive dissection of the role of gutters in comics—the role of blank space in telling a story.

The blood in the gutter flows between seeing the axe-murderer bearing down on his victim in the left panel and “hearing” the scream across the night sky in the right panel. This closure occurs in comics as well as fiction (and in most other narrative arts too, such as film). McCloud reminds us, visually and lucidly, that narrative is a participatory act. No reader? No story, then, only ink on the page.

Closure in fiction is as complicated as it is in comics, and I can’t possibly cover all its facets here. One type of closure comics and fiction share is the use of white space (“empty space”). Take the above fiction example and add an asterisk:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
*
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Even though the only change between these two examples is the asterisk centered on the line, it “feels” like more time has passed in the second example.

Different publishers use different devices to mark section breaks, such as three asterisks across the page, a short line or curlicue, or no print signal at all other than extra blank space separating the two text blocks. Often the first paragraph of the new section is not indented or has some other print feature to distinguish it, such as using small caps for the first three words.

Chapter openings and other similar breaks in the story will usually employ a variation of the above. Unfortunately, my blog’s layout isn’t conducive to demonstrating these different print styles. If you’re unfamiliar with them, pick up a books from different publishers and check closely how their layout editor arranged their chapters and section breaks.

White space can indicate the passing of a span of time—but it may also indicate a shift in space:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
*
   Ten miles away, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Here the asterisk indicates a change of location, leaving the reader to search out other clues to determine how much time, if any, has passed between Mary hanging up the phone and Bob sifting through the recycling. The blatant cues I’ve added here (“ten years later,” “ten miles away”) are meant to assist my examples. A more artful author could indicate the same shifts with other, more subtle textual clues.

So asterisks, line breaks, and white space can indicate changes in time and space. What other visual signals does the fiction writer have at his or her disposal?

Look at paragraphs. Paragraphs employ white space (a new line, often a leading indent) to indicate all manner of changes in fiction:

  • time
  • location
  • point-of-view
  • shift of tone and subject matter
  • change of speaker (as with dialogue)

There’s plenty of other possibilities too. And don’t think breaking up paragraphs is some mechanical rule-based process out of the creator’s control. It’s a grammarian fantasy that hard-and-fast rules exist for making paragraphs. In fiction, breaking prose into paragraphs is a somewhat subjective art. After a century of modernist and postmodernist experimentation, it’s only become more subjective. Packing paragraphs with shifting sentences is considered avant garde in some situations. Run-on sentences packed into a single paragraph are now acceptable as well. (Read the first chapter of Billy Bathgate for an example.)

If you think about it, chapters are an even more extreme form of visual signaling. Chapter breaks are miniature explosions in the novel’s stream-of-narration. Chapters give the writer a chance to make major shifts and signal big changes occurring, to take a deep breath before moving on with the tale. (Chapter breaks also give the reader a chance to bookmark and set aside the book. Every chapter the writer introduces is one more risk of losing their audience.)

Even the format of chapter breaks sends signals to the reader. Some books use numbered words (“Twelve”) and others numerals (“12”). Some books start each chapter on a new page while others do not. (I’ve noticed Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books often fail to start chapters on new pages, contributing to the detective’s relentless pace. Alex Garland’s superb The Beach is also laid out like this, another novel with a unremitting narrator.)

Children books are notorious for chapter titles (“At the Old Sawmill”). Other books merely indicate chapters with—you guessed it—exaggerated white space at the top of the page. Even the numbering of chapters may play a significant role in the telling of a story. Chapters (and page numbers!) are numbered backwards in Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, while the chapter numbers in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time form a sequence of prime numbers because the narrator finds them pleasing.

I’ve read enough books to know a chapter’s blank space (or lack of it) and the format of chapter titles plays a role, no matter how minor, in my reception of the book. If narration is a participatory act, and if you’re the kind of writer who believes every detail matters (and I think you should be that writer), then pay attention to how you employ blank space.

One temptation at this point is to suggest these white space markers are not so diverse after all—aren’t asterisks and line breaks and chapters merely for scene changes, separating the story’s structure in a less-blatant way than stage plays are marked (“Act IV Scene 2”)?

Not really. For example, a chapter may end on a cliffhanger and the next chapter pick up immediately where the last left off: same scene, same characters, same time and place. I’ve seen book chapters end with a line of dialogue and the next chapter open with another character’s reply. Writers often use chapter breaks to highlight the importance of that moment in the narrative, but they’re not a scene break per se.

This is what I mean when I say you, the writer, should pay close attention to your use of blank space. When you insert blank space in your next story—a scene ending with a second break, or starting a new chapter—ask yourself what your story gains (or, what your story loses) with the blank you’ve added.

It strikes me as fashionable these days for writers to break apart short stories into quick, MTV-like section breaks. Often each section builds a little emotion, heightens some tension, then drops off and shifts to a new scene. Try writing a short story told in one uncut narration. Try writing a short story told in one uncut scene. Try writing a short story in one paragraph.

Likewise, if you’re working on a novel. question each chapter break. Should these two sequential chapters be “glued” together? Or perhaps the first chapter should conclude earlier, or the second chapter start later?

I have a bad habit of starting a chapter in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, and a couple of paragraphs in, jump to a flashback explaining how the characters wound up in this action. Most times this indicates a poor choice of where I started the chapter. Some times I drop the flashback entirely and it’s not a problem at all. The flashback added little, and removing it only strengthened the chapter as a whole.

But the exercise itself is a questioning of blank space in my fiction. What purpose does this particular use of blank space serve? Does it add or subtract from the story?

For a real-world example of empty space in fiction, here’s a selection from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Look how Thompson uses fictive closure to avoid the censor’s red pencil in 1952:

I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.

I took off my belt and raised it over my head. …

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses.

(Those ellipses are in the original.) Welcome to fiction’s version of “blood in the gutter”—a craven act of violence committed by three periods in sequence and the white space between the paragraphs.

Twenty Writers: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other reviews and essays


So far in this series, about half of the books I’ve discussed have been nonfiction and the other half fiction. This is the first time I’ve written about a text on critical theory—and it may be the best lit crit book I’ve ever encountered.

The text I’m speaking of is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Published in 1993, the book remains the definitive work on comics theory a quarter century later. Others have attacked the subject, but none come close to McCloud’s exhaustive treatment.

McCloud is an unlikely “Aristotle of comics.” Prior to Understanding Comics he was best-known for Zot!, a lighthearted superhero comic book series which introduced many American readers to the tropes and style of Japanese manga. While Zot! was a success in the 1980s, its reputation has not swollen over time, as evidenced by McCloud’s sheepish preface to a 2008 reprint.

There’s nothing sheepish to be found in Understanding Comics—McCloud is not merely comic’s Aristotle, he’s one of its best ambassadors. His belief in comics’ power and universality is unshakeable. Page after page he convincingly argues comics belong in the same inner circle as other high art forms, including art considered vulgar upon its first appearance, such as film and jazz. Comics may even be more inclusive than other forms, as the language of comics is the language of the modern world. Advertising, software, religion, news, and entertainment all employ comics’ visual cues for their own purposes. This isn’t so much a book on comics as a book on perception and semiotics.

When I first picked up Understanding Comics in the mid-1990s, I enjoyed reading comics occasionally, but only as a guilty pleasure. I’d read superhero comics as a teen but set them aside as childish even before I left high school. (And this was during the 1980s rise of so-called “adult” comics like The Dark Knight Returns and the all-but-forgotten Camelot 3000.)

McCloud’s treatise left me with a renewed pleasure for reading comics. He disassembled and reassembled what I “knew” about comics before my eyes, all the while with concision, humor, and infectious zeal. His unraveling of the “invisible art” also left me with a fresh re-looking of the world at large. I can’t think of higher praise for McCloud’s magnum opus.

The sequential art

Understanding Comics is not the first work on the principles of comics. That honor goes to Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art.

Before Eisner, books on comics focused on technical production: inks, scripting, musculature, shading, etc. (The most prominent example I know of is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, the standard go-to guide for aspiring fourteen year-olds back in the day.) Comics & Sequential Art focused on the language of comics, much as a book on film theory would discuss camera angles and shot selection as the “language” of movies.

Prior to Eisner and McCloud, books on writing comics skewed toward technique and process.

Sequential Art‘s biggest contribution is right there in its title—Eisner put forward a general definition for comics. He held up comics as a special style of communication with unique properties and advantages. Eisner saw the field still struggling to break free of cultural restrictions (“comic books are for kids”) and waiting to be applied to broader purposes. For example, Eisner advocated using comics for technical manuals and in education.

Reading comic books in grade school may be more acceptable today than when I was young, but I suspect the suggestion still earns chuckles among certain educators. That’s too bad; Eisner remains ahead of his time. After all, while IKEA’s assembly guides and their Ziggyesque “IKEA Man” character have elicited much lampooning, their ability to transcend written language stems from the fact that they are comics. And when Google wanted to introduce the world to its new Chrome browser in 2008, it hired none other than Scott McCloud to present the software’s design and features via a digital comic book.

Understanding Comics takes many cues from Eisner’s work, and McCloud is eager to tip his hat to the master as well as introduce readers to a plethora of other comic artists you may or may not have heard of. But where Eisner’s book is head’s-down on the drawing easel, McCloud’s eyes are fervently skyward. Eisner’s intended audience is other comic artists; McCloud’s audience is everyone. To McCloud’s thinking, the language of comics permeates the modern world. He’s not merely comics’ Aristotle and ambassador, he’s its evangelist. Understanding Comics may be the first foundational lit crit text written by a fan boy.

The invisible art

The care and thought put into Understanding Comics is evident from the front matter onward. Consider that a book subtitled “The Invisible Art” opens with an enlarged image of an eye staring back at the reader—an iris, eyelashes, and eyebrow framed by a comic panel. Seeing is everything for McCloud, which is why Understanding Comics earns a space on the shelf beside Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

One bit of lingo in the software business is “dogfooding,” that is, the idea software developers should use their own software to better understand the problems and bugs their users are experiencing. (Imagine if every Apple employee used Microsoft PCs and Android phones, or if the entire workforce of The Gap wore Armani suits.)

McCloud dogfooded comics. His entire thesis, from first page to last, is told in comic form. He demonstrates the ubiquitousness and power of comics by drawing comics. The only places McCloud “reverts” to pure text are the Acknowledgments and Bibliography pages (where he can be forgiven, since I doubt anyone wants to read a Bibliography set to comic form).

Cleverly, McCloud inserts a cartoon representative of himself into the book to gently guide the reader along (and even analyzes the strategy itself as a graphic device). He deploys every trick in the comic biz to illustrate his points: alternate panel layouts, strange word balloon shapes, odd and abstract art styles, and so on. Every page offers a surprise for the reader. I can’t imagine the quarts of blood McCloud must have sweat to craft this masterpiece. Whatever criticism you may lob at McCloud, you can’t call his book dry.

After an ambitious and vivid history of comics going back to prehistory (no, really), McCloud appropriates Eisner’s term for comics—”sequential art”—and develops his own rigorous definition. From this foundation he launches into the depth and breadth of the language of comics: panels, gutters, lines, word balloons, transitions, and the utility of color (as opposed to the job of coloring, a la How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way).

McCloud’s ambitious “picture plane,” from photo-realism (left) to iconography (right) with the degree of abstraction rising up the pyramid. The eye on the left is the realm of visual and the mind on the right is the realm of ideas. Notice on the far right how McCloud considers written language a kind of “pure” iconography.

But McCloud isn’t satisfied to stay grounded on matters pertaining to comics itself. He reaches further with chapters on iconography, the nature of vision, and perception versus self-perception. He muses on the unique language of comics, where pictographs plus written word combine, and how space on the page can represent shifts in location and time, and sometimes shifting both simultaneously. He concludes with a surprisingly moving chapter on the relationship between artist and art that should be required reading for students of all creative disciplines.

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, McCloud’s faculties for persuasion are appealing and impressive. The power of Understanding Comics is in taking McCloud’s tour through language and imagery, even if you don’t always agree with his destinations.

Recommendations

If you enjoy Understanding Comics, I recommend exploring the terrain McCloud mapped out. What follows is a list of graphic novels reflecting McCloud’s vision. They’re also rewarding in their own right:

  • City of Glass, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: Engrossing graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel. City of Glass reads like a pure application of Understanding Comics.
  • Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, Shigeru Mizuki: Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical World War II manga features a “cartoony” military against a backdrop of stark photo-realistic Pacific island landscapes, a visual strategy McCloud fleshes out in his book.
  • Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Guy Delisle: A story of palpable solitude, Shenzhen spends much page real estate showing off modern China via “aspect-to-aspect” transitions discussed by McCloud.
  • Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli: Like Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Polyp is a personal tale about a man hitting the road intertwined with philosophical musings on nature and existence. As with City of Glass, Polyp is obsessed with structure, symbols, and synthesis. Mazzucchelli’s detailed visuals slyly make the abstractions concrete.

For an entertaining stroll through the lingo and icons of the funny pages, I also recommend “Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips”