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Comics: exploring the future of space, word, and image

November 6, 2012

A guest post by Dr Matt Finch

Snoopy was my first comic book hero.  Before I could read, before I could even follow the stories from frame to frame, I used to flip through the dozens of Peanuts books we had lying around our home, hunting out the pictures of Charlie Brown’s taciturn dog.

Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, was a master cartoonist who could convey volumes with a minimal number of pen strokes.  The image above, capturing Snoopy in a soaring act of imagination, is potent because, though wordless, it belongs to the world of storytelling (and therefore literature) as much as art.

It took time for my infant self to fully make sense of Charlie Brown and company, but once I did, there was another mystery waiting for me – the inscriptions by my Mum and Dad in every edition.  It took a few years for me to realise that my parents were writing to each other.  That these books had been the gifts they exchanged when they were first dating.  And that it was probably better for me not to fully decode the in-jokes and allusions of my parents’ courtship!

At the same time as I discovered this unexpected intimacy, I was also bonding with an icon of popular culture.  Many of us will know Snoopy at a glance.  Some will recognise that, in the image above, he’s indulging one of his fighter-pilot fantasies, his kennel becoming the biplane in which he duels the villainous Red Baron.  Snoopy’s kennel-top dogfights were so popular that they even got their own song.

In “The Tears of Doctor Doom”, a piece for the journal Overland, the Melbournian screenwriter and critic Martyn Pedler asked, “What is it about superhero analysis that brings out the autobiographer in its theorists?”  Why do we see ourselves reflected so clearly in the pulpy, popular images of comics?

Is it childhood nostalgia?  The pervasive corporate reach of mass media entertainment?  Or something more deeply tied to the medium?

In his seminal book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that the simplicity of cartoons encourages our identification with the figures on the page: “We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it.”

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

Is it possible that when we read comics, we in fact think differently to readers of prose?  Nick Sousanis, of Teachers College, Columbia University, believes this might be the case.

Image from Nick Sousanis’ PhD, written in comic book form

When Nick and I spoke back in June, he suggested that comics, by ordering image and text in space, offer new ways of making meaning: “the very act of working spatially and visual-verbally facilitates creative discoveries otherwise obscured when limited to a sheet of lined paper or my keyboard.”

We can take a simple example from the pages of Peanuts.

Here’s Snoopy having his day spoiled by Lucy:

If we re-arrange the same images, we can make Snoopy more resilient:

In a multimodal world, where words and pictures come at us from web pages, apps, menu screens and blended media, could comics be the most useful tool for us to explore space, image, and text?

Enough talk. Enough words on a screen!  It’s time for you to find your own answer to that question.

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have developed Panel Lottery, a great activity that lets even the least confident cartoonists explore storytelling by arranging images in order.  You can find Panel Lottery at their website, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures.  Try it out!

While you’re putting pencil to paper, you can also reflect on the possibilities of the comic book medium at The Comics Grid, an online journal whose many delights include the weird world of pictureless comics.  You can also find more from Nick Sousanis and other comics artists, critics, and educators at my site, http://matthewfinch.me/tag/comicsedu/

Pick up your pencil. Open a comic book.

Whether you read comics or make them, maybe, like Snoopy, it’s your time to soar.

Matt Finch is a British writer and educator, who can be found online at http://matthewfinch.me.  His all-time favourite comics are James Robinson’s Starman and Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For.

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