How do you make comics entertaining? If you’re a writer, artist or all round comic creator, no doubt you’ve tried to think about how to make a great comic. Is it just the story? Is it just the art? What exactly is that magic or spark in comics that makes it so appealing? Well I’m going to break down and offer my own musings on what can make comics interesting to the reader, on almost a subconscious level.

This is a very interesting subject that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In my opinion it defines what makes comics a great storytelling medium. I started thinking about this when reading Scott McCloud’s “Making Comics“, which is a brilliant read, in fact it’s a must have if you are serious about making great comics. But he’s not the only one to touch on this subject. Mark Kneece also discusses this in his book “The Art of Comic Writing” which is another great book if you need to improve in comic writing skills. More on Mark Kneece later.

Two great books that should be on your shelf as a comic creator.

Word & Image Relationships

So what am I talking about. I’m talking about the joy of discovery. That’s the phrase that best describes what I’m trying to articulate. It’s actually taken from Mark Kneece’s book. What does that mean exactly? To explain myself clearly it’s worth talking about the relationship between images and text within comics. Scott McCloud helps to clarify the types of relationships these two forms of communication can have when used within the same panel. To briefly summarise them they are:

  1. Word Specific: Word Specific relies on the words to tell the narrative while imagery acts as a kind of ornamentation.
  2. Picture Specific: Picture Specific is the inverse of Word Specific. Here the use of words acts as ornamentation to the imagery or pictures that are conveying the actual narrative.
  3. Duo Specific: Duo-Specific acts as a situation where words and images are complimentary to one another in the fact that they basically convey “the same message.”
  4. Additive: Additive is where the words serve as a means of amplifying or elaborating on the image that is communicating the narrative.
  5. Parallel: Parallel demonstrates a situation where the words and images appear to be conveying “parallel” but separate narratives. This can be more easily identified or isolated often times when one is only shown a page or panel or two of a comic or graphic novel without knowing the entire context. It can also represent some esoteric storytelling too.
  6. Montage: Montage is where the words and images are part of the same framework. This is where the words in particular become part of the actual image.
  7. Inter-Dependent: Inter-Dependent is noted by McCloud to be the “most common” combination. This is where words and pictures/images convey different meanings separately but in combination convey a meaning that neither has without the other.

A variety of relationships can make panels easier to absorb for the reader, however I have a theory that the most important of these relationships is the last one, the Interdependent relationship between images and words.

Why? Because this relationship has the greatest chance of strongly emphasising the joy of discovery within the reader.

Why is this important?

Part of my theory involves identifying what can hook a reader into the story. Any story. What is the hook? This hook is unique to comics. It is the ability to understand a page in context of itself by working out the meaning of a panel resulting in discovering certain details. You might want to re-read that last sentence. Go ahead, the words won’t be going anywhere. Its a packed sentence and may sound like a heap of gibberish. What I’m talking about is outside of plot development or story arcs or even character personalities. It can help the reader enjoy the page they are reading because they discovered‘ something that couldn’t have happened without their engagement which is often taking place subconsciously.

Let’s take an example of how the Inter-Dependency relationship between words and images can achieve this. In Scott McCloud’s “Making Comics”, there is a wonderful example of a woman crying on the phone, shown below.

An interdependent panel

What do you see in this panel? What’s interesting is that the words give one impression but the illustration gives an entirely different story. The woman is crying, showing she is sad. If there were no words the reader would only gather that she’s upset. If the reader only read the words (and there was no image), then it would seem she was happy. Putting the words and image together we now get an entirely different understanding of the panel compared to the first two impressions of the individual parts. We now see she’s hiding her true feelings from whoever she is speaking too. The combination of the words and image even give the reader an idea of the tone of voice she might have as speaks.

What is amazing about this type of panel?

Within a fraction of a second in the subconscious of the reader, they have understood something from the panel that could only be put together with the engagement of their imagination. The woman in the panel becomes alive, emotion is injected into the character and the story/plot are advanced naturally, all inside the mind of the reader. This produces a subtle rewarding feeling of having discovered something within the page. This type of engagement and the rewarding feeling that comes with it, gently hook the reader into the story, regardless of the genre. It will encourage them to read on because they correctly deduced something that adds to the story.

This isn’t to say that the other type of word/image relationships aren’t important or shouldn’t be used, but in my opinion, the reward isn’t quite as enjoyable as the interdependent relationship. If you’re wondering what you can improve in your creative works, then this is definitely a panel type you should examine more carefully. How many times in your last piece of work did you use an interdependent panel?

Now as I said earlier, it isn’t just Scott McCloud that uses this idea. Mark Kneece also mentions it in “The Art of Comic Writing“. This is a great book for anyone just starting out in writing comics. For this blog entry, I’d like to draw attention to a particular page and share a snippet with you:

This snippet looks at it from a writers viewpoint but the principle is still the same. Let the reader discover things. Not just in the art or words alone, but as a result of a combination them together.

What are the types of interdependent panels you could have? Well I’d like to leave that for another post. I have my own ideas. Have a think yourself and share your thoughts with me. Let me know if you agree with this type of panel. Maybe you’ve experienced it when reading comics but have never been able to quite put your finger on what exactly is going on.

What’s coming next?

This is the first blog entry of 2020. I hope it’s useful to comic creators and readers. The aim was to lift the hood of this amazing storytelling medium and give a new found insight and appreciation for comics. I also wanted to help improve stories that are being created right now… including my own. Speaking of which, I’m working on my next Kickstarter project for the trade of CATAPULTED. Unfortunately, bouts of sickness and incredibly busy periods at my day job have meant that I postponed more of my creative work than I’d have liked but it hasn’t stopped completely. Keep an eye out on the website as I’ll be posting more articles and updates on the site.