2.1 Analysing visual texts

2.1.4 Understanding comics

On your Paper 1 exam, you may be asked to write a commentary on a comic strip. Comic strips deserve to be taken seriously, as they can be rich in meaning, style, and structure. As defined by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, comics can be defined as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” To his own admission, this definition is rather awkward. For our purposes we will use a simpler one, also suggested by McCloud. Comic strips can be seen as “sequential art.”

Deconstructing comics

How does one analyse comics critically? Figure 2.1.4 deconstructs a rather famous comic strip by Bill Waterson, Calvin and Hobbes. The labels and terminology below help you understand some of the key aspects for understanding this complex text type. 

Figure 2.1.4a - Calvin and Hobbes deconstructed
This comic strip by Bill Waterson stars Calvin, a 6 year old with a wild imagination and his stuffed animal, Hobbes. 

  1. Panel – At first glance you will notice that comics are divided into multiple frames or panels. These panels help build a sense of time and space. Some panels do not have a frame. Other panels are large, like the opening panel in Figure 2.1.4a. This may be considered a ‘splash’ panel. It acts as a title page.
  2. Blank space – Any time you analyse a piece of art or design, it is important to comment not only on what is included, but what is left out. The use of blank space in the opening splash of Figure 2.1.4a makes the readers eyes move quickly from left to right, setting up the joke that happens in the second panel on the right. (See TOK box for more on blank space and the ‘golden ratio’.)
  3. Camera angle – Although comics do not literally involve a camera, one can use the same vocabulary from Page 2.1.3 to discuss the angle at which the cartoonist depicts his subjects. In the fourth frame of Figure 2.1.4a, the reader views Hobbes (the tiger) at eye level, which places the focus on his quizzical expression. Figure 2.1.4b places the reader at a distance from the subjects, making the reader feel like he or she is looking in or eavesdropping.
  4. Gutter – What happens between the sixth and seventh panel of Figure 2.1.4a? In comics, the reader actively has to ‘fill in the gap’, and make assumptions about what happens between frames or panels. This space between panels is known as the ‘gutter’. If we follow the design principle of ‘what is left out is as important as what is included’, then the gutter plays a key role in constructing meaning. The gutter involves the reader, because the reader has to guess what happens between panels.
  5. Symbol – What do the darts in Figure 2.1.4a stand for? Cartoons and comics often include symbols to convey meaning effectively and succinctly. Calvin’s helmet stands for ‘war’. The dart guns might symbolise boyhood and naivety.
  6. Emanata – In the sixth panel of Figure 2.1.4a there are little lines coming out of the dart guns that indicate action and movement. Such lines are known as ‘emanata’ and are typical of comics as a medium. When analysing comics, you may see question marks above a characters head, tear drops flying from eyes or straight lines trailing behind running characters. Besides labelling such examples of emanata in your textual analysis of comics, you must also analyse the effect of its inclusion. In Figure 2.1.4a, emanata is used to indicate that Calvin and Hobbes shoot each other quickly and simultaneously, leaving both each other and the reader confused as to who was hit first.
  7. Speech bubble – In comics, readers read characters’ dialogue through their speech bubbles. Thought bubbles, often depicted with cloud-like bubbles, can let the reader know what a character is thinking. Voice-over, a term often used in film, can also be used in comics with narrator’s words appearing above or below the panel. Keep in mind that the writer does not have much space, literally, for long prose in comics. Any time you analyse the text or words in a comic, ask yourself if the meaning of these words hinges on what is depicted. Vice versa, you can ask yourself if the images’ meaning hinges on what is written.
  8. Punch line – Comic strips traditionally appear in newspapers, where they offer the reader a moment of comic relief. They may comment on life, tell a story or seek a good laugh. Meaning tends to culminate in the final frame. The final line of a joke, known as a punch line, is relevant for analysing comics as well.

The continuum of cartoonification

Hobbes is not a real tiger, like the one you see in Figure 2.1.4e. He is a drawing of a tiger. More precisely, he is the drawing of Calvin’s stuffed animal, as Calvin sees it (Figure 2.1.4c). Other characters in this comic strip only see Hobbes as a stuffed animal, as depicted in Figure 2.1.4b. Fans of Hobbes have taken the liberty of creating even more detailed drawings of Hobbes, such as the one depicted in Figure 2.1.4d. If you study Figures 2.1.4b-e you see a continuum of cartoonification. Scott McCloud suggests that the cartoonification of characters and objects can occur along several spectra. A character may be considered complex or simple. They could be considered realistic or iconic, objective or subjective, specific or universal (see table below). Iconic images, by definition, are abstractions of the things they represent. The more abstract, iconic, universal and simple a character, the easier it is for readers to understand, identify and become involved with it. This table shows where the Figures 2.1.4b-e appear on this continuum of cartoonification, with the most simple drawings at the left side and the most detailed photograph on the right side. 

Fig 2.1.4b

Fig. 2.1.4c

Fig. 2.1.4d

Fig. 2.1.4d

simple

complex

iconic

realistic

subjective

objective

universal

specific

 abstract

concrete 

Activity

  1. Download Texts 1-10 or view them in the gallery below. They tell the same story in ten different ways, all using a different style of comic strip art. They are taken from 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden.
  2. In small groups analyse each text. Comment on the effects of each style by discussing your answers to the questions on the workshee

Texts 1-10

Text 1

Toward assessment

  • As a further oral activity, you can analyse the comic art of one artist, comment on the conventions of a particular genre of comics, or make the case ‘comics’ are literature. Be sure to include visuals in your presentation or speech.
  • If you are reading a graphic novel for Parts 3 or 4 of this course, try writing a small, 500-word commentary on a page from the graphic novel, using the vocabulary from this page.

Further reading

  • Much of this page has been inspired by Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. This comic book about comic books gives you an entertaining yet informative explanation of how comics work. 
  • Texts 1-10 were taken from 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden, which contains 89 texts more than appear here. By studying a ranch of style comic art, you gain a better understanding of this text type

Figure 2.1.4b - Hobbes

Figure 2.1.4b - Hobbes the stuffed animal
In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, this character appears this way to everyone but Calvin. It could be said that this is the simplest, most subjective yet universal, iconic, and abstract tiger of Figures 2.1.4b-e.

Figure 2.1.4c

Figure 2.1.4c - Hobbes as seen by Calvin
This is how Hobbes is most often depicted in the comic strip, as Calvin sees his imaginary friend. Notice that he is slightly more detailed and complex than the stuffed animal in 2.1.4b. 

Figure 2.1.4d

Figure 2.1.4d - M.S. Corley's drawing of Hobbes
This drawing by a Calvin and Hobbes fan is much more detailed, realistic, and complex than Waterson's versions of Hobbes in Figures 2.1.4b-c. 

Figure 2.1.4e

Figure 2.1.4e - Detailed photograph of tiger

Photographs are at the far end of the continuum of cartoonification, as they are as close to being concrete, specific, realistic, objective and complex as possible.

Key concepts

  • abstraction
  • cartoonification
  • frame
  • gutter
  • icon
  • panel
  • punch line
  • speech bubble
  • symbol
  • voice over

TOK

  • In TOK, we often ask ourselves: “What is art?” Scott McCloud defines comics as ‘sequential art’. Do you think that comics or graphic novels qualify as ‘art’? Why or why not?
  • Could there be a mathematical principle that defines art? Could ‘art’ be found in nature? There seems to be a ‘golden ratio’ of blank space to points of focus in many great pieces of art. The opening panel of Figure 2.1.4a is a good example of the ‘golden ratio’. Learn more about the ‘golden ratio’ and discuss its merits as a tool for defining art and analysing comics.