On comics and visual illiteracy

The filmmaker Peter Greenaway has often commented that cinema is a slave to literature. That the development of film, a medium with so much visual promise, became circumscribed by the logic and structure of words rather than images. For the most part, to Greenaway, the cinematic audience is visually illiterate one. TV also encourages visual illiteracy; most television programs, even epic and visually stunning shows like Game of Thrones, can be “watched” and understood with the visuals turned off.

We are not born literate; we must be taught to read. This is just as true of images and sounds as it is of words. A certain level of education and exposure to a broad range of works, formal or self-directed, is necessary if one is to attain a high level of fluency in a new medium. I still remember when I first began watching “art house” movies as a teen. I couldn’t follow the plot at times. I was lazy in piecing visual information together and missed important points. But eventually, with enough exposure, I learned how to read movies that did not spoon feed me information, or jerk my emotions and reactions about like a puppeteer would strings on a puppet.

In comics, we like to present the idea that a comic should flow logically and never confuse the reader. This is important and designing layouts that subtly guide the eye through the speech bubbles and panels on a page is good cartooning. However, I feel as though we have conflated this with not being challenging at all. How far can the medium be pushed if our audience never learns to read comics closely? If they can only watch comics the way we watch television, in which we treat all imagery as eye-candy?

Of course, all mediums have their easy reads – but they also celebrate their difficult, experimental reads. They have works that do not reveal their meaning so obviously, works that demand their audience to do some heavy lifting. In comics, I feel as though there’s an expectation that comics are to be consumed rapidly, even in indie comics.

We say comics take forever to draw but are fast to read. This may be true, but it is also true that not all comics are fast to read. No, some short comics may take you more time to read than a feature length film because of the potential complexity of the medium. Comics can be ruthlessly efficient in ways that cinema, literature and other media cannot be. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a comic is basically a thousand pictures – sometimes with more words for good measure. We expect people to reread difficult literature or to require time to process a challenging film; why do we not expect this of comics? Is it because we not producing comics of this nature or when we come across them, we have not yet learned how to take time with them? When I read comics criticism of some of the works I’ve enjoyed, I think to myself – did they really spend time with that work?

I sometimes struggle with the expectation of easy consumption when making comics. Here’s an example of a panel transition.


What do you think is happening in this transition? I was hoping that the contrast between the broken windows and weeds versus a new building with a lineup out the door would suggest a flashback. An editor requested adding in a caption with expository text (e.g., 5 years earlier) to make the meaning obvious. The above panel transition is not particularly challenging. I believe a similar jump to the past without warning in literature or cinema would not require an expository explanation. But maybe for the comics reader, it still does.

I know that the vast majority of people are not going to read this comic carefully and that this panel transition is potentially confusing. But I resisted making the edit because I didn’t want to lull readers into thinking I was going to hold their hand through the comic. Understanding my comic would also require that you read every single detail of it. Comics take a long fucking time to draw. I’m not wasting my time drawing anything that does not serve a purpose. So if I am to be honest, if a reader doesn’t want to pay attention, I don’t care if they’re confused. My hope is that someone confused might learn to double back and read more carefully. My greater hope is that they will apply this level of care to the next comics they read. My greatest hope is that comics fans, critics, publishers and booksellers understand that it is to comic’s artistic (and commercial) benefit to be regarded more seriously as an artistic medium and this requires developing a visually literate audience supporting comics that demand more from readers.