The Language of Comics

I’ve looked over a lot of portfolios of young comic artists in my day and the most difficult thing to do is to explain why a budding creator is not ready yet. My insecurities about my own work have always made that task that much more daunting but also gave me an opportunity to understand the frustration of a developing talent.

Complicating the issue further is the subject of style. Some artists aspire to exquisitely detailed imagery while others depend on a minimalist abstract style that to some may imply that artist has little if any drawing skills.

My explanation to a creator that still needed to grow, especially one that on the surface understands the technicalities of the medium, was to equate creating comics with learning a second language. A student can understand all the vocabulary in that language that is possible to know. They can learn to conjugate sentences and even attempt to grasp an understanding of the culture of the language. Even with all this foundation that student may go to the country that speaks that language, open their mouth to speak and still be an obvious foreigner.

Full mastery of the language can only be attained when the student finally has the opportunity to live and breathe the language while communicating to others that fluently express the nuances of the language. Eventually even a dialect can be mastered that pinpoints the speaker of a language to a specific region or subculture of the language.

In short, expertise is acquired by exercising the knowledge. You improve by developing a fluidity that can only be achieved by repetition of action until your skill set is second nature to you. This is true when creating comics, mastery is achieved by a constant commitment and act making comics.

Many comics artists, especially the ones with the most simplistic styles, actually create their own language of communication. The comic artist develops unique and specific visual idioms and trains the reader to understand them through consistency of use.

I always marveled at how well Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters emoted with just the use of simple lines. The furrowed brow defined by a single squiggly line denoted anger. Double parenthesis around the eyes indicated despair. These along with many other idioms were indigenous to his work and every reader learned to understand and relate to them in a way that made the Peanuts a national treasure.

Comics require a certain visual literacy to be understood. Creators need to understand this and take an active role in conditioning their readers to allow them access to the message the comics artist is trying to communicate.

The new wave of comics that is targeted at young readers has a responsibility to develop this understanding of visual literacy. As comics become more accepted by educators and are used to support education in literature at any level it will be as important as ever to stress that each comic has its own unique language that establishes a communicative relationship between the comics artist and the reader.

Making Comics because I Want To

Gerry Giovinco

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