Essay: On Sequential Narrative Art
This is an old paper I wrote in around 2002 or so, when I was doing a lot of thinking about proses and such. I’ve updated and edited it but i think in a lot of ways comics have moved on since i wrote this, few of the ideas here are even remotely controversial and much of this kind of thinking has been embraced now. And sorry if it’s a bit wordy or pedantic, writing succinctly has been something of an ongoing effort.
On the nature and origins of Comics, and what they might become.
by Salgood Sam
Sequential Narrative Art: This is my expanded version of Scott McCloud’s academic term for Comics, “Sequential Arts”. Pardon the Hubris. It attempts to describe Art that contains a narrative, communicated to the audience by a sequence of images (2 or more) delineated by space, structural elements, or composition. By which readers are led through the narrative in a specific manner.
A key property is that the images exist in their own discreet spaces, rather than all appearing in sequence in the same space [ie: film/animation].
That there may be a moment of Juxtaposition between given images.
Whether they may do both though, say, as in multiple screens relaying a series of images in panels that change over time, is a possibility I’d leave open for debate. [see my reference to Michal Rovner's work at the end of this]
One of the key ideas presented in McCloud’s work is about the gutters, and the ‘blink’ between images. That much of the stories action and movement is implied to the audience by the juxtaposition of the images/ideas. In short, Sequential Art is made up as much by what is not shown as by what is.
In this way I feel it can tap the same strengths as conventional written books do–the imaginations of the reader.
What happens between the panels is in the readers mind just as what is described by words in a book is. For creators and those trying to understand the mediums potential and this particular boundary between telling a story and loosing a reader. An often overlooked insight.
For those that still relate to comics as a genre of adolescent wish fulfilment stories, comics tend to be seen as a didactic form that talks down to an audience, but really what we’re identifying is a failing of a given story, and not one of the form. Indeed the best of past work has always shown it’s a powerful tool for unlocking imaginations.
This might sound like a true Scotsman argument but I would assert there are good comics and bad comics. Of course! That explains the horrible ones, they were. And yet, even some of those are remembered fondly by some.
We can hardly help ourselves
To lay the ground work of a later idea, I should stipulate here that if any two images are placed side-by-side juxtaposition can occur naturally; it simply then becomes a question of whether the relationship was planned or accidental. The key thing is that a reader finds one there. How much to meddle with this? How much can we change and have it still essentially the same? Looking at the description I’m building, I think this leaves things open to including much more than comic books under the umbrella of sequential art doesn’t it?
Imagine a gallery where the curator has placed the individual images on the wall in such a way as to create a relationship between them–not hard as this is a common curatorial practice–you could see that as sequential art.
So yes, a narrative can be created where one may not have existed previously. Though the narrative may be more projected by the curator and viewers than the individual artists intent in that case. Posters randomly plastering a hoarding could also become a spontaneous unplanned narrative if an audience is willing to do the story telling.
I think it’s also possible to incorporate other elements of narrative art into it’s body. President has been set, most frequently the common perceived companion element to visual art in comics is the text, laid out in boxes or “balloons”. To many cartoonists though, the text and balloons are not companion elements, but intrinsic.
There is a popular semiotic leaning argument that text itself is simply a highly abstracted set of icons that has specific meaning in the context of a given language. And creators often sight the usually iconic styles of cartoon images in comics and their many potential encoded meanings that can be utilized in storytelling, as having a lot in common with pictographic texts.
IE: A gun or fist pointed at the viewer often equates a potential for violence, a smile happiness, and so on. But the subtext of each is also coloured but the way it’s drawn. Done in a cartoonish Disney style the Gun can loose it’s threat or become ironic for example.
There are plenty of exceptions, gaps and disagreements between the different perceived meanings found by individuals in any given cartoon image. They often work on a more subjective and emotional level, as with the words written language. But specific meaning can be built out of a set of icons like this just as with words. The more involved the icons, and the more layers of juxtaposition, the more involved the narrative tends to be. Assuming the reader has the tools to decode them. Marking the questions of accessibility and literacy. Certainly limits at times buy elastic ones I think.
Getting even broader in how I would define sequential art, I feel that the work itself could be made entirely of other visual mediums, other than two-dimensional paintings or drawings. Sculptures set in a contrived space or composed in an existing one so that the audience encounters them in a specific order? If meaning is built into the contrast of one sculpture against the next, then this would be sculpted sequential [narrative] art. It’s possible to me that an open minded interpretation of the medium may then go even further to include, music, speech and dance as companion elements of the Narrative – The Juxtaposition itself between these elements being the blending factor. Again within comics there is president. Many creators hold the idea that the look and feel of the printed books–textures of paper–types of binding–every aspect of the book as an object is an unavoidable element in the reader’s experience and as such intrinsic companion elements.
All to say, from this liberal perspective, sequential narrative art is more a description of a method than the more overt and obvious potential physical traits of the medium such as panels, pictures, pulp & ink. It is the visual creation of a narrative event specifically via juxtaposition in space.
The encoded meanings of images–innate or induced by context–is a major component to the function of sequential narrative art.
The lines between text and art used in the medium blur further when you take into account works that use abstracted art that bares only a passing, group-consensus built resemblance to what it represents–a ready example being stick figures. While they have two arms, two legs, a body & head, they look very little like real people, and often nothing like a specific person. Yet there is enough information encoded in their simple form that almost universally they will be recognised as people. As seen here given a few alterations, hints at hairlines or other iconic bits of specific information, they can even be made to represent specific people; Assuming the iconic bits are understood by the viewers. This takes advantage of the way our brains are wired to fill in details. The possibilities are only limited by the imagination of the artist/author to envision icons that will convey their idea/story to the readers.
Much more refined examples can be found in Manga [the Japanese name for Comics]. Some Manga authors use somewhat standardized refined icons in the art and lettering of their stories. Action elements like stylized speed lines. Emotive ones like character mood signifiers, And specialized sound effect pictograms, not unlike our automatopia in western comics like “bang bang” “pow” and “woooshhh” but I’m led to understand not always made of existing Kanji characters. So they can take some explaining for foreign readers, but for those who are Manga literate they are highly effective.
For these reasons and more I and many other cartoonists see sequential art as a cousin to written languages, with more in common with literature than other mediums of communication. This differs from past conventional views that saw Comics and their kin as Art + Writing, and cast them as a lessor hybrid of two mediums. Or compared comics to film, and found them wanting for the lack of sound and other attributes.
Far from loosing something, when balance well, given that sequential art includes all the elements of traditional literature, and the full range of potential representational and abstract iconic language conceivable, I feel it can be a much more involved and layered form of language than visual art or literature are alone. It can be deceivingly simple and direct in appearance and reading, transcending many barriers common to written or spoken language. Indeed it’s a strength tapped often for public service, as in the case of the instruction pamphlets found on planes. No these are not deep messages but they are important to survival in the rare case of need, and must be digested despite the reluctance to consider the circumstances on the part of many of thier readers. But they are far from limited to crash seating positions. Robert Crumb demonstrated this quite well with his illustrated edition of the Book of Genesis. While at times lending humour to the subject, far from simplifying the story he was able to add a lot to it.
It takes deceptive adept craft and skill to construct meaning this way successfully without being simply didactic it’s true. The consequences of not using the right icons can result in confusion, bad storytelling, and the all too frequent occurrence of cursing due to a model kit or self assembly item’s instruction set frustrating a befuddled user.
So, sequential narrative art can be both basic and complex at once. By being a complete form of pictographic and iconic language it has access to the full range of the human visual vocabulary. If you understand your tools it’s a medium with immense potential. Many a creator has been heard to claim that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what could be done. From our most instinctive innate understanding of body language, to our most abstract forms of communication, it has an awful lot of horse power at it’s disposal.
There is a lingering impression in some minds that comics are related more to cinema via their shared temporal nature, and by their similarity to storyboards; A tool used by film-makers in the planning stages of their work. I see this relationship as valid, but I suspect from a different point of view than many: Most opinions on this that I have encountered fall into the habit of imposing a comparative value judgment on the relationship. Often that Film is the superior medium, with a fully developed language for academic criticism. That comics need to learn from Cinema. Meanwhile Comics creators, who in the west, in recent history suffered from a substantial crisis of ego, have retaliated with the trumpeting of Comics as better than sliced bread! Well I love them too but this may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves, sliced bread is pretty cool.
One is older than the other, that’s all I think.
Comics can learn from film, just as all Art forms can inform other Art forms. Certainly Film too, the younger medium, has learned a thing or two from sequential narrative art.
Film-makers have justifiably co-opted the older, pre-existing medium of sequential narrative art for their own needs; for the same reason it engages me as a storyteller: It is able to describe just as film can, fully, if not quite identically, the temporal human experience. It’s the perfect tool for planning a story out, and in its stripped-down limited form as a Storyboard, it has great strength in its efficient organization of linear or temporal information; Adept at depicting the passage of time and the events that occur from one moment to the next as we move through our universe temporally. But unlike film the pace of the passage of time is left to the design of the page, and ultimately in the hands of the readers.
Series of like size and shaped panels that represent brief moment-to-moment transitions tends to universally imply the ticking of a clock or beating of a drum. While basic–indeed because it is–this kind of panel layout is favoured by creators who don’t want the format to “get in the way of the storytelling”. Their proponents have in some instances been quick to sight their clarity, arguing that more creative panel layouts are distracting. Indeed this kind of storyboard style comic has recently enjoyed a lot of good press, complemented for their excellent pacing and clean structure.
But while effective, I find for my own work the rigid conventions of storyboard style comics using limited page layouts to be constricting if arbitrarily imposed regardless of the contents of the story. Many of the stories I wish to tell occur in far less regular and consistent moments of time. Distorted by the shifting of focus and attention span, and the fuzzy logic of memory. Also the presence of rhythm in the medium has led me to often contemplate the lessons that music can teach a storyteller. The flexing of pace, tempo, tone and colour, too invoke an emotional response in the audience. There are lots of times where the simple standard grid like page layout works fine and saves a lot of time planing. But I’m not inclined to favour it as superior so much as serviceable. Braking away from it’s regularity allows for a lot more variety of expression.
The possibilities are intriguing. As mentioned before, aside from the arbitrary boundaries suggested buy some practitioners of the medium; there is nothing in my conception or definition of the medium that intrinsically rules out three-dimensional imagery. Or states that the imagery be always static. So long as the existence of juxtaposition occurs to communicate a narrative, it is what it is. No?
In abstraction the narrative itself can be inferred by the reader with open icons and suggestive imagery, rather than implied with specific words or forms, as is the norm. In it’s most abstract form it might look a lot like noise. But if the readers participate, finding their own narratives in the juxtaposition of the images & icons, the author[s] will have succeeded in creating a conversation between the audience and the art itself. The Author[s] can attempt to contrive the abstraction to imply specific meaning or experiment with random imagery to see what readers invent with it.
Work of this type already exists in numerous examples. It is frequently seen in the stories of psychedelic creators such as Victor Moscoso & Rick Griffin of the 60s San Francisco underground scene. In the work of the numerous contributors to Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics anthology and blog including the work of fellow Montrealer Billy Mavreas.
Also as I explored before, I see the work of Curators as a form of sequential narrative art. Hanging the individual pieces of work in such a manner as to create a theme or story. In the case of retrospectives telling the story of a career or movement. The individual images may not have been originally intended to relay that story but if they are composed on the gallery walls to do so they become part of a sequential narrative that caries meta content beyond their stand alone messages.
It has been suggested, most notably by Scott McCloud, that the abstraction of a comic character’s features can allow for readers to project their own personalities onto the characters, allowing greater reader interaction, empathy and involvement with the story. Just as with an abstracted narrative this requires a willing reader’s participation. But when successful, the author can create characters that for many readers becomes masks through which they can immerse themselves in the story. I’m doubtful though that it’s merely abstraction that lets a reader in. I suspect it’s in part appealing to them with someone they sympathize with.
Meanwhile in realism and hyper realism, great specific clarity of event and place can be achieved, as seen in the recent Journalistic works of Joe Sacco, [Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde.] It’s worth noting that in his books Sacco combined both abstraction; most noticeably in the characterizations of his players, and especially in his own likeness. And realism; in the environment, describing in painstaking detail the look and feel of war torn regions. This balance is often sighted as one of the features of his books that makes them so compelling.
So all to assert, sequential narrative art is hardly the poor cousin to Literature or the bastard innovation of comic strips as is claimed by it’s detractors. Even from the ranks of its admirers it’s often done the injustice of attributing it to so-called ‘low brow’ ancestry. In an effort to claim the medium as one of the few uniquely American arts, the majority culture has for the last 80 or so years ignored and discounted its rich history that traces the evolution of written human communication, instead relegating it to recent innovations of children’s literature and pulp entertainment for the masses, trivializing it’s existence. While I have more respect for pulp entertainment and children’s literature than most, this is a wholly erroneous origin myth. Until the advent of cinema it was in one form or another a dominant popular form of mass communication. From Gothic Stain Glass, Hieroglyphs, Illuminated Scrolls, Tapestries, Murals, Sculpture Gardens, Relief Sculpture, Mosaics, Medieval Illumination, Theatre Staging, Chinese Script and Cave Painting, and on and on, sequential narrative arts have always been here.
To visually study the historical progression of sequential narrative art online may I suggest you visit the excellent ‘Andy’s Early Comics Archive: A History of Picture Stories‘
Modern Comic Books, as we commonly think of them, have been around for at least 200 years. But sequential art is considerably older, the ‘book’ incarnation arose with the development of early printing techniques. The works of J.F. von Goez in 1783 and Rodolphe Töpffer in the 1800′s closely resembles what you find in the pages of contemporary Comic Books. These first cartoons were the natural form of sequential narrative art in conjunction with the advent of available technology of their time. Just as Web Comics are of the Internet today, the Egyptian Hieroglyphs of stone and chisel, early cave paintings of pigment and hands, Babylonian cuneiform of clay and sticks.
Cinema, its 20thC technologically driven cousin, has at times returned to the conventions of sequential narrative art as a method within the confines of it’s silver screen. Moviemakers have used multiple juxtaposed images in space on occasion from early on in the medium’s history. My favourite modern example is the 1968 film The Boston Strangler by Richard Fleischer, where as a device it was used throughout the film to depict simultaneous storylines. The different storylines appeared in shifting panels that were composed against a black field, creating a negative space for juxtaposition. The shape of the panels themselves even changed affecting the reading of the film, affecting mood and tension. When locations overlapped it represented multiple POVs. See the slide show at the bottom of the post for examples. The technique was also used well in The Thomas Crown Affair, also of 1968.
To close, I’ve notably seen one form of Cinema, a work of Video Art, transform itself completely into a true work of sequential narrative art. The experience was intrinsic to my own re-evaluating of what I’d call comics. How widely I’d draw my circles.
In a mid carrier exhibit by the video artist Michal Rovner at The Whitney Museum of American Art, I saw an instillation titled “Overhanging“. Originally designed as an instillation on the outside of a building, when I viewed it consisted of a large rectangular room with screens down each of the two longer sides. Each was a vertical rectangle, with a narrow gap of about 2 to 4 inches between them [approximated from memory]. The rest of the room, from textured river stone floor to cloth-covered wall to acoustic tile ceiling was black. At the short ends of the room were long low wide benches [also black], and at one end the entrance.
On the screen down the length of the room, a sequence of video loops, very iconic in nature, high contrast and duotone, were projected. Rovner is credited with being a pioneer or digitally manipulated video and photography. In Overhanging Images were Juxtaposed against each other, side by side, and across from each other. From the point of view of the benches the viewer was invited to impose a narrative on a series of meaning loaded iconic images of figures moving through an anonymous landscape populated by what looked to be a lot of misquotes. In the centre frame a loop of a falcon beating its’ wings played much of the time I was in the room. Other similar images were used as well. In addition it incorporated abstracted ambient audio as an eliment, and made good use of the neutral space created by the darkness. The result being an instillation that was quite evocative.
It struck sitting there me how much it shared with many conventional and experimental comics. That it was in all the ways that I think count, sequential narrative art.
Stills from The Boston Strangler by Richard Fleischer
ALL TO SAY.
Take pride in what we do.
There is no can’t, only how.
Don’t pander. Don’t be afraid to confound.
Make it interesting. Make it good.
Take it seriously.
Have serious fun.
Here’s some more embarrassing ramblings on the same subject.
Update to all this[26/01/12]: In the last few years tablets have started to establish themselves as a viable new market for Sequential Narrative Art.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this informs the form of future comics.
To see my ideas in action, check out my short stories here,
and my current Graphic novel in progress here…