Art and Narrative: Bursting the Bubble and the Context of Text in Comics

Last month I wrote about the developing potential of the webcomic medium, and the some of the way in which the inherited conventions of print have made some creators reluctant to experiment. Conventions (and I’m not talking about the one in San Diego) are immensely important to any language, as they communicate important information and offer an identifiable standard to help facilitate understanding.

Webcomics, and Comics in general, are largely dependent upon what Neil Cohn refers to as Visual Language – essentially meaning that they are comprised of visual images. However, as Cohn is quick to point out on his site, Visual Language and Comics are not the same thing. This is due to the fact that most Comics incorporate both Textual and Visual Language: words and pictures.

The relationship between words and pictures in Comics is a complicated one, having given rise to some interesting theory and debate. They exist as separate, though complimentary elements, working together to tell stories.

But do they have to exist separately?

I think it’s significant that the majority of text we see in Comics appears within bubbles, balloons and boxes. It seems to reinforce the idea that words and pictures are separate elements, and that they can only "survive" together under certain conditions (or through the use of conventions like the word balloon. Words in word-balloons are like fish in a fishbowl. We can look in on them, but they have been set apart from the rest of the comic. There are good reasons for keeping the fish where they are, and I won’t argue that point (read Eisner‘s Comics and Sequential Art). The question is, what happens to those goldfish that leave the bowl?

Glych, the creator of No Stereotypes, hosted on Keenspace, is one of a number of webcomic creators experimenting with text in comics. Glych’s mostly typographical experiments manipulate text both in and outside of the panel to "evoke a reaction and an emotion from the reader."

"If a creator can alter the way [the reader] perceives the information," writes Glych, "then it will help with the impact, pacing and total perception of the comic."

By manipulating the arrangement of the text within the comic, or changing its appearance through the use of various fonts some creators have managed to take the text in comics out of its traditional context, and given it greater significance. This may not be anything new to Comics in general, but it’s still relatively rare in most webcomics, which is ironic when you consider all of the technology that is involved in their production.

One of the interesting side-effects of breaking with text conventions in comics is that the lines between text and picture begin to blur. In a sense, through the act of typographical play, text becomes an even more integral part of the visual and narrative landscape of Comics, and occasionally indiscernible from the image itself.

A particularly good example of Comics where text often becomes landscape is Marcel Guldemon’s Dot.Dot.Dot, currently appearing on

"I don’t think that I ever develop text for my comics without the corresponding images in my head, so they’re always part of the same thing. I don’t usually differentiate the two. However, I would say that the visual construction is more important than the text, which is a lot more than just images tucked into panels."

"The visual construction," Guldemon explains, "which takes into account how much text needs to go where on the page, determines the emotional readability of the page."

When the visual construction of Comics, what Barber refers to as the ‘mise-en-page’, takes text into account, and treats it as an element of the overall visual narrative all sorts of things become possible. The key, of course, is experimentation.Much of the debate and theorizing is based on the assumption that textual and pictorial elements are two different things, but the use of typography in comics would seem to suggest that they are not so different as some people think. In fact, I would go so far as to say that text in Comics, when used outside of narrative boxes and word balloons is not text. When we remove it from the traditional contexts it becomes a pictorial element and an integral part of the image (or at least it has the potential to become so).

Imagine a comic where the landscape or the characters themselves are composed entirely of text, where the words themselves might take on the shape of whatever they might be describing. At some point Comics, typography and concrete poetry might blur together to create some strange new beast. It’s not impossible.

Several of the people I have mentioned in this column are already taking steps towards a different relationship between words and pictures, and some of the most interesting experiments are happening right here, on the web. The potential is there, waiting to be explored.

So what are you waiting for? Go burst some bubbles!

BIll Duncan


  1. Excellent article and excellent illustrations! I’m delighted that you’re pursuing the subject of comics theory so vigorously, Bill!

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