Form Is Function by John Barber

Taking a look at my bookshelf, I find the two best books ever on the subjects of writing and drawing comics. Both are written by director/screenwriter/playwright David Mamet.

The books are On Directing Film (which is about writing comics) and True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (which is about drawing comics). I don’t know why the titles make them sound like they’re about directing films and acting in plays; maybe the publishers figured they could sell more copies that way. Whatever. They’re about making comics.

Now, okay, here’s the thing. I know comics aren’t film. I know the vocabulary isn’t the same. That’s not the direction I’m coming from. I’ve been reading Will Eisner most of my life, and I’ve completely accepted the fact that, whatever their similarities, there are a lot of differences between comics and film.

But Mamet’s books really have more application to comics than they do to the subjects he’s ostensibly writing about.

I assume not everybody’s up to speed on Mamet’s philosophies at the time he wrote the books, so I’ll vulgarly summarize. On Directing Film: films are made up of independent shots edited together, not a camera following the protagonist around. True and False: actors should do the physical action called for in the script and not make a concerted effort to emote.

There’s more to it than that, and, honestly, I think Mamet’s movies are better when he isn’t entirely dogmatic about actors not, like, acting things. His newer films tend to have the actors emoting more – a lot more – than his early ones, and I think that his newer films are more fun to watch.

This doesn’t discount the application of what he’s saying, though, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, though; to my mind – and I freely admit there’s no empirical evidence to support this, just a very good book on the subject – the main thing about comics is closure; the space between panels. I believe that this is the essential thing that makes comics comics (though unlike what’s presented in Understanding Comics, I think that closure can occur within a single image or between an image and a piece of text like a caption, but that’s another story).

A long time ago, I wrote a script for a comic that Brendan Cahill drew. I remember writing all these descriptive emotions that would be on character’s faces, like “as Tommy looks at Carol, a wistfully disingenuous smile plays across his lips” or whatever. Brendan gave me some funny line about his characters only ever looking four ways, period.

It was a funny line, but he was right. You can’t draw “wistfully disingenuous”. Writers write it, but it can’t be drawn.

What about “anxious”, though? You can’t really draw “anxious”, at least not in one image. Except that, unlike “wistfully disingenuous”, there are visual symbols that have been developed for “anxious”. So, then, do you draw little sweat beads? That’s a cartooning shorthand for anxious, but is that the most interesting—the most true to comics – way to do it?

Let’s say you have a panel, or a sequence of panels, and the point of the sequence is to show that the guy in the comic is – instead of anxious, how about something easier to visualize, like sad. The point of the sequence is “the guy is sad”. This isn’t the point of the comic, this is just what you’re trying to establish with this sequence of panels.

You shouldn’t just show a guy looking sad. It’s dishonest; people don’t stand around looking sad.

Well, they do, but it’s been my experience that people look sad when they want attention, not necessarily when they’re actually sad. This ties way back into my thoughts on Bill Viola’s art exhibit, “The Passions”, which was comprised of slow-motion videos of people acting out what I considered to be dishonest, cartoon versions of emotions. I’m not really interested in this. I don’t think emotions work that simply, and my reluctance to want to visually portray them as working that simply seems to separate me from an entire school of philosophy about creating comics.

I don’t think that drawings of exaggerated emotional reactions that rely on culturally accepted clichés should be the basis of my comics.

If the point is “guy is sad” and you show a guy looking sad, so what? What’s been accomplished? Does it resonate with the reader? Does the reader say, “That guy looks sad. Yeah, I’ve been sad, I know where frowning guy’s coming from. I relate to frowning guy.”

If the point is “guy walks into a building” and you draw the guy with a frown, ok, as long as he’s still going into a building – the frown is additional information that adds flavor to the scene.

This is where I think Mamet’s old movies were lacking. He was right that the actors shouldn’t be acting the point of the shot – the shot should be making the point of the shot – but not having actors act like anything is like not having sets. It’s a cute gimmick if you’re Lars von Trier, but it’s not a good guiding impulse if you want to make movies – or comics – the public wants to see.

But when the point of the panel is “guy is sad”, showing the guy as frowning is like having a caption that says “the guy was sad”. Fine, but the next panel better back it up or build on it. And the rest of the comic better keep that same methodology. If you start writing like The Old Man and the Sea you have to keep it up, you can’t switch to Shakespeare halfway through.

Now, okay, I admit that you can go down the road of having the cartooning carry the emotions. It’d be absurd of me to claim otherwise. Many, many good comics come from this road.

But it’s not the road for me.

If the primary aspect of comics is closure – and, again, I’m just making that assumption because I like it – then the important emotional/intellectual points should come through in the juxtaposition of panels, not the panels themselves. Or the points should be made in some form of juxtaposition: caption to image, part of image to rest of image, etc.

The guy shouldn’t be sad in the panel, he should be sad between the panels.

John Barber is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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  1. This column is HOTT, with two t’s, it’s that hot.

    I did the whole Fame high school thing as an actress, so maybe I’m biased, but at least the True and False book really is about comics and not acting. Because it wasn’t about acting.

  2. Fascinating thoughts, John. I’m awfully guilty of scripting some ridiculous emotive directions myself. But my experience is that my own writing is best when the point lies in the tension between the image and the text–drawing on closure, just as you say.

  3. This is exactly what I thought about Wordplay, a website for movie script writers. Most of the information they have is valuable to comic writers as well.

  4. I haven’t read ‘True or False,’ but I was fascinated by ‘On Directing Film.’ What I especially liked were sections where the screenplay was developed more or less from scratch. As I recall, what Mamet was trying to demonstrate was that the screenplay should advance based on what can be shown, not on some pre-conceived plot that may not be suitable to visualization. Maybe that’s not a fair summary, I don’t have the book in front of me.

    I also liked his practicality. At one point a notebook was introduced in the screenplay. He asked the students, ‘what should the notebook look like?’ The correct answer was that the notebook should look unique, so that the audience will remember it, and recognize it when it shows up again.

    Some other neat ideas– Mamet thinks that the essence of a scene is that somebody wants something. When they get it, or conclusively don’t get it, then the scene is over.

    And Mamet said that establishing shots are unnecessary. He believes that in film at least, the audience instinctively knows where the character is. (Hitchcock was not that cavalier about it, but in Hitchcock/Truffaut, he pointed out that it’s effective to start a scene with closeups, and then pull back for the establishing shot later.)

    To my mind, all filmmaking books are relevant to comics.

  5. Uh, I didn’t sign in, but the above was from Joe Zabel.

  6. He can still be sad in the panel. This could be necessary information, and the reason for his sadness could be inferred.

    Say our guy meets an old friend on the street and she introduces her fiance. Afterwards, the guy looks sad.

    The reader can see he is sad, but must still infer the reason that he is sad.

    In one of my own comic strips, here, I have two consecutive closeup panels just to show a character’s facial expression. That should be the worst possible case of showing his mood when it should be implied.

    But I’d like to think the comic still works. Not everyone would react as he does, so it implies something about his character.

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