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Iconic...or Representational?

For a while, more by consistent accident than on purpose, I've been drawing the contents of the speech bubbles in Pear-Pear in a slightly more representational style than much of what goes on in the "physical" space of the comic. Cases in point are the detailed garbage heap and the dream crocodile. I like the effect sometimes, but I think it creates problems for me other times.

After reading Neil Cohn’s column on framing, I've been more actively thinking about speech bubbles. The conventionality of the speech bubble lends legibility--or the illusion of legibility--to what is sometimes visual gibberish, or provides the key tool for getting a whole visual sentence out of a single panel.

The concept of framing might even justify changing artistic style within the bubbles in a way that mirrors the shifts in rhetorical style that distinguishes narrative frames in Chaucer’s work (which is what made me so interested in him in grad school). But I’ll have to work that out another day. Today, let me focus on the problem I created for myself in this recent comic.

In my original sketch, the flower in the framed-pear’s speech bubble was iconic. A flat-on view of eight petals radiating from a circle. Somewhere in the process I decided to draw instead a small boquet with at least one flower specifically identifiable (a pansy).

The idea in the comic is that the pear (in the main physical space) is deciding to apologize to the kiwi. The framed pear functions like the pronoun “I,” and the fact that it is in a speech bubble indicates (to me anyway) that he occupies a linguistic or rhetorical space, and should therefore be seen as depicting a state or event that is not present--either because it is in the past, or the future, or the imagination (I forget which theorist proposed that speech acts are always expressions of a tension between what’s real and what isn’t…sounds Lacanian?). And finally, operating more like a synecdoche, the flower was supposed to represent apology. People send flowers when they’re sorry, right? So to sum up, the pear is saying something like, “I want to apologize.”

This process sounds like a complicated set of mental hoops to jump through to get at a very banal meaning. But I’d maintain that it isn’t much more brainwork than reading text; it’s just that we’re used to reading text. So, anyway, to get back to the twist in my authorial panties--would this cartoon have been clearer if the flowers had been more iconic? Would it be clearer that speech bubbles should be read as rhetorical spaces if the images contained in them were *less* representational? Or would the comic still confuse the heck out of people (As I hear from some quarters it does)?

The only defense I can think of for adopting a more representational style within rhetorical/linguistic spaces is the ol’ appeal to authority: Chaucer did it. Check out the Parliament of Fowls. Or the Book of the Duchess. The more hit-you-over-the-head allegorical the stories get, the more fun Chaucer has playing with realism. A better-known example: The Wife of Bath--is she a very detailed allegorical figure within an Estates Satire, or a life-like portrait of some historical personage?

I was hoping to solve my problem by writing about it, but the process has only left my questions more open-ended. Any ideas?

Re: Iconic...or Representational?

There are no right and wrong answers to these sorts of questions. It truly does depend on your aim. If your object is to send some sort of message in your illustrations in the most direct way possible, then I agree with vulpeslibertas, more obvious symbol, such as a peace sign may have conveyed the idea of wanting to apologize more literally. However, part of the novelty of a comic like pear-pear might be to leave some elements of image ambiguous and open to interpretation. It's really the choice of symbol that's creating the variance in interpretation because, to me at least, flowers symbolize a thousand different ideas at once. Looking at the comic, my first reaction was that pear pear and kiwi must have developed a newfound love of botany. Style enhances or alters the shade of meaning, but doesn't independently define it because style is reliant on what it is applied to.

I do think that the more representational style does add an interesting element to the comic though. When we consider the way that we process thoughts, speech, and concepts, our minds tend to breakdown and simply thoughts, a more iconic visual of them would probably be more congruous to this process. However, the fact that pear pear's thoughts seem to be more vivid, more "actual" than the reality that he inhabits, could be interpreted as some sort of unconscious commentary. I really enjoy the unexpected twist.

 

Re: Iconic...or Representational?

Ninja-bot's picture

I'd figure a bouquet would've gotten the point across more.

Still, the best part about pear-pear is that, because there's little to no text (bubbles or outside of them) it allows me to come to my own conclusions. In a way you're letting me take part in the creation of a second webcomic outside of my own, which is pretty damn neat of ya.

For instance, in the above comic tha's got your panties in a twist, I'd figured that Pear was offering his friend a present, but due to his demeanour outside of the bubbble I'd assumed that it didn't go well, and his friend dumped his ass. Or something.


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Re: Iconic...or Representational?

I don't think it's so much a choice of style as it is choice of icon. As long as your style has some consitancy or clear pattern to it, anything will work. More realism conotes formal, detailed, or deep-rooted feeling, so a real flower would be more sincere. A bouquet to me is much more representational of appology, but also conotes romantic love. A peace sign (though more abstract) would be a better choice. Perhaps a small montage of daisies, peace symbols and hearts would also be effective.

I think a significant flaw in the symbology is failure to fully anticipate other interpretations of symbols. If you use a symbol with multiple meanings, you need to include additional symbols which clarify or eliminate conflicting messages.

Re: Iconic...or Representational?

Pear-pear's picture

True; consistency is going to be key. I've been kind of dancing on the line of carefully building a visual vocabulary and wrecklessly toying with it. For instance, I decided that whenever a character grumbles, his speech bubble is small, shaky one with a small object in it--a tack, a seed, a button, a pile of dust. Perhaps it would serve my readers better if I picked a consistent grumble-symbol, no matter how arbitrary. Maybe it would eventually become clear that buttons were grumbles, if I used only buttons.

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www.pear-pear.com

---http://www.pear-pear.com

Re: Iconic...or Representational?

brideau's picture

I actually think your more representational flower is the way to go. If you think about people giving someone flowers to say "I'm sorry" you think of a bouquet of flower, which is far more solemn than an iconic flower (described above). In my mind, an iconic flower is quite cheery and light, suggesting pear saying to Kiwi, "Go pin a rose on your nose" or "Lighten up, tight-wad." Clearly the wrong message to send. A representational flower is far more sincere.

 

Also, if you look at folks like Walt Kelly, you'll see a variety of fonts used in their word bubbles. These usually didn't change within the characters they were assigned to, but there's no reason you can't have different styles of drawing (or any cartoonist have different styles of font) to denote differing moods or inflections in a character's voice. expressing characters' emotion through text is nearly impossible, what with only four universal indicators, bold, italics, caps, and punctuations. some might argue that emotion is supposed to be expressed through the visual aspects of a comic, but I'd argue that text really aught to be considered a visual aspect of a comic.

 

What's important is making your "dialogue" styles" consistant. The flower work. But why was the crocadile realistic? It really threw me off when I first saw it, and honestly a number of your comics have done that, and now I'm not sure if the ones I don't get are me not reading them correctly, or you not meaning anything by them. The more intentional you make each line (without losing the really high quality art you in particular have), and the more you build for you and your readers a visual vocabulary, the more you'll be able to express your ideas in a readable fashion.

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Re: Iconic...or Representational?

I think it works okay as it is. I'd reason it like this: The scene of Pear and Kiwi in the outer bubble is a possible past or future event in the strip's world, so it makes sense to draw that in the same style as the main picture that shows the "present". The flower is a symbol, not a "real" object, so it makes sense to distinguish it by a different drawing style. The strip's main drawing style is already somewhat iconic, using fairly simple shapes for the faces, so it makes sense to go in the opposite representational direction for symbols and dream-monsters and other things that are unreal in the strip's world. (BTW, some of the links aren't working - they've got the comixtalk and your comic's address combined.)

Re: Iconic...or Representational?

Pear-pear's picture

thanks for the thoughts; and the tip on the links--fixed 'em.

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www.pear-pear.com

---http://www.pear-pear.com