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 donâ€™t know why the titles make them sound like theyâ€™re about directing films and acting in plays; maybe the publishers figured they could sell more copies that way. Whatever. Theyâ€™re about making comics.
Now, okay, hereâ€™s the thing. I know comics arenâ€™t film. I know the vocabulary isnâ€™t the same. Thatâ€™s not the direction Iâ€™m coming from. Iâ€™ve been reading Will Eisner most of my life, and Iâ€™ve completely accepted the fact that, whatever their similarities, there are a lot of differences between comics and film.
But Mametâ€™s books really have more application to comics than they do to the subjects heâ€™s ostensibly writing about.
I assume not everybodyâ€™s up to speed on Mametâ€™s philosophies at the time he wrote the books, so Iâ€™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.
Thereâ€™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 â€“ a lot more â€“ than his early ones, and I think that his newer films are more fun to watch.
This doesnâ€™t discount the application of what heâ€™s saying, though, and Iâ€™ll get to that in a minute.
First, though; to my mind â€“ and I freely admit thereâ€™s no empirical evidence to support this, just a very good book on the subject â€“ 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 whatâ€™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 thatâ€™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 canâ€™t draw "wistfully disingenuous". Writers write it, but it canâ€™t be drawn.
What about "anxious", though? You canâ€™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? Thatâ€™s a cartooning shorthand for anxious, but is that the most interestingâ€”the most true to comics â€“ way to do it?
Letâ€™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 â€“ instead of anxious, how about something easier to visualize, like sad. The point of the sequence is "the guy is sad". This isnâ€™t the point of the comic, this is just what youâ€™re trying to establish with this sequence of panels.
You shouldn't just show a guy looking sad. Itâ€™s dishonest; people don't stand around looking sad.
Well, they do, but itâ€™s been my experience that people look sad when they want attention, not necessarily when theyâ€™re actually sad. This ties way back into my thoughts on Bill Violaâ€™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 donâ€™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 donâ€™t think that drawings of exaggerated emotional reactions that rely on culturally accepted clichÃ©s should be the basis of my comics.
If the point is "guy is sad" and you show a guy looking sad, so what? Whatâ€™s been accomplished? Does it resonate with the reader? Does the reader say, "That guy looks sad. Yeah, Iâ€™ve been sad, I know where frowning guyâ€™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 heâ€™s still going into a building â€“ the frown is additional information that adds flavor to the scene.
This is where I think Mametâ€™s old movies were lacking. He was right that the actors shouldnâ€™t be acting the point of the shot â€“ the shot should be making the point of the shot â€“ but not having actors act like anything is like not having sets. Itâ€™s a cute gimmick if youâ€™re Lars von Trier, but itâ€™s not a good guiding impulse if you want to make movies â€“ or comics â€“ 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 canâ€™t switch to Shakespeare halfway through.
Now, okay, I admit that you can go down the road of having the cartooning carry the emotions. Itâ€™d be absurd of me to claim otherwise. Many, many good comics come from this road.
But itâ€™s not the road for me.
If the primary aspect of comics is closure â€“ and, again, Iâ€™m just making that assumption because I like it â€“ 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 shouldnâ€™t be sad in the panel, he should be sad between the panels.
John Barber is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.