In Search of a Webcomics Dictionary

Recently, while working my way through Neil Cohn’s essays on visual language, it occurred to me that a set of definitions from Cohn would be helpful, because I was considering referencing some of his terms in my work, and I realized I didn’t know which terms were his, which were coined by others, and which came from linguistics.  Plus I wanted more details on how he was using certain terms. So I asked him if he had a dictionary and he does! He even kindly put it on his website for all to see. (Thank you, Neil!)

Meditating on that, I started thinking about the most basic terms that we use in talking about comics and I decided to write out some of them.

Comics are representations. While we talk about how this character "said" or "did" something, it is actually words and images on a screen. The use of sound is an anomaly.

Comics contain images, usually illustrated, almost always static (unmoving).

Comics contain characters (as in actors, rather than letters).

Comics contain an environment in which the characters exist, and which appears in the background. Even those comics with a blank background usually refer to its non-existence in a meta way (where meta is an abstraction from a concept to analyze that concept).

Characters communicate.  Most often their communication is represented through thought bubbles or speech balloons where what they think or say is enclosed by a line.  Thought bubbles connect to characters through a series of smaller bubbles.  Speech balloons connect the words to the speaker with a solid line or tail.  Sometimes character communication is non-verbal in that there are no printed words.  Instead there may be facial expressions, gestures, or iconic representations (like an exclamation point above a character’s head representing surprise in English-based comics or the large drop of liquid representing sweat and fear in Japanese-based comics).  Cohn has an excellent list of symbolic representations on his site.

Occasionally comics are narrated, i.e., commentary is printed above or below an image. Instead of having webcomic character Roger say "I am angry" in a balloon over his head, the commentary (usually in its own squared-off box) says "Roger is angry" while showing an image of Roger with a typical facial expression (and sometimes body posture) of anger. Most importantly, there is no line of bubbles nor a tail connecting the words to Roger.

Comics are divided into panels. One panel is a unit of a comic and can take nearly any shape imaginable, although traditionally panels are rectangular.

Cohn classifies panels as micro, mono, macro, or polymorphic.

Per Cohn’s paper, "A Visual Lexicon", the micro is often a close-up or partial image of a character or environment. A mono contains a "single entity" e.g., one character. A macro contains multiple entities (a couple kissing, a crowd gathering). And a polymorphic panel shows multiple representations of a single character, illustrated in such a way as to indicate movement. e.g., a character walks from her house to her car or a gymnast goes from one end of the mat to the other, tumbling and flipping, but all shown in a single panel.

All print comics and many webcomics are also divided into pages. One page is usually a series of panels. In webcomics, a page is a convenient or dramatic break point in panels. In English webcomics, pages are read left to right, top to bottom, although more experimental webcomics can lead readers on a merry chase around the page, whether or not they’re using infinite canvas.

Infinite canvas refers to the idea that because the web is virtual, and has no edges like a page, you can extend a webcomic well beyond the limits imposed by physical restrictions.

If you’re using panels, the space between them is called a gutter.

If you’re using pages, when a panel runs off a page, it’s called a bleed.

As discussed in the comments of March’s column, when the penultimate panel in a strip contains no dialogue or narration, it’s called a pause panel or a beat panel. (McCloud calls it a pause panel in Understanding Comics.)

I’m sure there are MANY more terms we can isolate and define with regard to webcomics. There are actually a fair number of comics-related dictionaries online. Google turned up over 7,000 for the phrase "comics dictionary." Here are a couple of the more popular and useful-looking ones:

For the phrase "webcomics dictionary" all I got was ONE crappy advertising link.  Switching from the plural to "webcomic dictionary" wasn’t much better.  I got 23 hits, most of which were dead or linked to German sex lubricant sites.  Except one:

…which was nice, but not exactly what I was seeking.  Any other terms you folks can suggest? I’ll be poring through my references looking for more good terms for next time.


Note: I’m still looking for terms or references. Feel free to suggest or link to stuff you think I’d find useful with regard to comics criticism. Thanks.

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