Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

As I sat back looking at some of my work recently, trying to figure out how to spontaneously get remarkably better at writing believable, effective dialogue, I glanced over and noticed a journal where I keep some of my poetry. My mind strayed back to my community college creative writing classes, where I read those poems in front of twenty or thirty people and then got critiqued by each person individually.

The most amazing thing to me about poetry is that thirty people can read a poem and have thirty completely different reactions to it. Everyone goes into a poem with different backgrounds and emotions, and draws whatever they need from it at the time. Looking back at the various panels of artwork I’d drawn, devoid of any word balloons, I realized that comics have at least as much potential as poems to fulfill those basic emotional and psychological desires.

This isn’t the USA-Wide Web or the English-Speaking Wide Web that webcomics are being posted on. As a World Wide Web, there is probably something to be said for having the "world" able to look at your comics and "read" them regardless of their ability to comprehend a particular written language. I’ve always heard people in the panels at comic book conventions talk about how the artwork in comics is most effective if you can take away the word balloons and still "get" what is going on.

I’m not saying everyone should just go into Illustrator and whack all your word-balloon templates or anything. Certainly, though, there is a great deal of potential held within comics to not only tell a story without words, but convey a series of images in words that tells a somewhat different story to every person who views them. Perception is reality, and if you leave enough ends just a little loose in your story telling, you can affect all sorts of different emotional and philosophical responses.

The best example I can think of to illustrate the idea of perception being the key to what different people take from a piece of art is from the movie L.A. Story. Steve Martin and his companions are in an art museum looking at a particular piece of art, though the audience can’t see the artwork at first. "I like the relationships. I mean, each character has his own story. I mean the puppy is a bit too much, but you have to overlook that sort of thing when you’re looking at these kinds of paintings. But the way he’s holding her, it’s almost… filthy. And the way his legs are smashed up against her. Look how he’s painted the blouse, sort of translucent so you can just make out her breast underneath and it’s just sort of touching him right here (points to his shoulder). It’s really pretty torrid, don’t you think? And then of course you have the onlookers peeking at them from behind the doorway like they’re all shocked. They wish." The painting they are looking at, it turns out, is just a huge canvas filled with red paint, with some darker red blending in but making no discernable shape.

The painting from L.A. Story is an extreme example for the sake of humor, but it makes the case that a person can walk away from a piece of art, having experienced something completely different yet just as powerful and meaningful to them as to the next viewer. I am certain that the same can be done with sequential art, though it may take a bit more work and finesse to achieve something with as many possibilities as a poem or a painting. You may have to consider the pacing of the panels, the layout of the panels, and indeed every aspect of their content in different ways than you would when approaching a story with dialogue.

Consider this article by Jonathan Ames. When I first read this, the first thing that hit me was how desperately I wanted to read it as a comic. Every time I reread it now, I picture it in different ways, sometimes with only the sparsest of text, other times fully narrated. Maybe, like on a DVD, there could be an option for subtitles or the like. Of course, the problem with that is that it’s very likely you’d choose different moments to show in your panels and different ideas and concepts to leave for the reader to figure out on their own in the gutters between the panels. There is a lot to consider here, but that just means there is a lot of potential for creativity and innovation, two things I for one am a big fan of.

I’m getting back to working on my own comics. Certainly, a portion of the stories I am telling just feel better with dialogue and narration included. However, I have discovered that some of the pieces I had been struggling with work much better – at least for what I am trying to accomplish – with a complete absence of textual language.


  1. Humor is one of the hardest things to get across international borders. I remember a German exchange student who was bewildered at the way that Americans laughed at accents. Such a concept was beyond his understanding. I myself am surprised at how well certain Japanese artists (such as Rumiko Takahashi) get humor across international lines– sure, good translators help, but the humor is there to begin with. Of course, a good part of it is, as you say, good art.

    Comic strips are ideally a marriage of artwork and words. Even if the art is just a form of shorthand (such as showing the characters on a mountaintop instead of describing it) or the words just underscore the art, they are essential. A comic that does not require one or the other is not really a comic but a piece of writing or a piece of art.

  2. So, let me toss this out there. Are you saying that, for example, When I am King by Demian5 is not a comic?

    I asked a poll question in my Talk ABout Comics forum “Is sequential artwork, without words, still a comic?” I only got four people to respond, but of the four, four said yes. And I make five.

    So, I’d be interested to hear you expand on your argument. And it may be that we’re just splitting hairs here. But any time the very definition of what a comic is comes up I jump on it. Part of what I think is the struggle for comics in mainstream media outlets is that unlike movies or books, which can be very clearly defined and identified, comics are somewhat nebulous.

Comments are closed.