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Words and Music... er, Images
By Karen Green
Friday April 3, 2009 09:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
I know I've brought this up before, and lord knows it's been hashed over to hell-and-gone by everyone from bloggers to scholars to industry professionals, but let's all say it together one more time: comics tell a story via sequential art in which text and images are inextricably intertwined. (Well, except when there are no words. But let's not cloud the issue, eh?) Will Eisner put it succinctly, in his book Comics & Sequential Art: comics are "the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea."

That seems pretty straightforward, right? Not such a challenging concept? I mean, that the words can't exist without the images or the images without the words? Not so difficult to comprehend? Not too arcane? And yet . . .

In January of 2008, Groundwood Books released a graphic novel called Skim, written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by Jillian Tamaki. The Tamakis are cousins from Canada, although Jillian now lives here in New York. In October, Skim was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award, a hugely prestigious Canadian prize (Skim was nominated in the Children's Literature category, which is grounds for an entirely different, and parenthetical, rant; see below). Or, to be more precise, Mariko Tamaki alone was nominated. Because she is the writer. Of a graphic novel.


Jillian Tamaki was thrilled for her cousin, of course, but couldn't help feeling a little, well, disappointed. In November, Chester Brown and Seth, among Canada's Finest Kind in the medium of comics, wrote a letter to the Canada Council, in an attempt to get Jillian Tamaki the recognition she deserved. As they pointed out, "[I]n graphic novels, the words and pictures BOTH tell the story, and there are often sequences (sometimes whole graphic novels) where the images alone convey the narrative. The text of a graphic novel cannot be separated from its illustrations because the words and the pictures together ARE the text." The letter's supporting signatories included Lynda Barry, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Art Spiegelman, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, among half a dozen others.

The Governor General's awards have several categories: fiction, poetry, drama, non-fiction; only the children's literature is split into text and illustration. I guess I can understand that—for children's literature. I'm not convinced that Skim actually IS children's literature, of course: is it Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret or is it A Catcher in the Rye?

(I tend to think it's the latter, given the distinctive and genuine voice of Skim's protagonist, which reminded me keenly of Holden Caulfield—and I see I'm not the only one. The New York Times, however, reviewed it in its children's book category—perhaps because it is about a teenager? I was curious, after noting this, as to how A Catcher in the Rye was reviewed back in 1951. I found a review in The Nation which began, disdainfully, "Echoes reach me of the popularity of ‘The Catcher in the Rye.' Why has this unpretentious, mildly affecting chronicle of a few days in the life of a disturbed adolescent been read with enthusiasm by Book-of-the-Month Club and lending-library adults ordinarily concerned with fiction as a frivolous diversion or as a source of lofty, incontrovertible platitudes?" and concluded "…though always lively in its parts, the book as a whole is predictable and boring." The reviewer seems as perplexed by adults' interest in a book about an adolescent as many are by adults' fascination with the Harry Potter books, but the issue is subject matter, not audience. The reviewer at no point assumes that this is a book written for children.)

OK, that was a long digression. Sorry. Back to the interdependence of words and images in this medium of comics.

As I thought about the split that the Governor General's awards had imposed on Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, I found myself thinking about music, another collaborative medium in which the lines between the various contributors can be blurred. When, say, the Oscar for Best Song went to "It Might as Well Be Spring," from the 1945 musical , it went to both Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics). You can't really separate the two, can you? When "Not Ready to Make Nice" won the 2006 Grammy for Song of the Year, the award was given to the three members of the Dixie Chicks plus Dan Wilson, all listed as songwriters—because writing that song was a group effort. (The Tonys finesse this a bit, the sneaky devils, giving a separate award for score and for libretto.)

But you see my point, yes? How was the creative process that went into creating Skim any different than, say, George and Ira Gershwin creating "I Got Rhythm"?

Last September, Jillian Tamaki was part of a Howl! Festival panel on graphic memoir, called "Inside Out: Self and Society in Comic Art." That evening, she talked about the process of sending story and art back and forth between Toronto and New York, evolving the story gradually, mutually. During the Q&A, I remarked to the panel, many of whom were primarily artists, that writers are always listed first in the credits for a book. Did that bother them? Mostly, they feigned outrage, joking. An editor in the audience defended the practice, however, maintaining that the writer comes up with the story. Well, maybe. Maybe the idea for the story. But does every writer plan exactly how the story will be shown—or does that function often fall to the artist? What does the artist contribute to the actual narrative?


Click either image to view full-size, side-by-side

When Mariko wrote what became the page on top, she may well have asked Jillian to indicate the passing of time in a sleepless night. But what about the page and a half just below that? Who decided to juxtapose Skim's narration of the dissolution of her parents' marriage, of her family, with the quotidian task of making, eating, and cleaning up dinner? What does that juxtaposition add to the mood of the story, the depiction of Skim's inner life, the way in which life goes on after even the most traumatic event? How much of the narrative thrust depends on what the reader gleans from that contrast?

Do you know Freakangels? It's a weekly webcomic, written by Warren Ellis (in the UK) and drawn by Paul Duffield (in Australia), that re-imagines the eerie children from Village of the Damned as 20-somethings in a post-apocalyptic London. Each Friday, a new 6-page installment is uploaded. Take a look at this installment, for chapter 35. Three of the six pages have no dialogue; the narrative is carried entirely by the artwork. How much of that was planned by Ellis, how much conceived by Duffield? Does Ellis plan each page and panel meticulously, or does he write out general narrative and dialogue and leave it to Duffield to apportion out into six pages. I don't know. Does it matter? If Freakangels were nominated for an award…is Ellis the sole awardee?

Earlier this week, I was chatting with Nick Sousanis, a new friend who, as a doctoral student at Columbia's Teachers College, has submitted projects in the form of comics. I told him a little about what I was writing about, and asked if it was possible to determine what comes first, words or images. His response: "I don't know." He pulled out some papers from a bag and showed them to me—the rough plans of the visual layout and script for the next comic he was working on. In the script, the paragraph describing the opening image began with these words: "Something about flatness."

I like that. "Something about flatness." Both vague and evocative. Nick, of course, is artist and writer on his projects, so perhaps "something about flatness" will mean more to him than if he sent it off to another artist. Because…what does one do with "something about flatness"? If an artist received that instruction and interpreted it in his or her own way, is Nick still the sole author of that passage? What if the artist's interpretation ends up changing the way Nick conceives of his story in the first place?

While Nick and I chatted about words and images, he reminded me of the 1983 article Alan Moore wrote about the evolution of V for Vendetta, included in the Vertigo edition of the graphic novel. Moore describes his circuitous path through the development of the story: from transvestite terrorism to a 1930s pulp adventure to a futuristic political thriller. The title was proposed by editor Dez Skinn before the story had even been hashed out. Artist David Lloyd came up with the Guy Fawkes imagery that gelled Moore's thinking, and Lloyd also mandated that there would be no thought balloons or captions. Moore describes long phone calls with heated arguments between writer and artist over plot developments. So, if one were to identify the "author" of V for Vendetta, how could one in good conscience say it was only Alan Moore?

But why am I writing about this in a column about comics in academia? Well, when teaching in any discipline, it helps to define terms, so that all involved have a structure on which to build their thinking. But the real reason this interests me is because we have a phrase for this kind of event in the ed biz: we call it a "teachable moment." At my Comic-Con panel, there was a lot of talk about visual literacy, about growing faculty awareness of comics as something that can be taught. I think that academia has not simply an opportunity here, but an obligation. Skim's nomination represented a profound misunderstanding of an entire medium, on the part of a cultural institution. We can help stop that from happening again.

Now there's something to sing about.
All images from Skim, Groundwood Books, 2008; pages 22, 106, and 9-10, respectively.

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.

Comic Adventures in Academia is © Karen Green, 2010

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arcono38 (6 months ago)
Students’ success usually depends on narrative essay provided by writing service. But your data related to this post supposes to be useful as well.
Gerard Jones (1 year ago)
It's always so sad when people try to do the right thing (give prestigious awards to graphic novels, for instance) and still get it wrong (have no frigging idea how the medium works). Disappointing for the Tamakis and frustrating for the rest of us...but at least it gave us another superb Green column. As ever, you make your points with erudite and unpretentious liveliness.
Gene, above, is right that the "Marvel Method" is much less common than it was. When I wrote for Marvel in the '90s it was basically required; the DC "full script" method was disdained and stodgy and biased against dynamic art. But now I'm told by younger writers at Marvel that the full script is the norm even there. But even the full script, from my experience, is a very collaborative form. If I knew the writer and had some chemistry with him, we'd nearly always exchange notes beforehand. And even if I wrote a script not knowing who the artist was going to be, there would always be some unexpected departures from my script in the art that would require the text to be adjusted. So, apart from the more cerebral arguments that the art is part of the text, it's safe to assume that the artist brought literal changes to the plot that sent the words in a different direction. Even in the fullest full script, it's never just the writer's story.
And by the same token, the visuals are never entirely just the artist's. Writers call for specific visuals, suggest visual motifs, set pace and tone. Sometimes an artist would seize upon one image and change the pacing so it became a full-page splash, a la Kirby; but very often I was the one who thought a splash would be the right rhythmic note right there. (I remember some writers grumbling about this when the original-art market exploded in the late '80s and artists were suddenly making hundreds of dollars a page on top of what the comic itself made them. There were the pictures we had described, from the stories we had conceived, with our words all over them, but only the penciller and inker made a cent. Artists learned quickly, though, that they could shut us up pretty effectively with a couple of free pages and an affectionate inscription.)
So once again a great column. But I gotta ask you: who wrote that Nation review of Catcher? Because (call me a Philistine if you will), it kinda sums up my feelings about the thing....
nsousanis (1 year ago)
Great Column, Karen. Thanks for the props too. In the midst of writing a brief essay on my process for a show some of my work is in, and struggling with that chicken/egg question of whether words or pictures came first. For me as i painfully unarticulately stated above, it's a dance between the two, each sort of acting like a scaffold to build more of the comic upwards. I have of late, just to get in the practice of it, been writing myself a full detailed, panel by panel script - although after that dance has been going on for some time. But even then, things continue to emerge from the interaction of words and pictures. Loved Gene's detailed comments and looking forward to checking out Bissette's words. Glad too, to get the full nature of the Skim process. Very cool. thanks for your efforts Karen. - Nick
klg19 (1 year ago)
One more thing to add: I sent an email to Jillian Tamaki with a link to this column, and she was kind enough to let me know I could post some of her reply. Not only does she set straight my misremembering about the nature of her collaborative process with Mariko, but she sheds an even brighter light on the nature of her contribution to the SKIM narrative, which makes the Governor General's awards look even more clueless.
"Mariko is a playwright and hence wrote the script for Skim like a play. So it contained all dialogue, but little else. There were occasional indications here and there of location (the caf, the ravine, the frozen field behind the school) and occasional visual cues (Skim doesn't look at Ms. Archer while she's being served tea, Skim being whisked out by herd of ballerinas). But other than that, everything was left up to me, which of course made the project so fun and truly collaborative. Mariko deserves huge credit for essentially handing over her baby to be extrapolated in every which way. I say that often, and it's not lip service. As a true control freak myself, it astounds me someone can do that.
Also of note: there was no back and forth. She wrote the script. I did the art. That was pretty much it... we were left to our own devices."
klg19 (1 year ago)
I'm so pleased to see that SKIM was nominated for an Eisner today--with both Tamakis' names on the slot!
klg19 (1 year ago)
In response to Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
Thanks, Gene--I've placed an order!
Gene Kannenberg, Jr. (1 year ago)
In response to klg19
I'm not as prolix as Moore or Bissette, but sometimes I come close :-)
OK, PANEL DISCUSSIONS isn't it, I don't think: Wow, that page is really out of date...
Ahhhh, here we go: Working Methods: Comic Creators Detail Their Storytelling And Artistic Processes, by John LOWE
PD is good tho, too :-) More about writing than art.
klg19 (1 year ago)
WOW. That is one comprehensive comment, Gene--thanks!
It's true that the question of authorship is...fraught. I was tempted to bring in a whole mess o' Derrida theory about the nature of the author, but then I realized I'd have to READ a whole mess o' Derrida to do that, so I changed my mind.
I like the sound of PANEL DISCUSSIONS (if that is, in fact, the title); I'm going to have to buy a copy for the library!
Gene Kannenberg, Jr. (1 year ago)
Great article, Karen (he write as if that were the exception, though of course it's not.) The "authorship question" can indeed be complex; there's no one way to answer it.
One standard in "mainstream" comics, of course, is that the writer writes a full script, then the artist translated that script into its visual/comics form. (I cannot bring myself to write "illustrate," as this translation does far more than simply illustrate the script. Do the director, cinematographer, set designers, actors, etc. just "illustrate" a film script? A better word than "translate" [which I've grown to dislike while writing those last three sentences] might be "complete.")
In the 50s/60s, at least at DC, often the editor would dream up a plot idea, or writer and editor would hone ideas together, then the writer would write the script, then the artist would "complete" it. Sometimes the prompt was simply a cover image - the writer would need to write a script that managed to incorporate that cover-depicted situation. ("OK, instead of showing Superman *fighting* a super-gorilla, on this cover Superman has *become* a super gorilla! Now make that work!")
Sometimes those scripts are very bare-bones, indicating perhaps a number of panels per page, but not layout. Others are shall we say more descriptive (although not necessarily more directive). Take Alan Moore's scripts, which are famously uber-detailed. Steve Bissette is currently discussing Alan Moore's first SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING script (for issue #20, reprinted for the first time in DC's newest SWAMP THING reprint series), as well as how the artists interpreted it. (Damn, there's another term!) Bissette, like Moore, is not undetailed when it comes to writing [litotes]; his three installments so far reveal a great detail of collaboration, not subservience, between writer and artists - a real "give-and-take" which a reader of the scripts alone might not believe possible. See
There's also the mainstream "Marvel Method," where the writer gives the artist just a plot, anywhere from a scene-by-scene breakdown to a simple paragraph. The artist then is responsible for breaking down that plot, creating the focus and pacing, supplying visual details - even sub-plots, or even all the important plot points" - and then the writer/scripter gets the boards (or the computer files) and then adds words to the pages. (Hence the vociferous debates like "Did Kirby or Lee really 'write' Fantastic Four?" which continue to be waged by fans and scholars). I'm not positive, but I believe this approach is much, much less common today than it was in the 60s-70s-80s.
There's at least one book on creating comics in which a number of artists are given the same script and asked to illustrate/translate/complete/interpret/draw it. The results vary wildly. Each artist discusses their artistic approach, what to emphasize, how to pace the narrative, how to determine what things should look like, etc. I want to say this book is PANEL DISCUSSIONS, published by TwoMorrows, but that book is buried somewhere in my office and I can't check it right now.
And of course there's the auteur method, with one cartoonist both writing and drawing. I've read countless interviews with various cartoonists about their process: some write a script first, some do visual breakdowns first, some can't even answer the question because their process is utterly organic., what was my point again? Oh yeah: You're absolutely right about the SKIM situation; even if the script was Moore-ian in its detail, the artist brings as much to the table as the writer, and certainly should be a co-nominee.
In other words: Mega dittos, Karen!

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