What to look for in cartoons and comics

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What are comics?

… a string of images that are read one after another to produce meaning. Comics may or may not incorporate text, and differ from single cartoons by producing a more complicated pattern (most often narrative) through sequential spatial arrangement

The basic building blocks of comics are panels, single frames placed in sequence. Usually these panels have rectangular borders, but panels can have any shape, or even no border at all, as long as there is some sign of where one might end and another begin. Outside the borders is a (usually) blank area known as the gutter. Each panel will usually contain pictorial images of some sort, including but not limited to drawings, paintings, photographs, text, speech and thought balloons, and text boxes. Panels generally read in the same sequence as text (i.e., in Western countries left to right, then top to bottom).

When approaching sequential art, try to keep an open mind, since anything and everything on the page
can contribute to the overall meaning. To make the task easier, you might try breaking the kinds of visual information you are getting down into their components: page layout, art and art style, and text/image interaction.

Page layout

With comics, as with most things, how narrative information is presented is often as important as what that information is. Page layout may seem entirely neutral; just remember, even this neutrality is an effect. Even if the page is comprised of uniform rectangles in an obvious and regular order, that layout was still chosen by the artist to create an impression. It might be a way of focusing your attention on what is happening rather than on how it is depicted; it may even reinforce a theme of conformity, repetition, or boredom. Alternatively, artists like Chris Ware often create ornate pages with arrows leading in multiple directions to create a sense of the complexity of personal history and memory. If the border of the first panel of the strip at the top of this page were a heart rather than a rectangle, how might that change the meaning of the strip? When you approach a page, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • How is the page organized?
  • Is the panel order obvious, and how do you know the intended order?
  • Are the panels and borders uniform in shape and size, or do they vary?
  • If they vary, how, and how does this affect the meaning?

Art style

The terminology of film studies is often useful for describing the basic features of an image, since you can talk about long shots, close ups, or zooms to describe the various angles and points of view depicted. Think about what sort of art the artist

  • Is there colour, and, if so, what is the palette?
  • Is the style cartoonish, abstract, photo­realistic, etc.?
  • What does that tell you about the world the creator(s) are depicting?
  • Are there backgrounds? If so, are they detailed or schematic?
  • Does the point of view remain constant (as in the example above), or does it vary? If so, how?
  • Does the art focus your attention on particular actions? How?

Text and image

Not all comics include text, but many do. Text in comics can serve as dialogue, narration, sound effect, commentary, clarification, image, and more. Once again, context is key, since you often cannot tell what a piece of text is doing on a page without determining how it relates to the images it accompanies (and is part of). Here is an example of image and text interacting to create a complex whole:

Alan Moore and David Gibbon. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987. Chapter III, page 1.

These are the first three panels of the third issue of Watchmen. Without any text, the panels would simply depict a man hanging a sign, pushing back from the extreme close­up in panel one via a medium close shot in panel two to a full shot of the same action in panel three. With the text, however, the panels develop a complicated interplay of different elements. There are three distinct types of text here: the text boxes, the speech balloons, and the sign and clothing text.

  • The text boxes contain narration from a pirate comic book, which we discover a panel later is being read by a teenage boy at a newsstand. The language and shape of the text boxes indicate their distance from the principal narration, but the parallel text provides an ironic commentary on the main scene.
  • The speaker behind the speech balloons is indicated in the third panel: a newsvendor expressing his fear and anger about the cold war. Notice how some words (“nuke Russia,” “God,” “mean,” “signs,” headlines,” “face,” “newsvendor,” “informed,” and “glow”) are bolded, giving a sense of spoken emphasis and volume.
  • Finally, the sign text is an instance of text as image. While the “Fallout Shelter” text simply mirrors the non­verbal icon on that sign, the “Missing Writer” sign in the third panel gestures toward another part of the narrative (the writer turns out to be a character, introduced several issues later). The “NY” under the apple on the workman’s jacket places the scene quickly.

More important than any of these three in isolation, however, is how they all work together. The horrifying imagery of the pirate story gives a mediated image of the potential destruction of nuclear war endorsed by the newsvendor’s dialogue, while the likelihood of such a war is given iconic reference through the fallout shelter sign. Not all comics feature this degree of ironic interplay between different types of text and image, but the example shows some of the ways that text and image can interrelate.
Source: http://twp.duke.edu/uploads/assets/comics.pdf (slightly edited)

Fields for analysis

  • Character
    • Body language and gestures
    • Facial expression
    • Verbal communication
    • Stereotype and caricature: flat vs. rounded character
  • Narration and dialogue:
    • Speech and thought bubbles
    • Lettering: type and size
  • Colour
    • What colours are used?
    • What colours are used most? Least?
    • Is there a repetition of colours?
    • Colour symbolism? – see below
  • Black and white
    • What shading is used? (Heavy/light)
    • What textures or patterns are used? (Smooth/rough)
    • What shapes are there?
  • Symbols
    • What symbols are used?
    • Why are particular symbols used?
    • Are the symbols well-known ones?
  • Framing/shot
    • Extreme long shot (~ exterior, landscape)
    • Long shot/full shot (~ full human figure)
    • Medium/mid shot (~ human figure from waist up)
      • Two-shot, three-shot (2-3 persons from waist up)
      • Over-the-shoulder-shot
    • Medium close (~ head and shoulders)
    • Close-up (~ head)
    • Extreme close-up (~ eyes)
  • Focus
    • What is in focus?
    • What is in the background?
  • Angle/perspective
    • Bird's eye view
    • High angle
    • Eye level (normal/natural perspective)
    • Low angle
    • Worm's eye view
    • Oblique/canted angle (~ tilted sideways)

Colour symbolism

Colours can be separated into two groups — warm and cool colours, respectively. Warm colours, including red, orange and yellow, may be used to evoke feelings of comfort and warmth. They can also be used to express anger and embarrassment. Meanwhile, cool colours, including blue, green and purple, may represent calm and tranquility. Otherwise it can mean sadness and misery.
However, do remember that colours do not mean anything in themselves — they should always be interpreted in their contexts. Here are some of the ordinary connotations.

Black Symbol of menace or evil, popular as an indicator of power. Associated with death and mourning, unhappiness, sexuality, formality, and sophistication.
White Purity or innocence. Cold, bland, and sterile.
Red Evokes strong emotions, associated with love, warmth, and comfort. Still considered an intense and angry color that creates feelings of excitement, intensity, sexuality.
Blue Gives the feelings of calmness or serenity. Described as peaceful, tranquil, secure, and orderly.
Green Symbolizes nature and the natural world. Represents tranquility, good luck, health, and jealousy. Symbol of fertility, has a calming effect and relieves stress.
Yellow Cheery and warm, but can also create feelings of frustration and anger. Most fatiguing to the eye, yet the most attention-seeking colour.
Purple Symbolizes royalty and wealth, wisdom and spirituality, sex and relationships, exotic and special.
Brown Natural colour that evokes a sense of strength and reliability, warmth, comfort, and security.
Orange Blatant and vulgar colour, makes you feel excitement, enthusiasm, and warmth. As a combination of red and yellow it is often used to draw attention.
Pink Associated with love, romance, youth, freshness and may have a calming effect. Pink effect depends on the type of pink (strong, light, deep, etc).


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