Warning: This is an archived course website that is part of my teaching portfolio, so some links may no longer work. Please contact me with any questions about this site.

Week 11: The Genre of Comics and a Comic Life Workshop

I’m glad we took a slight detour in class yesterday to discuss how social media is affecting the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As usual, your comments gave me a lot to think about, and I hope you’ll keep tracking some of those Sandy-related resources over the next couple of weeks. (They might even serve as helpful examples in your Unit #3 projects.)

Next week, we will take a break from our standard reading assignments to focus on instructional comics. If you haven’t already installed Comic Life on your laptop, you should do so this weekend. (You can find links to Comic Life and other helpful items on the Resources page.) When we meet again in class, here’s how we’ll spend our time:

  • On Monday, we will discuss the genre of comics and familiarize ourselves with the conventions of the genre. Before you come to class, please read the following items:
    • Chapter 4 of Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud (print this one out and bring it to class)
    • Comic Book Grammar and Tradition,” by Nate Piekos (don’t worry about printing this one out — just make sure you know the concepts)
    • The Google Chrome online comic (again, you don’t need to print this one out)

      When you have completed these readings, add a comment to this post that answers the following question: What can comics do that purely written texts cannot? After our reading discussion, we will spend the remainder of class in a brainstorming workshop for Unit #3, so please come to class with several ideas related to your assigned topic.

  • Our entire class period on Wednesday will be dedicated to a Comic Life workshop, so I encourage you to bring your laptop to class. (You can also use Comic Life on the lab computers, but it will be helpful to have all of your resources for Unit #3 in one place.) Your homework is to outline your comic, determine how many characters you will need, and think about how you can develop a compelling story to illustrate your topic. In class, we will begin moving those ideas into Comic Life. If you would like to get a jump start on your project, you should create a new file in Comic Life and begin adding text and images to it. [Update: Here are the comics we will be analyzing in class: (1) Bound by Law?, (2) Misunderstanding Markup, (3) The Influencing Machine, and (4) The Google Chrome online comic.]

If you have any questions about what you should be doing to make progress on Unit #3, please let me know. I’m happy to meet with anyone who wants to discuss their topic during my office hours on Monday morning or Tuesday afternoon.

Posted in Weekly Updates
20 comments on “Week 11: The Genre of Comics and a Comic Life Workshop
  1. Astleigh says:

    After reading the assigned articles, it is clear that comics have several effects that go above and beyond normal text. With comics the author can create a sense of movement and time; for instance, bubbles can be accordingly placed to show the progress of time through the panels and the interaction with characters and surrounding. There is also the spacing of panels to illustrate the lapse of time whether seconds or minutes. Purely written text must use adjectives and adverbs to show time. Another prominent feature of comics is the use of formatting to create a voice and mood. Using bold and italics lets the reader know a specific quality of what the characters are saying and/or hearing. There is an emphasis conversation and on-goings occurring in comics that written text cannot express. The bubbles themselves emit a certain feeling as well, depending upon their location, shape, size, and so on. The comic consumer can tell if something is being transmitted through a radio or television and if someone muttered a phrase or shouted it in rage. Overall, comics can transport a reader into the realm of cartoon and bubbles with the effects and emphasis applied to certain areas. Written text, if well written, can do the same but, it takes a bit more imagination and concentration to put yourself into the world of the words. Comics serve as an action-packed sequence of events shown through a lapse in time and characterized by an illustration of moods and tones. Written text cannot keep up in that sense.

  2. Eli says:

    Sometimes, a situation described in a simple text can be hard for a reader to picture in his or her mind. Comics give the reader a good idea of exactly what is happening. For example, if a text indicates that time passes between two actions, the following action can still seem like it immediately follows the preceding action. In comics, panels can be drawn out to emphasize a great deal of time passing. Also, if the text says that an object is moving incredibly fast, the reader may have trouble imagining it with the steady rate that they use to read the text. In a comic, the motion of an object can be drawn in and give an exact description of how fast it is going. Additionally, comics can be used as instructions in manuals for products to be built or used correctly. Considering these facts, comics may revolutionize pure text altogether.

  3. Ethan says:

    Comics use many different techniques that allow for a great deal of percieved effects, and ones that purely written texts cannot duplicate. For example, by leaving off one side of a border or frame, a drawing that may otherwise seem like a single moment in time can be percieved by the reader as timeless or infinite.

    • Johva says:

      Unfortunately, and according to McCloud, this technique of timelessness is used more commonly in Japan than America. I’m not a huge fan of manga, but I’ve seen enough of it’s derivative, anime, to know that “timelessness” or the similar quality of being “unforgettable” is certainly undeniable. I mean, who do you know will ever forget those distinct, yellow-haired super-fighters, and Vegeta’s “timeless” phrase: “it’s over 9000!” It’s not going to happen; well at least not among those who have ever watched or heard of Dragonball Z. I believe the reason for this is because of the contrast of cultures–US vs Japan–and the “uniqueness” perceived in difference.

      (Of course, the fact that it’s different could have made it seem “timeless” in McCloud’s eyes… not that the technique was timeless itself, though having the image fall of the page could possibly warrant a stretch of the imagination. See below.)

      While on the topic of foreign comics, I’d like to mention the oddity of manga: the pages are set “backwards,” or rather, reversed from what we’re used to in the States. Instead of reading from left page to right, you read from right to left. It’s very strange and plays in to what Scott discussed in the Ch. 4 reading, even if he never actually mentioned the format in his discussion about various styles of comics.

      Finally, I always welcome an illustration to support written material, even if it detracts from others’ perception of my intelligence (of which is below average?). As an artist, I almost always use a direct physical reference; as a reader, I almost always use movie stars and people in my life as characters in stories. My imagination is less than what it needs (I want it) to be, so I make up for it by “referencing” (I like to call it “stealing”).

  4. Marcus says:

    Comics can transcend reality in multiple dimensions. Meaning that the context of a shared experience (physical reality possibly?)can be heightened and altered in a comic, while utilizing and playing with our notion of how we communicate these shared ideas. While this is what most art might do, it is important to note that comics generally tie the visual element to narration, which is something that isn’t done quite as often. Children’s books do this, but there is more of a need for a format for a children’s book. Comics, however, can play with form.

  5. George says:

    Have you ever read a book and wished there was some sort of supporting images to go along with certain aspects of the reading? I know I sure have. That’s why I love reading magazines because there are images that compliment the text you’re reading. To take it even further, comics combine text and images simultaneously, which allows for a greater sense of understanding when it comes to deciphering the message.

    Obviously having an aesthetic component allows the story to come to life, but comics also offer an array of details that aren’t found in solely written texts. The use of bolded texts in a dialogue really puts emphasis on a certain word. Sound effects such as “boom” “bam” and/or “bang”, to name a few, lets the readers know what sound they should be hearing at that point in time. Joining balloons together expresses the same thought processes. Numbers, music notes, etc. can also be included to add more context to the situation.

    Comics may not be as informative as mediums with just text, because when there is just text, it’s more acceptable to go further in detail and expand upon your writing. Comics have far less text, but make up for that with the aesthetic background of the story, multiple visual cues, sound effects, characters that come to life and many more aspects that aren’t found in purely written text.

  6. Kyle says:

    My vote for weirdest convention definitely goes to the varying forms of the letter “I.” As I understand, it is written with a “crossbar” only when used as a pronoun and as part of an abbreviation. Sometimes (but not as part of the convention) a crossbarred “I” is used as the first letter of a sentence or as the first letter of a name. Kind of bizarre, and a bit unruly if you ask me.

  7. Kyle says:

    Comics tend to be much more suited for certain types of instruction than pure written text. Actions, such as those that will be performed by a hypothetical learner, are much easier to show by illustration than to explain in text (assuming a talented artist). Visual representation of objects that are seen (as in the google comic about browsers) are superior to text-based description because they leave little to nothing to the imagination.

    It is also easier to humanize characters using comics. In one frame (i.e. one drawing), a character can be completely physically described, rather than having to belabor description with words.

  8. Brooks says:

    Comics convey information much quicker than a text can. Often the author may have something very specific in mind that they want the reader to visualize and a comic does that very efficiently. It’s why many graphic novels and comic books are now translating into movies; the author’s vision is very clear and the directors and producers have something much more concrete to work with. Also, if you’ve every watched a “making of (insert movie)” you’ll see how they create story boards that essentially look like comic books on a giant board; this ensures that everyone in the room with their different jobs understands the scene. This doesn’t mean that the comic book style is inherently better or superior to text in anyway; many things can be lost when you “confine” the readers imagination to a comic frame. Text can do just about anything comic can; however, the comic can do it with more efficiency and with more control over the reader’s interpretation.

  9. Sarah says:

    What I like about comics, is the ability to know when you’re reading whispered dialogue (a balloon with a dashed stroke/muted tone (grayed-out) with a lowercase font). Or when speech is transmitted through a television, phone, etc. it’s italicized inside the balloon with a shape of what is called the “electric balloon.” My favorite feature is the ability to read and know when a character as a foreign dialect. The dialogue starts with a less than symbol “*”… later explaining what language feature is being spoken.

    • Sarah says:

      my post got cut off:

      …starts with a less than symbol and ends with a greater than symbol and asterisk; which later defines to readers what type of foreign dialect is being spoken.

  10. Jonathan Roberts says:

    I don’t think comics can do anything that writing can’t; as in, nobody has ever said “This comic has conveyed something that a fairly capable author couldn’t do simply with writing”. That said, the main thing that comics can do is to convey time, movement, and emotion in a way that is faster than what words can do on their own. When you see a comic, you’re instantly engaged with the basic scene at play, and start to develop a relationship and emotions based around that. When you look at a page of text, though, you don’t start to engage with it until you take the time to read the words.

    This means to me that the key to comics is simplicity. The medium really is the message here, so extraneous images and information just distracts from the intended meaning. The idea of comics should be to only use them to add content and profess an idea, not just add content for the sake of it looking pretty or exciting.

  11. Molly says:

    I have never given much thought to strategy or style behind comics. It really is interesting to read how specific details need to be to make a difference between a well-written comic and a poorly-written one.

    Like Jonathan said, comics can’t do anything that traditional writing cannot, they just have the opportunity to do it faster. With comics less words are needed to describe a scene, character, etc. The behind the scenes bubbles such as thought bubbles communicate to the reader much faster than text does in which the author has to physically write out that a character is ‘thinking’ something.

    Comics propose a simplified way to present a story line to a reader. With that being said, long comics such as books are not for everyone. Many readers like myself sometimes prefer interpret the setting and characters in their own way rather than having them already drawn out. Writing can be used for any genre and any story, I don’t think comics can be used as transparently. I can’t imagine some traditional American novels being written as comics and still have the safe effect and audience.

  12. Erin says:

    Reading these articles I realized that there is a lot of thought that goes into creating comics. The article by Nate Piekos pointed out many things that I didn’t know about writing comics. It is clear that comics can do a variety of things better than simple written text. For instance dialogue becomes more interesting in comics. Characters are speaking back and forth to each other in rapid succession with no need to interrupt with “he said, she said,” or other dialogue clues. I also like the way that comics have some many rules for identifying different types of speech. If you wrote an essay with every other word bold or italic it would be almost impossible to read.

  13. Dylan Amick says:

    After reading the articles I have to agree with Kyle, they play to a certain type of audience; I find they do a phenomenal job of breaking large information into small pieces. It gives the writing a special ability to walk the reader through a process step by step and because of this the the accompanying illustrations make it easier to learn and comprehend each part of the process.

    Consider the good comic-they were able to dedicate two pages and over ten frames just to explain the improvement in Google Chrome’s browsing tabs. Because the information is separated piece by piece it never loses the attention of the reader by sounding tedious or long winded. The separation also makes each bite size fact easier to digest.

    Also consider the pamphlets in airplanes to explain emergency procedure; this is vital information to give to large number of people in a short amount of time. I think that they use comic’s to illustrate this procedure not only for clarity, but also because for visual recall. Comic can have more last impression on a person’s memory because it give the reader a visual and textual memory to recall. Appealing to both people who learn better through pictures and through text you allow you to open yourself up to two markets of readers.

  14. Liana says:

    We have talked a lot in this class about how it can be difficult to understand someone’s “tone of voice” in written documents, including online communication. Comics not only interpret tone, but also facial expressions, so they can help clarify the meaning of a written statement immensely.

    Furthermore, just as different cultures have very different communication standards, as I learned in Intercultural Communication last semester, it is really interesting but also makes a lot of sense that different cultures use different drawing standards. Because American, European and Japanese cultures all have varying written and spoken communication standards, it’s really cool that they also have different comic standards, especially since comics basically combine written and spoken communication.

    Comics like the Google one can help people understand complicated subjects by using pictorial representations. And comics like McCloud’s can help make what would have been a long/boring chapter of text appealing. I have always personally felt like reading comics feels less tedious or makes you feel less like you reading as opposed to a wall of text. Finally, comics can appeal to visual learners. I think it’s becoming progressively more important in education to make material accessible to all types of learners, so using comics can get a reliable way to help visual learners grasp large amounts of information.

  15. I really enjoyed reading Chapter 4 of Understanding Comics. I liked the section which talked about panels and how they are the “most important icon”even though they are often overlooked. I liked this section because the author showed how comics can literally think outside of the box because thee panels are not fixed and do no have an “absolute meaning.” I found it fascinating that the author talked about how the panels relate to time and the reading experience.

    This section really showed me that comics have the ability to break outside of the box. A writer’s style can add color to a piece through detail, but a comic will actually show the reader. I like the idea that comics can have bleeds and can change the experience. I think it’s great that comics can display a time frame and different emotions and sounds without having to write about it through text.

  16. Katie Winand says:

    Though it seems rather obvious to me that comics can do many things that written texts cannot do, there are some things that really do stand out. The first difference that I noted from McCloud’s reading is that comics can highlight the passage of time better than can any text. The use of frames, as well as changes in the pictures, and captions, can all be used to highlight the passage of time in a comic. McCloud also notes that drama and speed are things better expressed in comics because the pictures really do tell a story apart from the text on the page. Flashing scenery or lines can denote speed in a comic, and colored, bolded, differently shaped text can denote sound effects, making something so much more vivid in a reader’s mind than simple text on a page.

    When reading Blambot, I understood first the usage of grammar in comics, and how it differs from grammar in an actual text document. There are certain things used in grammar to denote the end of a thought or a pause that are not normally used when writing a paper or formal document. These convey more emotion to the comic text, as do the existence of bubbles. There are six different types of balloons discussed, and each has a completely different meaning when it comes to conveying a point. There are ballons for thoughts, ballons for radio statements, and different sizes of balloons.

    Each of these different types of presentation makes up just a small part of the huge differences in these two types of media, and each can be considered to play a significant role in the formation of a good comic book.

  17. Eric Avissar says:

    I saw a number of cool concepts and lessons I had never understood before while reading the article on comic book grammar and tradition. In the past, I had seen a number of burst balloons before, but never previously understood why they were so oddly shaped. Looking back on it, I feel foolish for not understanding that they represent screaming dialogue. Also, as someone who is strongly considering using captions in my comic, it was really insightful to see all four different types of narrative captions, and seeing how each one functions. After reading the rules, I felt like many of the comics I had read in the past could be much more easily understood. As we work on these comics, it will be important to refer back to the many interesting and sometimes meticulous rules of making comics.

  18. Alex says:

    I think at the very least comics provide a quick and more efficient way to skim a story. Just like a children’s book is easier to skim than a textbook, a comic is easier to skim than any other written text. Not only is the amount of text less, but also the shapes of the bubbles and the actual images allow the reader to quickly get the “gist” of what the comic is about.

    I have never been a fan of comics other than reading those in the Sunday paper with my parents when I was a kid, but it’s intriguing how much “comic etiquette” there is and how many standards I would have broken had I not read these articles before starting our Unit 3 Project.

Where am I?
This is the class website for English 3984: Writing and Digital Media, taught by Quinn Warnick at Virginia Tech in fall 2012.
Worthwhile Reading
The links below are the most recent additions to my collection of bookmarks that are relevant to this course. You can find a complete list of ENGL 3984 bookmarks on Pinboard.

  • Buffy vs Edward Remix Unfairly Removed by Lionsgate
    A long, carefully documented saga about fair use. Great case study.
  • The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy
    Nice guide from Lifehacker: "First, we'll walk through the basic privacy settings that determine what you share, then look at a few lesser-known settings you'll want to tweak, and finish with a few third-party tools that will help keep your Facebook information private."
  • The enduring mystery of Roberto Clemente's bat
    Great writing by Kevin Guilfoile, but also a beautiful example of multimedia storytelling.
  • tapestry: a new way to write
    John Borthwick explains what tapestry is and collects some examples of great tap essays: "When we started developing tapestry it struck us that there weren’t many native reading experiences on the iPhone or iPad. Our goal is to build such a tool. A space to slow things down and let you create or experience, short, tappable stories in a simple, clean, distraction free reading environment."
  • All You Need Is (Facebook) Love: ‘Compliments’ Accounts Go Viral at Colleges and Universities
    Time magazine reports on an encouraging trend: college students setting up Facebook pages to collect compliments for/from their fellow students.
  • Demand a Plan
    Online effort to improve gun control, started in response to the Newtown school shooting.
  • Causes.com
    "Causes is a free online platform that provides easy-to-use tools for driving change. We help passionate people share ideas, find supporters, raise money, and make an impact."
  • What Ancient Greek Rhetoric Might Teach Us About New Civics
    Ethan Zuckerman: "If we want to prepare people to be effective citizens, we need to think about teaching this new civics as well as older forms of civic participation. Citizens need to do more than watch or read about the issues and then vote. They need to know how to report, to advocate, to coordinate, to propose and test solutions."
  • SPOT Survey - Fall 2012
    Students: If you haven't completed the SPOT evaluation for this course, please do so during class on Wednesday. I take this feedback very seriously, and I use it to revise my classes each semester, so please be specific about the aspects of the course (and my teaching) that you found successful and unsuccessful.
  • Popcorn Maker
    New web-based app from Mozilla: "Popcorn Maker makes it easy to enhance, remix and share web video. Use your web browser to combine video and audio with content from the rest of the web — from text, links and maps to pictures and live feeds."
  • The People's Bailout
    David Rees explains how the Rolling Jubilee works: "OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)"
  • Understanding Digital Civics
    Ethan Zuckerman: "I’m beginning to think that certain types of civic participation are simply organic to the internet. Once we have the ability to create and share our own information, we create and spread media to promote the causes we care about and raise money to support the causes we value."
  • Google Docs Stories Builder
    Fun little tool to create text-based stories in which various characters interact within a Google Doc. (Sound confusing? Yeah, you kind of have to see it in action.)
  • Twitter Is A Truth Machine
    John Herrman: "Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: That we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity."
  • The Fallacy of Digital Natives
    Amen to this: "Sure, there may be a larger percentage of Millennials that tap into technology first compared to their elders, but oversimplifying the division of generations to suggest one prefers an all-technology learning style whilst the others use it when necessary is preposterous. Learning and technology has nothing to do with generational divides."
  • Click and Drag
    An amazing, endless xkcd comic.
  • Nice piece in Transom explaining Cowbird
    Annie Correal: "Our goal is to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons."
  • Being Online Has Become So Common That Some People No Longer Identify It As Being Online
    Techdirt, quoting a study by Forrester Research: "Our analysis revealed that 'being online' is becoming a fluid concept. Consumers no longer consider some of the online activities they perform to be activities related to 'using the Internet.' In fact, given the various types of connected devices that US consumers own, many people are connected and logged on (automatically) at all times. The Internet has become such a normal part of their lives that consumers don’t register that they are using the Internet when they’re on Facebook, for example. It’s only when they are actively doing a specific task, like search, that they consider this to be time that they’re spending online."
  • Reddit's balance of power: community values are tested as a troll is unmasked
    Links to all of The Verge's coverage of the Violentacrez debacle.