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May
19

Let’s Stop Using Film Terminology to Talk About Comics

 

“I think Milt (Caniff) studied the movies. I didn’t…” -Roy Crane

 

Despite the beautiful cartooning (and obvious historical importance) of Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, I have to admit I’ll always bear it a grudge. It’s the strip that seems to have firmly and permanently cut off the formal/visual development of comics as its own unique medium and solidified the visual language of comics we have today–a visual language that’s largely derived from film.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that pretty much any critical discussion of the artwork in modern comics is now couched in film terminology–what “shots” the artist chose, what “camera angles.” Here’s the thing, though: comics aren’t made with a camera. They’re drawings.* And when we talk about and think about comics using film terminology, we’re not only confining ourselves to only engaging with certain aspects of the medium, but (for those of us who make comics) we’re confining ourselves to only telling stories in certain ways.

modern_cartoonist

What follows are some fairly random and disordered thoughts I’ve had over the last few years spurred by my own personal ruminations and by some Twitter conversations I’ve had on the subject. Is it possible I’m completely wrong? Maybe. Will people ever stop talking about “camera angles” when discussing comics? Probably not.

But here goes:

The Big Point™: Language matters – The way you talk about a subject affects the way you think about it. And the way you think about it affects the way you engage with it. If you’re a cartoonist and you’re thinking about “camera angles” you’ve already taken one of comics’ most interesting, powerful, and unique capabilities off the table: its graphical and diagramatic abilities.

If most comics ape the visual language of film, why not use film terminology? – OK, fair point. But I think this bypasses more important concerns: why are most comics aping the visual language of film, and is this the healthiest state of affairs for the medium? It’s vicious circle. We use filmic terminology to discuss comics because they employ filmic visual language… and comics employ filmic visual language because that’s how we think and talk about comics. Any situation that limits the available tools to think about and create comics is not an optimal situation.

Well how the heck else would you make comics?! (part 1) – Before the formal language of comics got inexorably mixed up with the language of film, comics got along just fine. Look at pre-WWII newspaper comics. Often these strips were staged with the characters’ full bodies visible in most of the panels–and viewed directly head-on from eye level. I love the amazing clarity and straightforwardness of strips like this:

Thimble-02

A lot of later newspaper comics adopted these straightforward ways of staging, either because of tradition or as a response to the shrinking size of the comics page. I think there’s a reason you can hand the average non-comics reading adult a Peanuts collection and they can engage with it readily, but that same person would likely find the most recent issue of Spawn impenetrable.

In fact, I think this type of staging is comics’ most natural (for lack of a better term) mode, which is maybe part of the reason these sorts of comics communicate so clearly. I teach comics classes for kids and almost to a person, this is how kids will stage a comics story–eye level full body views of the characters, no “camera angles”:

comic

On the other hand, though, pre-film influence comics were developing their own unique formal language. My mind boggles at the amazing formal “toolkit” we might have at our disposal today if comics like these had been the primary influencing force on comics’ visual language rather that film:

Crazy Quilt

 

p5

Well how the heck else would you make comics?! (part 2) – Some of the most highly lauded recent comics and graphic novels have been from creators who are either deliberately or just naturally not using filmic visual language. What “shots” are these? What “camera angle” is being employed?

jimmyspread3

jeanending

The recent “pizza dog” issue of Hawkeye employed a bunch of Chris Ware-esque formalistic/diagramatic devices and apparently it just blew people’s minds. Why are these sorts of formal devices employed so rarely?

But comics and film have so much in common! – I hear this all the time, but when I press the issue the response I usually get is, “They’re both visual narrative… and, uh…” Notwithstanding the fact that neither film nor comics are necessarily narrative in nature, this is just about the only thing that I can think of that the two media have in common. Everything else–physical scale, shared vs. private experience, drawings vs. actual pictures of things, multiple static images vs. illusion of motion, the way time is controlled/experienced, etc.–seems to me to be radically different. They’re different things and we should think about and discuss them differently.

Comics is a mish-mash. Why not borrow terms from other forms of art? – I’d be totally fine with borrowing terms from other forms (plural) of art, but in point of fact we’re taking terminology and concepts from one form of art: film. I’d love to see applicable terminology from graphic design, theater, poetry, information design, etc. being used to discuss comics. Talking about cadence, balance, line quality, rhythm, unity, repetition, staging, composition, blocking, etc. all make a heck of a lot more sense applied to comics than talking about a “camera.”

Film’s visual language is as close as it gets to mimicking naturalistic sight. Why not use that language and its terminology? – First, this presupposes that mimicking naturalistic sight is the end visual goal of comics. It isn’t. We’ve got cameras for that. Even if it were, the language of film is very, very different than the way we perceive the world around us. We don’t experience the world with “cuts” or in any sort of discrete bordered visual field.

More important to comics-making, though, is that a lot of film’s visual language is arbitrary (is cutting off the figure at the waist intrinsically different that cutting it off at the thigh? The former is an established shot in film; the latter is to be avoided in film) and a lot of it is driven by concerns unrelated to effective visual communication–concerns like budget and technology. For a perfect example of how this can affect comics negatively, see the section on “Location Staging” in this great Jesse Ham post on Moebius. These are exactly the sorts of things that have seeped into the visual language of comics to its detriment.

aedena1

If you’re making (or discussing) mimetic narrative, film terminology works. Why not use it? – OK, <sigh> if you’re really hell-bent on strictly mimetic storytelling and you’re just talking about how to compose a particular panel, I guess this is true. On the other hand, (a) again, why is this mode of storytelling privileged over all others? And, (b) there’s a ton of other stuff you should be thinking/talking about beyond mimetic panel-level staging. If we employed other terminology and concepts more often, maybe neither of these’d be a concern.

Film has a much more developed/advanced visual language. Why not borrow from that? – Yeah, of course we comics folk can learn from film. But, don’t you wonder why film has that advanced visual language? Maybe because film practitioners and critics devoted their efforts to developing film’s own unique formal vocabulary, not aping some other medium’s?

——

Look, I understand that talking about “shots” and “camera angles” is an easy go-to for discussing (and creating) certain types of comics… but in the long run I think it’s contributing–at least a little tiny bit–to comics’ continued arrested formal development. I say this even as someone who’s created tons of comics that are pretty much 100% mimetic in the way they tell stories. Maybe that’s precisely why this is a subject that concerns me: I know that my comics–and all comics–could be a lot better, a lot more interesting if we all thought about comics as more than “movies on paper.”

 

*Yes, I’m well aware of what Fumetti is. That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it, smartass.

 

16 comments

1 ping

  1. MRasheed says:

    Cartooning is art. It is a medium for artistic expression. As such there is nothing keeping anyone from expressing their creative vision however way they see fit. No one is confined to using someone else’s methods and techniques if they do not wish to. If you don’t want to ape ‘cinematic’ type techniques then don’t. If you prefer the straightforward storytelling approach of E. C. Segar, then use it. You are FREE. Please create however way you are moved to.

  2. Drew Morton says:

    I agree that strictly using film studies as a framework to approach comics is a methodological misstep. That said, I don’t think language is what is perpetuating the cycle. I’m reluctant to generalize here, but I’d argue that this inclination does indeed stem from the trajectory that film has influenced some comic artists (Miller, McCay, O’Malley – to name a few). My work tends to think about this subject in the context of Bolter and Grusin’s work on remediation. Essentially, film language is one of the most dominant visual systems of the 20th century and it is only natural that some artists would borrow and engage with that. So let’s not throw the Bazin out with the bath water. Let’s add some Groensteen and McCloud to create an more inclusive vocabulary. Thanks for your thoughtful piece!

  3. Drew Morton says:

    Also, one piece to add. You write “But, don’t you wonder why film has that advanced visual language? Maybe because film practitioners and critics devoted their efforts to developing film’s own unique formal vocabulary, not aping some other medium’s?”

    That’s actually not how film style evolved. Film style was born out of a cocktail from theater (framing), literature (cross-cutting), and vaudevillian magic shows (the frontal presentation of spectacle – to name but a few sources). Film historians David Bordwell and Tom Gunning have written a lot about this (see Gunning’s book on Griffith and nearly any Bordwell book).

    Moreover, film style – just like comic book style – isn’t static (albeit it isn’t nearly as fluid and idiosyncratic as comic book stylistic conventions). While the conventions of the Classical Hollywood System (continuity editing, cutting on action, the 180 degree rule, three-point lighting, a linear pattern of cause and effect) have held relatively steady over the past 100+ years, there have been some larger deviations (faster cutting, a stronger reliance on close ups) and more experimental approaches on a micro level that have been influenced both by comics (the multiframe device in HULK, the use of speedramping in Zack Snyder’s adaptations to capture the fluidity of time in comics) and digital media more generally (the use of multiple “windows” in Mike Figgis’s TIMECODE is a notable example; check out Lev Manovich’s LANGUAGE OF NEW MEDIA for an argument about how film is actually simply evolving into animation).

    My overall point is that the idea of media specificity is problematic. We can generalize certain stylistic and narrative devices in both film and comics as being “unique” to those art forms, but that formalist generalization tends to neglect actual historical and industrial factors that provide the context. Again, I agree: using film terminology alone to describe comics is intellectually shoddy and limiting. I love your proposal for a vocabulary culled from an interdisciplinary bed of literature.

    Thanks again!

  4. rj paré says:

    Comics evolved side by side with cinema both influencing each other [damn near every film begins with story-boarding… which for all intents and purposes is a comic] and comics leap beyond the panel borders and page bleeds as well make extensive use of lighting/shading to set mood/tone of a scene.

    I would not want to see the language of comics be limited to old strip style presentation any more than I would want to see film limited to old time production styles.

  5. MRasheed says:

    Comics began as an entertainment feature used by competing newspapers to seduce readership. They didn’t have anything to do with film in those days. Fim may have used cartooning technique for storyboards in the earliest days of film, but that can hardly be considered ‘comics.’

  6. MRasheed says:

    Drew Morton wrote: “check out Lev Manovich’s LANGUAGE OF NEW MEDIA for an argument about how film is actually simply evolving into animation”

    I think technically film can be considered animation, since it is just a series of photo images that give the illusion of movement.

  7. Ben says:

    @Drew Morton – Thanks for the comments/clarification on the evolution of film’s formal language. I’m definitely on a lot firmer ground talking about comics than film. You say, though: “Film style was born out of a cocktail from theater (etc.)… ” which is exactly what I’m getting at. I’d love to see comics do exactly this–embrace language and concepts from a broad range of media as appropriate, rather than just lazily glomming onto filmspeak.

  8. m styborski says:

    Yes we use film terms regarding SOME comics because of the shared visual nature of both media. But not for ALL comics. Eisner’s Spirit? Certainly, because that how he drew his stuff! Bushmiller’s Nancy… Not so much.

    This half-baked babble is a thin veil for “why don’t comic artists push the envelope more?” It’s a statement you repeat despite confessing a love for the good old days of head-on, eye-level, plain-Jane action.

    Your historical knowledge is lacking as well, using “Crazy Quilt” as a wistful example of what might have been. CQ was not a comic strip but a Frankenstein of multiple strips jigsawed together jam-style by the funnies bullpen at the Chicago Tribune. It was so well-loved that it lasted about ten weeks in the summer of 1914. It pushed the envelope, but the envelope pushed back and was stamped, “Return to Sender”.

    And you claim that the twenty-year run of McKay’s Little Nemo was not influential… Seriously? Fact is Nemo influenced a great many people in a great many mediums. Another fact? Most of them were nowhere near McKay’s talent level and they eventually went back to the bread and butter of head-on, eye-level, plain-Jane action.

    You completely ignore the fact that film and comics were relatively born and grew up together, playing off each other as they aged. As comic panels developed into strips and then books attempting to capture the magic of the silver screen, so animation developed in film to capture the imagination of the printed page. BOTH media, in their infancy, relied on head-on, eye-level, plain-Jane action.

    You are bold in your praise of the hard work and determination of the film industry in creating a language all their own without resorting to borrowing! Except terms like frame, shot, focus, subject, angle, lighting and composition WERE borrowed from still photography! And photographers borrowed most of those from painters! Humans beings excel at adapting language to suit their needs.

    Lastly, you completely ignore the FACT that comics DO have their own unique terminology! Panel instead of frame. Perspective instead of camera angle. Shading and coloring for lighting. Layout for composition, or “staging” as you call it. A theater term, but one which the film industry also uses. Lettering instead of Closed Captioning… well, perhaps not that one…

    The FACT is, when you’re trying to teach someone about visual narrative, you use terms they can relate to. With the blossoming of director commentary on DVD, pretty much everyone now understands the nature of film. If it didn’t help art noobs understand, it wouldn’t be used!

    And not everyone can be Chris Ware, nor do they want to be! Most people just want to tell a visual story at a level above head-on, eye-level, plain-Jane action, which, as you point out, is how kids begin drawing. It’s the basic form of how our eyes see the world.

    No, we don’t experience cuts, fades and wipes in reality, but we do use those concepts in memory and the telling if our experiences. We don’t describe the twenty hour drive from New Orleans to Pittsburgh. We relate only the interesting or relevant points of the journey. These are cuts, fades and wipes in the narrative.

    But, hey, at least you’re getting some web traffic!

  9. afdumin says:

    Andrei Molotiu has a list of some useful terminology that utilizes language from multiple disciplines to discuss comics:

    http://comicsforum.org/2013/07/26/list-of-terms-for-comics-studies-by-andrei-molotiu/

    http://ticsticsandtics.blogspot.com/2013/07/blog-post.html

  10. Rick Worley says:

    I think the comment about using poetic terms to talk about comics is very valid. Talking about my own comics and the comics I like I increasingly talk about rhythm and visual rhyming. I actually think in a lot of cases it’s more appropriate to use musical terminology. When I start a story it’s very important to me to decide what style of grid I will start the pages with… A nine panel grid like Watchmen immediately has different possibilities and connotations than a four panel strip, or a six panel page like Crumb does sometimes, and so on. In comics space is time, so you get rhythm by repetitions of panel arrangements. Then you can break that rhythm and when you do it means something, it emphasizes a moment or speeds up a sequence, but only because you’ve been conscious of it and established a speed. It’s the same as deciding you want to do a piece of music in waltz time or whatever else. Whereas a lot of superhero comics couldn’t care less about that kind of thing… The big panel is wherever they wanted to draw Spider-Man striking his big cool pose or whatever, and the story beats are crowded around that. Its musical equivalent is trying to play a melody line while your drummer is a drunk Rob Liefeld who can only manage to hit the drums about a third of the time.

  11. Danny Wall says:

    This is something I’ve given a lot of thought about, especially since I started reviewing comics for WeeklyComicBookReview.com and having some experience in comics, film, and animation (admittedly, not very extensive experience.)

    One aspect has to do with the communication between reviewer and reader. We need a shared language, and for whatever reason, film terminology is easier to make sure that what I want to communicate is transmitted through the review. I have recently been talking a lot about the 180-Degree Rule, which is a necessary rule for film but in comics it can be broken (and is) a lot more often without detriment.

    But even if I use these kinds of terms, they are secondary to the others I use, which are more literary-based. I talk a lot about expression, mood, tone, pacing, plot, story beat, etc. I guess there’a lot about art to talk about, too, like foreground/background, texture, line weight, flat areas, negative space, etc.

    I know I can do more. I think I will try to use the words “compose” and “composition” more rather than “shot” and simply “angle” rather than “camera angle”.

    One more thing: I think comic readers/reviewers don’t really WANT an abstract, artistic, metaphoric style of art in their comics. By comparing panels to frames of film, they are expressing the same desire to want superheroes without capes, to not have any thought balloons, to have ‘realistic’ costumes without underwear on the outside, to have ‘natural’ banter-like dialogue. Is it any wonder that the more non-superhero you get, the more expressive and experimental you get in design? That doesn’t really make sense, but that seems to be what’s happened.

  12. Ben says:

    @Rick – Yeah, I totally agree on the similarities between comics and poetry. Rhythm seems really, really fundamental to comics. The way panels are arranged and the way the cartoonist can manipulate (or at least try to) the amount of time the reader spends on each panel is as important–maybe more so, even–than the content of those individual panels.

    I do, though, think there are plenty of superhero (and other) genre comics that are quite cognizant of rhythm. That Ditko sequence in Amazing Spider-Man #33 where Spidey’s being crushed by a pile of debris, for example, has a really well thought-out rhythm to it.

  13. Ben says:

    @Danny – You say:

    “Is it any wonder that the more non-superhero you get, the more expressive and experimental you get in design? That doesn’t really make sense, but that seems to be what’s happened.”

    Just a theory, but I think this probably has to do with the fact that there’s now a generation of young cartoonists who didn’t grow up being influenced by the largely filmic storytelling of superhero comics. If your main influence is Chris Ware or Michael DeForge it’s totally understandable that you’d be using a fairly different set of formal tools than if you grew up (like me) reading John Byrne comics.

  14. rj paré says:

    @ m styborski – “…film and comics were relatively born and grew up together, playing off each other as they aged.”

    My sentiments exactly. Not to suggest that the medium has not developed its own unique creative language, which we all acknowledge. But rather that some degree of commonality will always spill over and be reflected in both method and language, as story-telling mediums [plays, radio, comics, film/TV] all borrow/learn from and challenge each other.

    Episodic script-writing in comics and TV share roots in the hey-day of radio just as the light/shadows visual composition of films and comics share roots in still life portraiture.

    Every artistic medium reflects the creative methods and language of other mediums both past and present.

  15. Drew Morton says:

    Not to toot my own horn, but here are a couple pieces that might be useful to those interested:

    I wrote an essay on Winsor McCay and the influence between comics and film in the early 1900s that was published in ANIMATION a few years back (it also helpfully summarizes Donald Crafton, Kunzle, and some of the others who opened this can of worms in the 1970s):

    https://www.academia.edu/628614/Sketching_Under_the_Influence_Winsor_McCay_and_the_Question_of_Aesthetic_Convergence_Between_Comic_Strips_and_Film

    I also wrote an essay on comic books and Jean-Luc Godard for SENSES OF CINEMA:

    http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/feature-articles/godards-comic-strip-mise-en-scene/

    Finally, I made two visual essays on this topic:

    One more broadly (2007, published in FLOW): http://flowtv.org/2007/04/comics-to-film-and-halfway-back-again-a-dvd-essay/

    One on SCOTT PILGRIM (2013, published in PRESS PLAY): http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/video-essay-from-the-panel-to-the-frame-style-and-scott-pilgrim

    Hope these help!

  16. Nordlys says:

    I think is more related to 3D VS 2D thinking. The more you draw, the more you become sensitive to the smallest of the detail.
    I prefer when comics are made by using movie language. And I grew up by reading comics made in traditional way (No movie language). One of my favourite comics (The Smurfs) is done in old way, but Peyo was also a great artist).

    I think people like more movie/camera language because it stimulates feelings too, like: Happyness, sadness, anger etc…
    In fact I fell a bit detacted when I read old school comics. They’re so clear that you don’t need to read balloons to understand what is going on, but you are more an observer rather than being inside the story.

    In fact, I like more the last comic that the firsts you posted, because I can fell, other than just see.

  1. » #413 Should we stop using film terminology to talk about comics?Deconstructing Comics: A podcast about the craft of comics says:

    […] May, comics creator and educator Ben Towle wrote a post on his blog entitled “Let’s Stop Using Film Terminology to Talk About Comics,” in which he suggested that using terms like “camera angle” and […]

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