This will be just a general overview of some of the differences between comics and picture books, so take it with a grain of salt, because there’s plenty of material for a more comprehensive examination, but for the purpose of clarity and further brainstorming this forthcoming morsel will have to do. But since the carrot-dangling isn’t over quite yet, I want to extend the last post about comics language/medium into this one. We’ll see how Frankensteinian it gets…
The reason for this extension is that the comics/picture books dichotomy is kind of susceptive to the grey area of comprehension and classification that we still get with comics and literature. Generally, we still don’t really know where to cut the line between them and where one begins to morph into the other. Now, the (false) classification of comics within literature has been a common trend since the outburst of the graphic novel and its attempt at (forceful) earnestness and adulthood of comics, but that’s too big of an aside in this context. I would even say that the book form has been the bigger common factor in the comics/literature pairing than the linguistic elements themselves, because essentially the symbolism of letters, numbers and markings of all kinds is an inescapable norm in any art field. Just as much as scripts and storyboards have to be written down, tragedies are firstly enacted on (digital) paper and music notes are jotted down, etc. … Even drawing styles and techniques have to be inevitable viewed in textbooks (along with their explanations), regardless of pure talent and auditory teachings. Hell, if we’re technical, or rather sneaky, an artist in the comics business has to be literate, because someone has to write the script and someone has to further render it into the pictorial counterpart that’s the essence of comics.
Will Eisner and Scott McCloud remain the main proponents of comics as a distinct field, as a form of visual communication. Their desire to uplift comics from the status-quo of mediocrity (a genre of a literature at best that speaks only to a juvenile audience) was supported by their respective analyses of comics itself. In turn, they ushered in a new era of comics appreciation and greatly contributed to the conscious self-awareness of comics.
While the importance of both Eisner's and McCloud's work can be measured in transcended terms, they should not be safe from critique. The problem with Eisner is that he discusses comics as a literary form, as being part of literature (albeit in his time and position you can understand why). The elevation of comics as part of literature is still somewhat paradoxical. It may seem a positive step forward by those who do not understand this artform to say: “Yes, comics are now so good, they can be accepted as literature”, but the real observation lies in the distinction between the two modes of expression, as I’ve stated numerous times in my blogging blasphemy.
Now, McCloud, on the other hand, at times tries to elevate the medium too much, to the point of placing “comics value” to hieroglyphs for example or just placing too much emphasis on the best of comics and forgetting that not every product is a masterpiece. Again, completely understandable from his position of opening people’s eyes to the richness of comics. I’ve fallen into this trap of reading only the “best” comics as well. (Quick rule of thumb: if you want to start reading comics, but don’t know where to begin, check the list of Eisner or Harvey Award winners and the like. But be wary of name notoriety and catering to prominent authors, like in the case of Saga over The Unwritten in recent years. Are you kidding me?! But that’s what you get with fan-based voting.)
Nevertheless, the broad scope of possibilities of the medium entails both the simplicity and the complexity of comics. They can thrive as one-panel caricatures as well as be critically acclaimed works worthy of a Pulitzer, such as Maus. This dichotomy of subject matter may not be seen as flattering to comics as a serious, auspicious artform; however, this dual aspect and the relative, social nature of the “good” and the “bad” creates a unity and in turn makes comics a viable exponent of any idea that may come to pass. As such, comics can be liberal and conservative, artistic as well as purely marketable. As with all forms of expression there seems to be a reciprocal relationship between appeal and value, or commercial success and pure artistry (or comprehensive storytelling).
Somewhat related, we can talk about pure/fine art and commercial art, the first reflecting a more personal, “artistic” work, and the second a work-for-hire approach, where mass consumption comes center stage. It should be noted in this context that there is no clear distinction to these terms; all of the old Renaissance masters had patrons for example, so their transcended art had both a personal as well as a commercial value. Further, in mythic terms, this disparity is between finding and following your true calling, as opposed to working and living vicariously just to make ends meet, thus denying one’s true expressive potential. This idea is, however, continuously at odds with the demands of capitalism.
Now, with this interlude of sorts out of the way, let’s get into comics and picture books. Of course, this vague categorization can be observed in relation to myth and folktale, as well as myth and religion. In many cases, the works may be very similar either in nature or form and can bridge the gap between respective categories. Not to concede to the easy answer that categorization is generally arbitrary, but such similarities are a prime example of interconnection between different modes of human expression, hence complex understanding and a holistic approach prove paramount. Or, if all else fails, know your subject matter and your field, along with your potential audience … and wing the rest!
In the last couple of posts I talked more about what comics are, but there is still a lingering question of what comics are not or at least should not be mistaken for in either technical or ideological means. Specifically, (and by now quite obviously) I have in mind children’s picture books. While an untrained eye may not see any real difference that would place them in a distinct fields, since both forms make use of the verbal-linguistic pattern, the material itself is arranged differently. Picture books generally take the approach where one picture equates to one panel, while comics thrive in the interplay and narration of various panels on a page, where everything from panel transitions to shot selection is extremely important. Verbal elements in comics are more directly and intrinsically arranged than in most picture books where for the most part words are placed under the full-page picture (in the old-school comic strip format). This means, that comics convey a more complex connection between the linguistic and pictorial elements, whereas pictures in picture books generally convey the same meaning as words … for the obvious pedagogical reason of strengthening the reception by reinforcing mutual verbal and pictorial meaning, with it aiding to the understanding of younger readers.
By no means am I implying that words in picture books are arbitrary or obsolete; yet, they nevertheless play a minor role as compared to most comics. The irony of this observation is manifold; if you want to submit a story, you’ll need to write it down first, so the “words” part takes center stage, while the illustrations come only after. In many cases the publisher chooses its own illustrator with his or her own style that may not necessarily always fit with what you as a writer would have envisioned in the first place …of course, on the other hand, an experienced illustrator can exponentially add to your verbal story. However, because the pictorial impact of illustrations is so extensive and immediate, they can overshadow the relatively sparse words accompanying them. And because pictures are a “visual” response to the already written story, they tend not to show something differently to what was written. Now, there’s plenty of complexity, nuances and levels of reading in children’s picture books, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find intentional conflict like you do in the best of comics for example … unless it’s been envisioned by the writer a priori. (Although I’ve written articles about intentional conflict, I’ll make a future post here as well, just so clarify things a bit more,.
In either case, the creation of a children’s story is intertwined with pictorio-verbal cooperation. Now, the dominance of pictures over words in some picture books raises the question of where exactly should they be placed on the literature/visual art scale or what exactly does such a pictorial work have in common with literature per se (apart from the title and additive linguistic elements). The book (again) form seems to be the governing factor, hence the reason why libraries – as traditional guardians of scripture – have more and more prominent divisions for picture books and graphic novels, which share the book form with all genres of literature.
The biggest difference between comics and picture books, however, is the readership. Correspondingly, the picture books market is catered to children (and their parents … two birds, one stone type of ordeal), while comics have consequently more liberty to explore more complex and “adult” themes. Nowadays, the complexity and artistic beauty of modern picture books is not a rarity, paralleling the fact that great comics storytelling has become expected as well. As much as comics have started as publication for children, picture books are trendsetting the boundaries and becoming fascinating reads for adults as well, who have consequently already read them for the sake of the children. Of course comics can and do cater to specifically younger audiences and of course picture books can find a subtle adult niche as well. Just go to Google’s all-seeing eye and type in: Do you want to play with my balls?. Such stories surely can’t stiff you … Ahem.
All in all, the approach to writing and drawing comics differs considerably to writing picture books … lovely oxymoron. Detailed comics scrips (have to) offer everything from the broadest possible description of the scene, character traits, visual details, shot selection and of course text itself. They have to do so, when the writer is not the same as the “illustrator(s)”, so the story, its intended visualization and meanings are properly rendered. While the same styles of either writing or drawing may be used in both comics and picture books, the approach is very different, as is the intended means of reading. Distribution is another matter, because that essentially depends on the publisher (and obviously demand and common denominators of subject matter and themes), especially in Slovenia, where there is no mainstream comics industry to speak of, only talented fledglings of one sort or another. This means that it’s not about the choice between comics and picture books, because you can cater to both (albeit differently) and you can express your artistry and storytelling prowess in more non-linear and non-literal ways than one. More power to all of us!
Duncan, R., & Smith, M. J. (2009). The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Eisner, W. (2008). Comics and Sequential Art. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial.
Salisbury, M., & Styles, M. (2013). Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling. London: Laurence King Publishing.
Talon, D. S. (2004). Comics above Ground: How Sequential Art Affects Mainstream Media. Raleigh, North Carolina: TwoMorrows Publishing.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …