Art Direction

Text and Image

01.25.08 | Comment?


Understanding Comics is a book I had been aware of for some years, but I hadn’t given it much thought until one of my students shamed me into reading it, along with one of its two sequals (Making Comics) over the holiday break. I’m glad I did.

I have no plans to chuck it all for a career drawing comics. (I’ve already been down that road—I tried to make a go of it doing single-panels in my early 20s—oblivious, apparently, to the fact that magazines don’t publish single panels anymore.) But, McCloud’s examples and perspective connect in myriad ways to the experience of an art director and designer.

As a teacher, I’ve long used examples from cartooning as a means of illustrating various points about the way designers connect words and images—for example how the classic desert island setup, at its most basic, is not a visual gag, but merely a kind of parallel language that signals that the characters are in a desperate situation. In terms of sophistication of visual thinking, that kind of approach is not unlike the recent Golfweek noose cover—the image is used purely for its iconic rather than it’s illustrative value. Of course it’s possible to bring specificity and/or visual humor to these old chestnuts—I think it was Charles Adams who had his shipwrecked sailors noticing that their tiny island was shaped just like the U.S. mainland. Funny or not, this version of the joke is dependent on there being an island small enough to be completely taken in by its unhappy occupants (and the reader). Place Gilligan and Skipper in a different generic desperate situation (say the middle of a desert) and the idea doesn’t translate. Incidentally The American Prospect reprieved the “America/Island” concept (without sailors or mirth) as a way of talking about the isolationism that defined the first year of the Bush presidency.

McCloud takes my basic observations about image/text linkage much further, getting into issues of juxtaposition, pacing and sequence. It’s not his intention, but he makes it easy to see parallels between the way designers and cartoonists lead the eye around the page, and how different approaches to what cartoonist call the “splash” page (or panel) that kicks off most narrative comics relate to the opening spreads that kick off most features. He also has a lot to say about (what I call) onomatopoetic lettering—type that looks like how it sounds, type that visually accentuates meaning, and how framing, perspective, cropping and angle change how imagery is perceived.

Making Comics

Sounds a lot like magazine design to me. More of McCloud’s work including “Chapter 5.5” from Making Comics can be found on his web site.

Update: An NYT web feature on graphic novels.

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