A Picture Can Mean A Thousand Words. A Comic Strip Can Mean Millions.

Graphic novels & comic books are an interesting genre to explore. A lot of people (probably your parents) probably didn’t see flipping through these ‘picture’ books as ‘really reading’ like textbooks & literature, and that they perceived it as more of a past time than anything. You were having too much fun to really be reading & learning—but that is precisely the value of these graphic texts.

We learned a lot of morals and values through those super-hero comics, or Dr Seuss books, believe it or not. And as children with minimal attention span, being able to want to continue reading and not perceive it as the traditionally tedious ‘reading’ that we usually avoid is HUGE. Visually-saturated text masters the skill of grabbing your reader’s attention.

But with high reward comes high risk. Using visuals—especially if you choose to go completely wordless in your text—requires heavy perspective-taking and empathy-building with the reader to ensure that your metaphorical imagery conveys what you mean to convey. Here are some things to keep in mind as you lay out the story of your visually based adventure:

  • Shock your reader… occasionally. Experiment with using visually complex imagery that may challenge your reader’s predictability for what they expect you to do. Surreal and unreal art, when appropriate, can bring a lot of attention to the reader to an exaggerated feature in your imagery. Just make sure you don’t abuse this too much such that your reader is just left plain-out confused.
Source: http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large/1-montreux-jazz-festival-keith-haring-.jpg

It’s hard to not get drawn to Keith Haring’s exaggeration of this person’s elongated body. The simple depiction of an uncommon feature draws our attention.

  • Colours tell a story. Especially with black and white graphics, the colours you decide—from hue, brightness, and contrast—can invoke certain feelings and focus the reader’s attention on certain sections of the panel. Colours are a very subtle way to emphasise something with a low likelihood of confusing the reader.
  • Think outside the frame. Change up the spatial mode of the comic strip or organisation of your visuals. Add variance to the gutter (space between each frame) or the size, shape & organisation of the frames themselves. This is a great way to manipulate the reader’s perception of time on a still image (how long or short they read the panel).
Source: http://img09.deviantart.net/ec71/i/2012/289/e/7/unconventional_comic_pg__5_by_stargnome-d5i1wfn.jpg

One of the top image results for ‘unconventional comic’ in a popular search engine. Notice how panels bleed over each other, the dialogue that leaks outside the frames, the vertical organisation of the story progression, and the sizes & shapes of the frames.

  • Perspective-taking is #1. Because you won’t be as explicit in describing a character or setting, you need to empathise with whether a reader would be able to feel and imagine the same things you want them to through your more ambiguous representations.
  • Be very intentional. Like any text, take into close consideration what you are deciding and not deciding to include in your text. Unlike the traditional word-heavy text, though, you have a very small & limited number of panels to communicate your message versus a book’s tens-of-thousands of words. A reader is likely to spend half a minute just staring at one panel, trying to consume all the information, even.
  • Take advantage of visuals. You can now literally draw things of important value to a character or plot development without having to depend on slightly imperfect words. Focus on painting vivid panels, focus on drawing facial & gestural expressions to invoke feeling, etc. You can also better convey movement and action by drawing these in, making a still image come alive. Words should complement your visuals, not be your main focus.
Source: https://i2.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/newsfeed/001/204/462/8b6.jpg

This meme could be our metaphor for substituting heavy text with detailed imagery. Think of it like this: with less vivid visuals, the more you probably will have to explain via text what you want to convey, which just exacerbates the messiness of a panel and a potentially uninteresting paragraph to the reader.


The graphic & visual text genre is a massive genre with many underlying branches. Take a look at just a handful of the many graphics, including Keith Haring’s artistry to understand the importance of art form in graphics.

Keith Haring’s ‘Pop Shop Quad II’ (1988).

Source: www.haring.com/!/art-work/816#.W9OjNmhKiUk.

Consisting of a collection of four of Haring’s ‘Pop Shop II’ art pieces, this collection focuses on displaying an interesting level of surrealism in his art that is frequently seen in all his art pieces in different forms. Haring plays with the limitations of the human body by creating a four-legged figure, a hovering figure, an elongated & highly flexible figure, and two figures combining bodies together. By experimenting with the uncommon and unimaginable, Haring’s simplistic yet signature art styles draw the attention of many who are simply intrigued by this unusualness. The unsettling uncomfortableness with the unreal is visually attractive. Often times, these pieces also only include one figure (or one conjoined figure), showing that it is important to not create an information overload with too many moving parts in the visuals that may confuse the reader.

Keith Haring’s ‘Retrospect’ (1989).

Source: www.haring.com/!/art-work/822#.W9OiS2hKiUk.

This large collection of Haring’s works throughout his career as an artist displays the numerous techniques he uses to distinguish his artistry. He frequently includes straightforward pictures with a single anomaly to attract the viewer’s eyes (i.e. two figures in the portrait, except one of the figures is looped inside the other figure’s body that has a gaping hole in it). Haring’s simplistic yet bright colours also make the imagery easy to understand despite the surrealism, which is important when trying to ensure complex imagery is still easy to consume. Another interesting concept that Haring uses is his motion lines that help to show movement in the visual, such as a moving joint or limb. This is also highly significant for static imagery, since this allows us to convey moving parts to communicate a mini-story as the figure moves.

Frans Masereel’s 25 Images of a Man’s Passion (1918).

This popular wordless graphic novel exhibits the significance of choice in including certain imagery in each frame. For instance, some may include a highly simplistic illustration of only an individual supported by a black or white background, whereas others may include many individuals or objects in the portrait to explain relativeness or a de-focus on the subject and instead the environment & setting. With limited space to convey explicit detail and movement, attention is drawn to facial expressions and the gestural mode to show action. Black and white colours also allow Masereel to contrast the darkness versus light, which allow him to play with many emotions that this may connotate.

Frans Masereel’s The City (1972).

Similar to Masereel’s other pieces, he uses his black and white visuals to develop a story without linguistics. The City especially emphasises Masereel’s usage of intricate details and create a highly detailed environment for the reader to immerse themselves in. Instead of construing story and character information through many frames, Masereel creates complex visuals that allow the reader to get a highly detailed understanding of the context solely through one or two frames. This showcases the value of providing enough information, especially with a short comic strip, to quickly develop a meaningful plot without losing the reader’s interest.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000).

Persepolis is a graphic autobiography that describes a young child’s development to adulthood whilst in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The black-and-white visuals effectively complement the text to communicate a fluent narrative that allows the reader to directly engage in the text through visualization. The colour choices in which sections were either black or white help to communicate ‘dark’ and ‘light’ in terms of what could be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Satrapi’s mastery of colour draws focus and invokes feelings, crucial for any visually-heavy text. Additionally, the spatial organisation and size of the comic frames alter the reader’s sense of time in consuming the text and order (or lack of order) of reading it.





2 thoughts to “A Picture Can Mean A Thousand Words. A Comic Strip Can Mean Millions.”

  1. The comic book is a genre I enjoyed more as a kid but have moved away from recently as I have had less time to read what I want. When I was reading comic books I rarely thought about how they accomplish their goals and use a variety of modes to present their stories. Reflecting now, you’re absolutely right of the power of visual and spatial modes in conveying a message. Some of the best superhero stories I read specifically used the spatial mode to depict what was happening in a fight sequence or present a landscape. You also make a great point about the need to shock the reader visually occasionally. Since readers usually expect comic books to establish a visual pattern and stick with that pattern, a fresh look or design can be refreshing and keep the reader engaged. Your point about putting yourself in the reader’s shoe, especially for wordless comic books, is also crucial to tapping into the audience’s understanding of the work. You may believe one decision will be read in a certain way while the audience may see it in a completely different light. This really applies to all writing, but is especially vital when you only have so many pictures and words to present an idea.

  2. I think the most interesting aspect of using a lot of visuals in a writing piece is the balance between said visuals and text, and I appreciate that you mentioned the ‘shock your reader’ point as one of your first points; it affects most of the other points you made. Using images and graphics to tell a story or deliver a message is always going to be difficult with no text to complement, and acknowledging that up front is significant — to get a reader’s attention, there needs to be a shock factor, something unique to draw them in. You mentioned that this is what gives Dr. Seuss such appeal, and I also agree that with the primary use of imagery comes a need to make that imagery as appealing and understandable as possible.

Leave a Reply