comics with separate script + artwork

(c) fleetway 1966

here a distinction is going to be made between what most people think of as a comic strip (an industrial artform consisting of intermingling verbal + visual systems, ie with script + artwork in the same panel) as in the example above on the left + those strips where the narration or dialogue is kept completely separate from the image by being written (usually underneath) as a (sequential) caption as in the one on the right

the next stage of verbal + visual separation would be illustrated literature like alice through the looking glass; the extreme end of the scale would be something like a novel with a picture on the cover (which still counts: it’s one object with two signifying systems)

perhaps historically those art styles by + large evolved the other way round: novels with illustrations preceded subtitled image sequences which preceded (or evolved parallel to?) mingling the words with the artwork, but never mind that now:

there is a major difference between the way the two types of comic strip (mingled + separate) mentioned above function + thus there ought to be standard terms to identify them. at this point it ought to be stated that it’s possible there already are, but without knowing what the terms are in advance they’re difficult to search for online

the difference concerns the role of the reader

I have met a lot of people who won’t buy comic strips with the words underneath basically because they don’t like reading them, despite still appreciating the artwork + having an interest in the type of story

this may be partly because they think of them as unsophisticated in comparison with comics which impart their verbal information from within the panel, which are read in a more complex way to those which do not:

  •      the words form part of the visual composition;
  •      characters’ expressions may be read at the same time as what they’re saying;
  •      the pace of events shown is more easily conveyed if the reader’s eyes are directed from panel to panel the way they artist chooses, instead of up + down from words to picture + back again;

to name but three of the main points. a page of this type of comic strip provides more than just the sum of the obvious verbal + visual data

the other reason people might not like reading comic strips with the words underneath is the (fractionally?) additional amount of effort necessary to read them. separating the verbal from the visual compels the reader to switch his or her mode of attention from one sequence (verbal) to the next (visual)


from computing we could import the concept of threading as a model for reading the word + picture elements in this type of comics. from memory threading refers to two apparently simultaneous processes actually being accomplished by repeatedly switching from one to the other so fast that the user doesn’t notice

obviously comic strip readers don’t consume their comics at that sort of speed but a similar sleight of hand is effected as they unconsciously combine the two threads into one narrative (presumably as a result of being absorbed in the story) which they perceive as continuous as opposed to being described from two perspectives (visual + verbal)

using this model (threading) perhaps we should conclude these are technically not comics at all but two separate media: art + literature. they only start to behave like a comic strip during the act of reading, when the reader mixes them into a unified story. however this is precisely why they in fact belong to the comics medium

to use a crisp analogy: ready salted crisps have their ingredients combined at the point of manufacture, as opposed to plain crisps sold with a sachet of salt where the ingredients are combined at the point of consumption. they’re still the same type of crisps

also note that as an image sequence with a paragraph appearing at the bottom of the panel remains an option for all comic book artists these ‘unsalted’ comics ought to be seen as a subset of comics in general. the reverse does not apply: speech balloons etc cannot obscure the artwork in an unsalted sequence

at this point coming up with a better term is f wording essential. will eisner mentions all this stuff in graphic storytelling + visual narrative (p135) in a section entitled ‘the illustrator-storyteller’ but stops short of coining any terminology (unless that was it). the other phrase he uses is ‘narrative illustration’: both of these terms in their width + vagueness fit all types of sequential art. so here are

some suggestions for terms which could be used to identify comics with separate script + artwork

binary narrative – which reflects the either/or act of reading the separate threads. ‘dual narrative’ is similar but a little less specific

two speed comics – in my experience the words are read at a pace which does not vary that widely (for space reasons the subtitles may have roughly the same limited number of alphabetic characters) but the pictures may be read for a vastly variable amount of time. this is because a greater or lesser amount of significant detail can be packed into panels of the same size (from a complex image including detail not present in the subtitle to a simple visual repetition of the words taken in at a glance) or, most significantly, an image may be skipped over completely by the reader

as it might be possible to argue that the definition above could just about be stretched to apply to the act of reading all comics we now arrive at my favourite term:

two thread comics

which describes them perfectly in my view but would need explaining every time you used it. the daft one which uses the crisp analogy (salted / unsalted) is actually more intuitive because the terms imply their opposites, + easier to explain because it’s (quite) funny. in the light of that my final suggestions are to use the terms

‘comics’ + ‘caption comics’

the first of which is just the unqualified term currently in general usage + the second (qualified: indicating it’s a subset) ought to be easily understood by the layman

the word ‘subtitle’ which was used earlier would give us subtitle comics, the meaning of which phrase is equally obvious from our experience of cinema, but as it is drawn from another medium perhaps ‘caption’ is preferable because it’s already used in the field of non sequential art: single panel jokes where, in order to get the joke, the reader has to mix the verbal + visual ingredients

(c) punch publications early 1980s

a final point

note unsalted two thread caption comics (I can’t stop myself) are not necessarily as unsophisticated as may have been implied earlier in this article. in fact this method of story telling offers the artist the option of disconnecting the words from the images, in order to eg undermine one thread with the other, with the potential for a highly sophisticated result. this is not really available to no qualifying term comics – see a previous post for a discussion of a complex case

if anyone knows what terminology is in actual use in the industry post a reply, although I will probably still stick with caption comics now I’ve come up with it

PS the concept of separate threads was mentioned in the introduction to another previous article on this site – things appearing at the back of the panel in comic book artwork. it came in handy then as well



a brief specific case study

as stated at the start of this article there are different degrees of separation of word + image: nowadays (early 21st century) that’s usually described as a spectrum

in actual usage the extreme separation being defined above is pretty scarce. from my own reading of this type of comics the captions are usually placed within the panel, which keeps the artwork in the reader’s peripheral vision, more or less removing from the reader the option of just reading the words + completely ignoring the pictures

(c) fleetway 1966

the example above takes robert louis stevenson’s words from the original novel treasure island + adds a visual dimension to them

a few of the things added are:

  •      the sort of blocking of the characters you would normally find on stage or in the cinema, with silver + jack hawkins moving to the left as their opposition to the rest of the pirates becomes explicit in the dialogue
  •      dividing the two opposed groups visually with part of the set by positioning them either side of the door
  •      visualisations of what the characters ought to look like – putting an actual face to the name
  •      indicating sudden movement by showing the parrot getting flustered, etc

whoever adapted the story was aware stevenson knew how to communicate with a reader better than he did (or, bluntly, was a better writer) + thus did not attempt to adapt the book into a straight superhero style comic strip with visual story telling foregrounded + updated dialogue appearing in word balloons

opting for this style of comics the story retains the attractive qualities present in the way it was written because it simply cuts the literature up + pastes it into a sequence of verbal captions (subpanels?). the experience of reading these is that of reading an abridged version of the novel

associating each element of the verbal sequence with a visual one plays the voice of the artist over that of the writer – in my view they harmonise well in this instance. generally speaking (in my view again) a reader’s appreciation of this strip + its ilk ought to lie in listening to such harmonies

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