Dialogue in Comics
As an animator, most of the storytelling I tried in my formative years as an artist had an emphasis on pantomime. We were told to always prioritize visual clarity and character posing and often looked to performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton for inspiration. Lip Sync was a whole battle in itself, and so it made sense to leave the speech out when first learning how to move a character around the screen.
Charlie Chaplin always tried for the minimum number of expositional slides possible in his films. This put the emphasis on getting as much information to the audience through body language and expression as possible, so that no extra narration or dialogue was necessary to understand what was happening.
Comics, as well as animation/film are a visual medium. I think that is why when a comic relies upon written exposition through narration and dialogue rather than communicating through the art I find it less engaging. I believe that showing a character's reaction rather than stating it allows the reader to engage in interpreting the feelings of the character and helps them to empathise with that situation.
For example, the following excerpt from The Amazing Spider-Man #45: Spidey Smashes Out, Copyright to Marvel Comics....
Whilst there are definitely advantages to being given a window into Peter Parker's mind like this, and it allows for some nice poetic dialogue, I would argue that you could remove the speech entirely from these two panels, and the art would still convey the story point and do so in a more affecting way.
It is possible to craft entire stories using no exposition or dialogue at all, such as in the fantastic Moon Knight #5 from Warren Ellis (Writer) and Declan Shalvey (Artist), or in this example from the classic Calvin and Hobbes.
Frostblight, the first comic exploration Mike and I ever did, had no text. I think it taught us a lot about story. There were some parts readers understood with no problem, but others where we had been unintentionally unclear.
Making a piece that relied on visuals alone was a tricky and interesting challenge. There were some days we would spend hours banging our heads against the wall trying to come up with how to say this or show that.
In the end, I think you lose something if you choose to explain everything within the text, but I also think that omitting it completely takes away a valuable tool in your arsenal. To fulfill the potential of comic storytelling, I think using text/dialogue to deepen or expand what the art is communicating is key!
To ensure that your dialogue is adding to the story, the first thing to look for are instances where the art and dialog are delivering repeating messages.
People don't tend to narrate what they are doing or thinking, convenient as that may be for an audience. They also very rarely say what they mean. Navigating a real life conversation is all about digging through the subtext. When you have someone straight out state 'This makes me angry' or 'I'm going through this door now' and mean it, you lose one of the most important things to any story - believably.
Just as a fast caveat, something can be believable without being realistic. It just means that the characters and stakes feel real. When the audience forgets they are consuming media and get swept up in the story, they become more invested in the characters and their plights. This is why we care whether Matilda gets revenge on her parents, or if John Stark can win back his home. To us, their struggles feel real, and so we root for them.
Clarifying the Meaning
The most common reason for adding text to a scene is for clarity. There are some things that can feel very difficult to show clearly.
In this scene from our 8 page minicomic, North, the girl has finally managed to get the robot to its feet.
We showed her unsuccessfully trying force, before succeeding through reasoning with it. The piece of text above clarifies why the robot chose to get up - it thought her argument was logical. This piece of information helps the readers understand the robot's value system at the beginning of the story, which adds weight to its change at the end.
Deepening the meaning
This is where the really fun stuff comes in! There are a couple of ways you can add meaning to a panel through text. Obviously, the art contextualizes the dialog, so even if the speech stays the same, playing with the character's body language/facial expressions completely changes the meaning of the words.
This opens the door for all kinds of things!
One of my favourite things to do is to deepen meaning by contrasting the image with the text. Comic artists do this all of the time, and you can achieve a variety of effects by doing so.
On the first page of The Girl and the Glim, I contrasted the image of Bridgette castaway in the center of a tornado with her assurance that everything is a-okay.
This combination is not only a lot more interesting and unexpected than 'Oh no, I am trapped inside a tornado', but her denial of the negativity of her situation gets to the crux of her character right away.
Bridgette is the kind of person who always puts a brave face on things. She thinks people seeing her weaknesses will drive them away, and this pushes her to keep her true feelings under wraps. Through the book I had a lot of fun contrasting Bridgette's speech with her body language to show when she was lying.
As I touched on earlier, people very rarely say what they mean. Creating a dissonance between the speech and acting can say a lot about what kind of person they are.
Along similar lines, but slightly more subtle and difficult is deepening the meaning using subtext.
Subtext requires the audience to read between the lines. It is often another case of a character saying one thing and meaning another. However, rather than hitting the readers with the impactful contrast, it's up to the artist/writer to instead evoke a feeling.
Here, showing Bridgette unpacking her new room alone and pinning up the muddied picture of her friends was designed to create a feeling of lonliness and isolation. When she talks to the photos about how great her new house is, what she is actually saying is 'I miss you'.
"You guys would probably love it here" I feel like I should love it here
"This house is massive..." But it feels empty
"When you visit, we can have the best sleepovers" Please visit, I miss you.
It's the mood of loneliness that we tried to create in the compositions that alludes to what Bridgette is really feeling and trying to say.
The main thing about creating discord between the words and imagery is that it prompts your readers to ask questions, and gives your characters more nuance.
If you are ever wondering if a panel should have dialogue or not, ask yourself 'what am I clarifying with this dialogue?' 'what am I telling the audience that they couldn't get from the artwork?' 'Is the text deepening the meaning of this moment, and if not, could it?'
There is so much to dig into when it comes to text in comics. I haven't touched at all on conversational dialogue (dialogue between two or more characters), not to mention the visual elements of font, colour, and placement - all of which can be used to add meaning. If you guys would like me to talk more about it, let me know!
The Witch of the West
I've been working hard trying to get my Witch of the West pages done for the deadline. TOMORROW'S DEADLINE! It's going to be a very close call. I still have a few pages to make and none of them are coloured yet, so we'll see what happens. It's been a crazy week of flat hunting for Mike and I, so we lost a few days in the fray.
I hope you enjoy seeing the progress on the pages so far, (sans colour or speech boxes, which I'll add at the end)! I still have some feedback to apply - but priority right now goes on finishing the pages!
The biggest struggle by far at this juncture is time. Finding the time to do the pages to the quality I want is a difficult task, especially learning to draw wagons and horses along the way! Reference helps a lot, as does an endless stream of flowing tea into my Sonic mug. Let me know if you guys have any questions about my process, I'd be happy to talk about it.
I'd love to hear any feedback you guys have, so please leave any constructive critique in the comments!
Next comics update, I'll be posting the finished pages of The Witch of the West! We'll also get an update on where Mike's at. Maybe we will even have a new home? :D
Also, I'll talk about pacing in comics. How do you know how much time to give a moment? How do you stay within a fixed pagecount? How do you know when you need more pages?
Until next time, thanks for reading and stay Adventuresome!
~ Doig & Swift