Scott McCloud: word-image combinations

“Deep down inside, many comics creators still measure art and writing by different standards and act on the faith that “great” art and “great” writing will combine harmoniously by virtue of quality alone.” –Scott McCloud

In Scott McCloud’s chapter of Understanding Comics entitled “Show and Tell,” he identifies seven common word-image relationships unique to comics. McCloud explains that “people have a misconception that the combination of words and pictures is ‘simplistic.’” Undoubtedly, this chapter attempts to clarify this misconception. Importantly, McCloud does not uphold any element as having more power than any other element.

To begin, McCloud outlines the meaning of the word-specific combination in comics. This relationship occurs when a picture “[doesn’t] significantly add” to the reader’s comprehension of the text. Although the picture illustrates the words, it isn’t necessary for the reader to understand the author’s point. The picture doesn’t add anything to the panel.

Second, McCloud describes the picture-specific element found in comics. This relationship occurs when words “provide little more than a soundtrack” to an already comprehensible picture. The words aren’t necessary for the ready to understand what is going on. This reminded me of a film class that I took concentrating on film noir. In some cases, the voice-over did not help me gain a deeper understanding of what I could visually see was going on.

McCloud then moves on to discuss duo-specific panels in which “both words and pictures send essentially the same message.” In other words, there is no need for both the picture and the words to be paired with one another, because they are sending the same message. Therefore, their existence together on the page appears forceful. Here, McCloud provides an example of a picture a woman named Amy who is crying. Clearly, Amy is upset, and therefore a caption of “I feel so sad” is unnecessary and possibly detracts from the reader’s engagement with the text.

Fourthly, McCloud provides insight into the comic element of additive. In this combination, “words amplify or elaborate on an image or vice versa.” It appears McCloud would classify this relationship as intersecting, because words and images work in unison to produce meaning.  In other words, works or images work off of one another to produce deeper meanings.

McCloud then defines the parallel combination. This combination allows for “words and pictures to follow very different courses-without intersecting.” (Note-in this comic panel the suspicious looking word is ‘Clint’).  Put differently, the picture and the text each relay a holistic message; messages which are unique and follow their own paths without intersecting.

McCloud’s sixth definition focuses upon montage. McCloud describes this as “words that are treated as integral parts of the picture.” He provides an example of a face that is the ‘a’ in the word ‘happy.’ In this combination, words take on the role of images.

Finally, McCloud’s seventh combination is interdependent. McCloud defines this relationship as “words and pictures [that] go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone.” A great example McCloud gives is of a smiling woman in mid-conversation who is really thinking, “He’s lying.” The reader would not be able to know the difference between what they see and what is really going on without the crucial relationship between words and images. In this combination, the words and pictures work in unison to communicate a complete concept.

McCloud gives insight about some of the characteristics of these combinations. For example, interdependent, additive and montage relationships call for for the reader to become more engaged with the text than other word-image relationships. More simplistic relationships include picture-specific and word-specific combinations. These combinations can provide the reader temporary relaxation from the more complex combinations found in comic texts.

McCloud’s in-depth explanation of words and images did make me think more critically about writing and conveying messages. I’d never really taken the time to think before about the various ways that words and images work together. I don’t ever read comics, but the visual examples that McCloud provided within his six categories were extremely helpful in getting his point across. His argument made me feel that perhaps writing comics is more complicated than it seems. Utilizing the wrong ‘combination’ could send the wrong message to the reader, causing them to become disengaged with the text. In this way, I have a new appreciation for how carefully comic writers, and writers in general, must be when using words and images together.

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