Text in comics: friend or foe?

The other day an author with tens of thousands of followers on a social network posted a ten item guideline to writing comics. I thought cool, let’s check it out. I always appreciate insight into other people’s methods of work and advice they may give. I needn’t like what they write to hear their say, as anyone working their field deserves my respect. Their experience, success and talent may be far greater than mine. So I lend my ears and think about their opinions. It’s great to discuss and reflect on the craft, that was literally my first reaction.

However I did want to point out something that day: you cannot measure certain things as if creating comics were maths. It is not. It’s an artform and there’s lots of ways of viewing it. Specifically the question of whether a maximum number of words per balloon or page can actually be set to a figure. Sure, you don’t want to put too much text into a page and have it become unreadable or dragging. I just alledged that the acceptable amount of text on panels or pages depends on your reading culture and/or habits. Also as a creator. That perception changes geographically and in time; it was not the same as it used to be (and maybe will be) on one hand and on the other you cannot judge American comics with the same parameters as Japanese manga or European bande desinée. If you were raised to equally appreciate Hergé, Will Eisner and Osamu Tezuka you’ll know what I mean.

So text. What is it about text. It’s like the first guest to a party hosted by the art. Visually, I mean. You do create having abstract concepts in mind, plus a specific visual setting plus the words that are said or heard on that plateau. But as you encounter a comic page, as a reader, what first strikes you is the art, the page as a drawn sheet, with text just following and helping you understand beyond what is seen -through what is read.

Text is a purveyor of information so it affects directly on how much data you can deliver to the reader. This data can be more or less objetive (plot facts) and subjective (how do the characters feel about those facts) or even atmospheric (what is the environment surrounding both facts and characters). It is a key tool but it’s quite elastic, really. One page may work beautifully with no words at all, another may be packed but also give what’s due without offending your sight.

And then there’s the question of whether using a narrator’s voice is all right or if, quite the opposite, only dialogue should be on the final page. We’ll skip that debate today because it would take all day just by itself. I’ll just put this forward, I’m not a fanatic enemy of show & tell either anymore. So go figure.

Text density affects both the tempo of your story and the readibility of the pages that build that story. But the quantity of it, that’s an industry standard. An editor may tell you, you use too much text, be more concise. OK. Or, as an American editor told me on one occasion, there’s too much (he meant plot, not words) crammed up in this story (there was not, but I spent zero seconds arguing. See: Dámsmitt).

Text density, again, has got nothing to do with what comics can or cannot support. Or is avisable when creating them. Should you adapt to guidelines fitting your industrial environment? Sure -if you want to get hired. What’s more, you may not like wordy comics -that’s cool. But that does not make them any less worthy (or enjoyable by people other than you, at that). You simply cannot judge the quality of writing by the quantity of words. That’s your taste. It’s not an absolute truth and does not split writers between good and bad. Just as there are no right and wrong ways to make comics. How many times the authors you really appreciate were those who dared to go beyond the so-said rules? How could The Dark Knight Returns or Elektra: Assassin ever been made if not. So you see, even an industry as standardized as the US’s benefitted from those trespassing.

I have been writing comics for two decades and my works are not specially wordly (I reckon). My point is don’t believe you can identify quality (or right/wrong) through single specific features. It’s ridiculous to dismiss combinations of words and images that do not follow a specific pattern. Some of those patterns are only mandatory for certain markets or regions. And John Byrne did not write the same way Tom King does. Maybe we could go and measure their respective word densities and see if it’s changed a lot or not?

In any case we wouldn’t tell Gunter Grass that Tin Drum took too many pages and should be edited. Alejo Carpentier, he could have told the same story of Explosion in a Cathedral with a shorter extension, but why should he?

Let’s respect our own craft too. If anyone thinks they can do better than Gaines, Feldstein & Kriegstein on Master Race or Van Hamme’s or Yves Sente’s runs on Blake et Mortimer, just because they use a smaller wordcount and/or ratio than those legendary creators, I’ll be happy to hold their beers.

Criticism, opinions, styles, all those are great. But don’t come to me speaking in absolute terms.

As the Greek poet once said, only the Sith deal in absolutes.

PS.- And no, you don’t know more about writing comics than anyone else just because you have a Major in Literature (congratulations on your resumé anyway -I wish I’d earned one too). It may come handy whenever you actually write one, though, if you do.