At one of the Barbican Comics Forums this year, the conversation turned to the type of comic you would want to write if you had the time, inclination and / or artistic ability. I had never previously thought about the question, and on reflection decided that I didn’t really have a burning idea for a character or story that I would want to have a go at, but that I was interested in the visual communication of ideas, particularly around the politics and philosophy stuff I studied at university. I had in mind something like the series of pocket sized ‘Graphic Guides’ on a range of academic disciplines, authors and thinkers, which were readable, but didn’t always take full advantage of the sequential nature of the comics form.
Some people suggested that I read Logicomix, which seemed to be doing what I was trying to describe. It’s in part a biography of Bertrand Russell, but it also promises to explain his (really quite abstruse) philosophy of mathematics and the debates on logic that were raging in the first half of the 20th century. It does a passable job, although the decision to go behind the scenes and show the making of the comic within the comic felt to me like a distraction. And like the Graphic Guides, it did not take full advantage of the potential of the form to illustrate ideas visually. Instead, much of the exposition happened in dialogue – suitably philosophical, perhaps, but something that could be achieved in a film or a book as well as a comic.
I have an interest in this stuff partly because it’s my job. As a digital comms person at a think tank, I have to think about ways to illustrate sometimes quite complicated and technical ideas in a way that is both clear and engaging. Some of this is just pretty charts, but a lot of it is about telling a story. Stories at their simplest are built on the tension or conflict created by change. To illustrate how this can work, here’s a short example from my job which tells a story about the role of cities changing in the last century. The longer stuff we do can even be said to follow a three act structure – here’s an example of a presentation which establishes a world (a government policy goal), introduces a problem (a lot of cities are not achieving the goal) and leads to a resolution (what different cities should do to achieve the goal).
Stories are often arguments, with the tension created by the conflict between one idea and another. No argument happens in a vacuum – arguments always advance one idea at the expense of another. They always contain within them the arguments they are trying to refute. And that conflict (hopefully) makes them interesting. To illustrate: this tries to show that allowing local areas to keep more of their money doesn’t necessarily mean reducing redistribution from rich to poor areas (as many people assume). And this contrasts what distinguishes people that live in city centres from the average person, and how that affects their preferences.
If I’m trying to tell stories and create drama with the simple tools at my disposal, imagine what a professional comics artist could be able to do. In fact, when prodded on examples of artists working in this area at the Forum, I suggested Jonathan Hickman, who was formerly a graphic designer, and brought a lot of those ideas into his breakthrough work The Nightly News. That book still feels singular, and it’s a shame that others haven’t built on its innovations (Hickman is returning to comics art after a long stint making his name writing at Marvel, so there’s some hope). I guess the other example would be Promethea, which is often just a series of visual lectures on Alan Moore’s esoteric worldview, There’s more on why I think that’s gobbledygook here, but suffice it to say that I thought J. H. Williams III was wasted applying his prodigious visual talents to illustrating the mad hippy uncle stuff he was being given.
My sense is that there is a lot of scope for comics to borrow from ideas used in graphic design and infographics, given that they both use the same raw materials (images and text) to convey information. The difference between them is that comics are sequential, but good presentations can string infographics together to create a narrative. After all, what are powerpoint slides if not frames? Comics have the advantage again in that panels can be played around with on the page (although even this is being eroded by platforms like Prezi which are designed to break the tyranny of the slide). Ultimately, if powerpoints can be used to create contrast, tension, drama and meaning, they are not that different to comics, and there may be lessons to learn. Hickman and J. H. Williams III feel like pioneers in this respect. Comics might be more interesting if more creators followed their example. Just imagine what those Graphic Guides would look like with one of those guys at the helm…