03 April 2008

Back to Comics and Picture Books

The latest Notes from The Horn Book newsletter contains this exchange from editor Roger Sutton's interview with Françoise Mouly on the debut of the first TOON books--comics for beginning readers.

2. What’s the difference between a comic book and a picture book?

Both have pictures, but the similarities end there. Comic books offer a visual narrative, with words as only one of the elements intertwined with the pictures. The visual narrative in a comic book helps kids crack the code of literacy, teaching them how to read from left to right, from top to bottom. Speech balloons facilitate a child’s understanding of written dialogue as a transcription of spoken language. In a sense, comics are similar to face-to-face interaction. Comics blend words, images, and facial expressions with panel-to-panel progression, sound effects, and even shifts in type size to engage readers and propel the story. Many of the issues that emerging readers have traditionally struggled with are instantly clarified by comics’ simple and inviting format.
I don't fully agree with some of Mouly's statements, but heartily concur with others. The quibbles:
  • Both picture book and comics forms have pictures in sequence. (In fact, "sequential art" was one of Will Eisner's "will you respect us now?" attempts to relabel comics. Unlike his "graphic novel," it doesn't seem to have leaped the fence from the comics field to the larger world.) Neither form is simply a collection of pictures; the sequential images make it possible to tell stories.
  • Both forms usually have pictures and words. There are wordless picture books and wordless comics, of course, but those are the exceptions. (We don't have to say "wordful picture book" or "worded comic.")
  • Some of the elements of comics that Mouly highlights are also elements of picture books:
    • Left/right (at least in our culture), top/bottom progression.
    • "Words, images, and facial expressions."
    • Digital layout and typography have made it possible for picture books also to use "shifts in type size," as well as:
      • shifts in type color.
      • shifts in type placement.
      • okay, I didn't really need this list, but I wanted to see what would happen if I kept adding new layers of bullet points.
As the key features that differentiate comics from picture books, I emphasize the number of pictures on a page spread and the way comics "show the invisible" through speech balloons, sound effects, and some other elements Mouly doesn't mention, such as the motion and emotion lines in this sample from TOON Books's Benny & Penny in Just Pretend, by Geoffrey Hayes.

I think those ingredients could indeed lead to comics being easier for some beginning readers to understand. The left/right, top/down progression that appears in both book forms is more apparent when a child can see several sequential images at once. The speech balloons' little tails provide a non-verbal link from characters to their dialog for someone who already has enough work to do puzzling out that dialog.

On the other hand, when children hear stories from their parents, what they hear is more like prose than like comics. In telling tales, we can rarely point to different people to indicate who said what; instead, we use verbal dialog tags like "he said." We describe events and actions rather than act them out. So for some children, a traditional prose picture book might be an easier transition from hearing to reading.

Of course, there's no reason for families to choose one form or the other.


david elzey said...

Hey, J. Have you seen the TOON books? Aside from their elevated quality (heavy paper, slicker illos) I found them to be nothing more than hardcover comic books.

Being comic books for younger readers -- like Owly -- isn't a problem, but there's something almost elitist about these going for picture book retail when they could just as easily be produced like regular comic books for one third their price.

So is it a case of trying to woo an audience that would look down on comics by avoiding similar presentation, or are these books telegraphing the idea that they are somehow better than "regular" comics.

I didn't find their contents to be any different than some pulps I've known. They certainly weren't bad. I find their marketing a problem.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the various parts of a comic are much more dependent upon each other than the text and illustrations of a picture book are.

It is usually possible to read a picture book aloud, and for the most part, comprehend. A comic read aloud is incomprehensible to someone not viewing the artwork.

J. L. Bell said...

Dave E., in the same interview Françoise Mouly makes a point of saying that TOON Books are published in the same sturdy format as picture books. So, yes, I think the company is going for the higher price and arguing that on the basis of longevity they are better than magazines on pulp paper.

David M., I agree that picture books are usually written to be read aloud, and comics can't be. That's one reason many parents and librarians distrust comics as replacements for picture books; they don't know how to share them.

However, picture books are usually meant to be read aloud while examining the pictures. In a good picture book the art contains details that don't appear in the text, often details crucial to understanding the story. Sometimes there's an ironic discord between art and text that makes the full meaning dependent on consuming both at once.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

In response to David Maxine, plenty of picture books are fueled by a symbiotic relationship between their words and pictures. Skillfully written ones are, in a sense, underwritten--they require readers and listeners to refer to the art to get the full meaning. As for the larger topic at hand, I don't know that I can add anything more to your astute observations, J.L., but I will shamelessly mention that I have written the first (nonfiction) picture book ABOUT comic books.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Oops. Just saw that my point was already made in your comment...

J. L. Bell said...

But you also made the important point, Marc, that picture book manuscripts often have to be underwritten to leave space for the artist to fill in.

Indeed, one of the major behind-the-scenes differences between the two forms is that comics scripters can overwrite by providing long, detailed descriptions of panels and pages while picture-book writers are supposed to say as little as possible about visual details.

Linnea Hendrickson said...

As for sturdy paper and bindings, I am buying more and more comic books (graphic novels?) for my elementary school library, and I welcome sturdier editions, since these books are extremely popular and even the re-bound ones become shabby in no time.

J. L. Bell said...

I've been struck by the variation in paper evident in books in comics form. Some use high-quality glossy paper and others wood pulp. I wouldn't be surprised if there's also a range of quality in softcover bindings, with some never meant to last.