19 November 2011

Eleanor Davis Shows the Invisible

I can’t keep writing about how comics “show the invisible” without pointing to Eleanor Davis’s delight-filled The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook. It’s a wonderful compilation of such techniques deployed for lively storytelling, and I’ve been meaning to mention it for months.

On pages 49-56 alone, I spot the following:
  • speech balloons, including variations for shouting (two types), electronic communication, machine readouts, interrupted communication, and hysterical laughter, along with boldface italics within speeches for emphasis.
  • cutaway views.
  • sound effects.
  • titles incorporated into the page design.
  • thought balloons.
  • labels for objects, including one listing the contents of a refrigerator and another describing an important notebook.
  • “wafterons,” Mort Walker’s name for the squiggly lines rising like hot vapors to indicate aromas.
  • “dites,” Walker’s term for the straight lines cartoonists use to indicate a smooth surface.
  • inset picture of something that the characters within the scene have lost (well, it’s invisible to them at that moment).
  • diagrams of devices that a character is thinking of.
  • paths showing the panel reading order as panels are stacked on the left.
  • motion arrow and manga-style motion label (“FLIP!”) together.
  • filmstrip displaying a digital recording, along with caption explaining that this format “looks cooler.”
Finally, page 57 provides a symphony of visual tricks in only five panels: speech and thought and yelling balloons, cutaway view, explanatory labels, sound effects, an oversized intrusive narrative caption, and manga-style motion labels.
That plethora of techniques is appropriate for this story, which celebrates the secret knowledge of science. The visual language of comics is, after all, a code for savvy readers. And while there’s a lot happening on every page, there’s also a lot happening in the characters’ heads.

Interestingly, Davis rarely uses motion lines or variations on what Walker calls “emanata” to show strong emotion until the climactic pages of her book. Only then does she pull them out of the cartoonist’s toolbox to depict the faster action and higher stakes.

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