Worth a Thousand Words?

A number of recent comments on my blog have taken issue with and exception to my statements suggesting that comics and graphic novels cannot achieve great intellectual depth of text, especially of the depth possible in books.  Some commenters have even insisted that comics and graphic novels are the equal of books in this regard.

No.  They’re not.   They never will be, and there are structural reasons for this having nothing to do with opinion, mine or anyone else’s.

Contrary to the perception of some, I do not “hate” comics.  And there are some things a comic and a graphic novel can do that even the best book cannot, but those attributes do not lie in the area of intellectual depth and complexity.

Art, even the best abstract and/or illustrative art, cannot set forth abstract ideas, i.e., those ideas which are conceptual and which do not have a basis in the physical world.  A single word concept, such as “peace” or “harmony” or “stasis” or…. [fill in the blank with any number of such concepts] can’t be easily depicted artistically, nor can art itself discuss or describe it adequately – especially without a great number of words [which tends to defeat the idea of a graphic novel].

Nor can art depict highly intellectual or complex feelings or conversations, again, except with the use of text-dense balloons, which, once more, would seem to defeat the whole idea of a graphic novel.

Art is also limited in depicting and/or explaining and describing the deeper psychological interplay within a character or between characters.  As a result, graphic novels are necessity confined to a shallower and a less nuanced interpretation/exposition of character and motivation.

Does that make the graphic novel “less entertaining”?  Not necessarily.  Entertainment value depends on the reader/viewer as much as on the media by which the story is presented.  A graphic presentation, because human visual channels predominate, is likely to be more appealing to those who are less interested in or less capable of absorbing straight text rapidly.  A graphic novel or comic is also likely to be more appealing to those with shorter concentration spans… and thus, for them, more entertaining.

But… should entertainment value be the only standard by which the excellence of presentation of a story is judged?  A three-minute rock song may be more enjoyable to many listeners than a five minute opera aria, but the aria is far more complex and requires far greater expertise to perform – and to appreciate – than the pop song.  A four-hundred page novel, if written competently, will have far greater depth than a graphic novel of the same length, if only because words are far more compact in conveying complexity.

I’m not against art, especially since, once upon a time, I aspired to be an artist and spent several years painting.  Much great art is far, far, superior to a great array of competently written novels – but great art and great writing are two very different fields, with different objectives. As a result, using art to tell stories tends to water down the potential greatness of both art and prose or poetry, and like all compromises, the result is less than either… even if the result is entertaining and “popular.”



12 thoughts on “Worth a Thousand Words?”

  1. hob says:

    Mr Modesitt, letters and words are just little drawings with taught meaning.

    The same can be accomplished with other forms of communication.

    Math is much more defined as a communication system, and by its structural nature in comparison to the written word, would convey a level of abstract complexity which can’t be done with the written word as of present.

    Defining symbolic meaning and teaching that meaning to people is the key to conveying greater amounts of subtlety/depth etc, how is the medium which is chosen as the transfer important?

    Your point is only valid if we define that comic art has not been systematically defined and attached meaning to presently, making it less useful in conveying detail to the general audience.

    The other thing is that you seem to be under the impression that you can perfectly understand a non systematically defined communication system.

    How do you judge that you are not missing huge amounts of information simply because you are not conversant with the street dictionary of the medium? Learning to read and comprehend a language has much more to do with how that language is used by its speakers than just by learning the apparent rules of the language.

    How many comic/graphic novels have you read Mr Modesitt and then discussed with other fans?

    More importantly, if you are defining great art as something that holds and conveys great complexity, why do you not convey your message/art in Math? All the issues you are voicing apply equally to the written word.

    Because you do not, and probably will not for the near future, would this not be a judgment on your audience’s attention span/concentration/intelligence in regards to what entertains them?

    Education, whether formal or indirect, define how we view the world. I agree with Mr Modesitt in his underlying fear that because popular media is geared towards fast profit, it forces the mediums we communicate and think in to conform to its own narrow lexicon.

    I disagree that just by stating the written word is better than panel art it somehow fixes the underlying problem that perception of profit defines meaning in our world.

  2. Hob… you’re missing the point. I see/understand what you’re saying, but the plain fact is that art, words, and math have different strengths, capabilities, and functions. They overlap, but they are not the same, and all your arguments won’t change that.

    As for conveying my message in math, I’m not a mathematical artist; but there are such in the sense that great scientists can convey the descriptions of the universe, the quantum “world,” etc., in far more accurate ways than I can with words, but I can use words in ways far more accurate than math in describing abstracts or emotions. Art can certainly evoke emotions, but it’s deficient in discussing and describing them.

    And yes, I have read and discussed graphic novels. I’ve even worked with artists who illustrate them.

    And where did you ever get the idiotic idea that I believe that the perception of profit defines meaning? Some of my most “meaningful” work has been the least profitable. Profit in either novels or graphic novels is determined in the end by what people will pay, not necessarily the meaning represented by what they buy, but the value of the entertainment as they see or experience it.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Your point has something to it, but maybe not quite as much as you think, or else your example of pictorially depicting “peace”, “harmony”, or “stasis” wasn’t that great. Thinking about it just for a moment, it occurred to me that if I could draw, I probably _could_ depict at least peace and harmony pictorially, to the point that if someone were asked what it represented, they’d probably get either the very word or a synonym. But just as idioms and analogies may be culturally dependent, so also such pictorial depictions of abstracts might well be culturally dependent.

    (update: I just thought of a way to depict stasis, or at least an approximation of it, remembering the old movie of H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”, and the mannequin whose costume changed, but whose face remained unaltered over a period of years. That means stasis would be expressed as the juxtaposition of the passage of time with something that one would normally expect to change, but doesn’t.)

    However, I will certainly agree that pictures and words have different strengths. Scenery or even some emotion is more naturally depicted with pictures, and while abstracts _can_ be depicted with pictures, depicting relationships among abstracts pictorially seems nearly impossible to me, although a comic book, as a sequenced set of images, seems as capable as anything of doing it.

    It’s a fuzzy line, though. Consider ancient hieroglyphs, derived from pictograms; it would be interesting to speculate as to what point in a progression they stopped being images and started to be first mnemonics and then an actual writing system.

    Or consider political cartoons. They might be a combination of pictures and words, or sometimes just pictures. But they offer a lot of recognizable symbols and caricatures, of both people and stereotypical conduct.

    It may also be that the capability of pictures vs words is relative to a particular language; I think I’ve heard of languages that only have words or even concepts for objects or situations that their primitive speakers encounter in daily life. Even if they have a writing system, I don’t think much would be left of an attempt to translate abstract discussions into such a language. An attempt at graphical depiction (given enough knowledge of their situation to use progressions of images reaching sometimes for the very unusual but not totally unfamiliar) might well be more comprehensible to such a different mindset than anything in words. So your point that the audience is a key player certainly rings true.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    So where did I land by having my fingers slip working the browser?
    icanhascheezburger.com, where the lolcats (funny cat pictures with captions in mangled English) hang out. Sometimes they do a fair job of conveying surprisingly unlikely concepts with an image and a simple caption, that with either alone would take a progression of images or else more words.

  5. hob says:

    Didn’t express myself very well… was not saying that you believe, was saying that I believe, in our world, perception of profit defines meaning/worth.

    Picking another form of what equates to meaning/worth just hides this process without explaining it.

    For example, you believe that complexity equates to greater art and meaning. But if you look at it closely all you are actually saying is that you value a lifestyle that is possible when sufficient people are highly educated. I don’t have a problem with that, its just that you also want to define the type of society people must have by assuming that other forms of communication cannot evolve out of the narrow definitions you have given them.

    Fundamentally, what your insisting on, is the indirect encouragement of the fixed/hierarchical forms of educated labor within your society without any further evolution. I do have a problem with that as your own chosen medium was evolved to write novels, it didn’t start out that way. Why should comic art be excluded from the same evolutionary process?

    You refuse to acknowledge that giving literature a stamp of approval based on the complexity/difficulty in producing it and the effort it requires to understand it, would equally apply for an emotion created and written in radioactive chemicals.

    Would a variable communication medium, like the written word, be able to convey abstract concepts better than math as you are suggesting? Or is it that for the majority of people who are used to understanding meaning via the written word, understanding math emotions would mean more education, something they don’t see profit in pursuing?

    If you are advocating greater precision education, which I assume you are however indirectly, why not advocate to the highest degree possible by writing your stories in novel-evolved math? Otherwise how exactly can you justify your position if tomorrow a rocket engineer puts forward the theory that literature encourages average, not higher learning, by its structure?

    I might be missing the point in all of this, I don’t see how, but if I have, please excuse me.

  6. First, I’m not excluding comic art from the evolutionary process. Second, by invoking the possibility that comic art may evolve, you’re comparing what is with language to what might be in the future with comic art, but what does not exist… and therefore in fact admitting that, at the current time, my points are valid. Third, I don’t write in novel-evolved math [for the most part, although one section of The Empress of Eternity features a language which incorporates mathematical modifiers] because there’s no consensus on such a language and no one else to read it, and frankly, with no one else to read it, there’s no communication.

    My points are based on what currently exists, not on what might exist, because, for communication to be useful, it has to employ the current structures… and change, I’d be the first to admit, as those structures change.

    Your question about novel math-based or math enhanced language raises a separate question, and not one about education, but one about ability. We know that at least a sizable minority of human beings can master complex text-based communication. So far, there’s no indication that an equally large minority can master a math-based communications system… or that such a system would in fact be functionally superior for human beings to our present text-based system.

  7. hob says:

    Always thought your point was valid Mr Modesitt, just didn’t like the implication that it would always, in every context, be accurate given the ongoing evolution of communication mediums.

  8. Bob Howard says:

    It’s not even the ability to master a math-based language, but rather the capability of such a language to express complex emotional and social concepts. With apologies to Asimov’s Hari Seldon, math simply cannot express these (not to mention political, psychological, etc.).

    To a lesser extent the same is true for comics and purely visual art. The comics can express these concepts on a superficial level and the visuals can enhance the emotional impact to a degree, but as Mr. Modesitt pointed out, to reach the level of complexity of the written novel, a graphic novel essentially becomes a novel with some illustrations. Purely visual art also can evoke an emotional response but again simply cannot convey complex thoughts with any real fidelity.

  9. Ryan Jackson says:

    Only thing I’ll add is that I see no flaw with heavy text in graphic novels.

    I’d say if you want the most complexity, the greatest detail and explanation of an event you are looking at a text heavy graphic format. This is not entirely nessecary when one has a decent imagination, but I’ll admit even with such I have gotten things wrong when I read a work and then re-read it later to discover the correct setting and situation.

    (As a realy goofy example when I first read Towers of Sunset I had this idea that the Roof of the world was a single mountain rising on the further point west land mass. Lead to all kinds of confusion to me when I noticed countries west of it.)

    But if we were to take that same work, and use graphic art to show the sweep over the land, up to the huge mountain range to it’s top peeks and the Tower Black, Show the wonder in Creslin’s eyes as he touches a golden note, the quiet almost emptiness in Weryl, but then have the text heavy explanation and detail of what’s going on. That would convey the idea much more accurately than just the written word or just the visual imagery.

    Now that type of set up does drag right back into Mr. Modesitt’s very legitimate worry over the lack of imagination in today’s society, but since we’re talking about accurate representation of complex ideas, that’s not entirely relevent to the topic.

  10. Frank says:

    Wow. I’ve been gone for a few days, and didn’t realize the intensity surrounding the subject of comics.

    As to what “is:” I think it is reasonable to make the assertion that, as a generality/stereotype (with all the pitfalls that implies) written literature is generally a higher form of communication than comics. I don’t think it is endemic or fixed in that position, but I do think there is some correlation to the notion that one usually starts out with comics at an early age and “graduates” to novels later, when both attention span and patience increase. Don’t start to scream…just calling them like a see ’em. And, I think it should be noted that the complexity level does not equivocate to better, it just allows it in an increased intensity.

    However, I think most would agree that great visual “art,” such as paintings by master artists can elicit emotions on both subtle and extreme levels. So can auditory “art,” whether pop, opera, or classical. And, again, the complexity only allows for more quality…doesn’t guarantee it.

    There was an episode of Star Trek Generations where the alien culture involved communicated by allusion to historical events. It took most of the episode for Picard to figure out what was going on. When he did, as we saw the episode involved turn in to one of the allusions, it became clear that the “tag line” for the historical allusion (e.g., “Custer’s last stand”) was merely symbolic for a larger, more complex meaning. I would offer this can be true for graphic art, words, sounds, and/or mixtures. That is “what could be,” not necessarily what is.

    I hope that all the passion exhibited by the comic book aficionados leads to more and more complex communication, whatever the type.

    I love it when people get passionate about defending a medium like this.

  11. Christopher Browne says:

    There are some unusually expressive “graphic novels” to be found; Watchmen is the typical example.

    There’s a kind of visual poetry that goes on within it which wouldn’t be readily perceived if done in words.

    On the one hand, I’m not sure that a purely-textual book of the same length would get across quite all the description, and “rhythm of visual poetry” that Watchmen does.

    On the other hand, the lessons that others seem to have learned from Watchmen seem to have been pretty intellectually-impoverished. It “deconstructed” the concept of superheroes, with the interesting notion that the only “real” superhero in the tale winds up fleeing in disinterest. But after that “deconstruction,” others frequently merely learned to make their superheroes unpleasant and vicious.

    I think Watchmen competes pretty successfully in terms of complexity with “word-only” works, but I’d allow that it’s an exception rather than the norm.

  12. Francois says:

    I see books and graphic novels as 2 separate types of art.
    Words vs Images and words.
    Each can tease the imagination or the mind.

    To say one is more or less than the other is a question of perspective, goals and personal choice.
    I agree with the original point that society sometimes feel like its relying more and more on cheap thrills and quick emotional fixes. which i do not consider an improvement.

    If i may make a crude analogy I could compare books to classical music; a melody without words requiring more patience and openness to enjoy…
    Whereas comics would be songs involving instruments and lyrics.
    While combining new variables may extend on the possibilities it can also produce average results while offering a quick diversion (thank you pop).

    Truth is… I’ll keep having some of each and will do my best to raise the next generation to appreciate some of both too.

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