The Supremacy of Words
Travis Hedge Coke
I do not believe in the primacy of the word.
Words are powerful. The written word is, undeniably, a significant and heady thing. Without words - those seen in a comic and those that go into the scripts or notes that an audience may never see, but nonetheless generate or shape a comic - these words are important. As someone who makes his living with words, as someone who loves reading, watching movies, listening to songs and stories, and talking all hours of the day and night, I would never deny that.
But, some people treat the written word like it’s the script of gods. Some of you valorize the word like it is God. And, no. It is not.
There is a sentence just a bit above this that does not hold together at all, but I suspect many of you read through it and if you skimmed, it seemed to make sense, and if you were more careful and caught the oddity, you tried to make it make sense. Rob Liefeld, who is a better artist than I am a writer and far more successful, can’t get a break like that with his art, but words? (Note: I am not saying that Rob Liefeld or any artist is necessarily (relatively) superior to any writer at their respective craft, just me.) We can, for fun, puzzle out images that don’t represent things clearly. People like cloud-watching. Rorschachs can be fun. But we twist our brains to get sense out of a sentence as if it has to be there. Disparate thoughts and statements, phrases and anecdotes can be jammed into the same space and the audience will string them like pearls on a line as long as there is any chance they’ll sit well together.
Music can invoke, drawings can represent, but words lock down a meaning faster and easier than anything.
In academe, all narratives, representations and invocations, whether pictures, plays, movies, novels, songs, sculptures, basically anything made or presented as entertainment, education, or art is called a “text.” One, is that all of these things are “read.” They are all taken in by an audience, interpreted, interpolated, understood and responded to. And, secondly, there is an unspoken of integrity to text in our society, to our society, the written word is higher up, it is truer and stronger than the spoken word or the etched image or the copper shoulder of a sculpted woman. In order to put all kinds of “texts” on the same level, for discussion purposes, the highest form is invoked. Astonishingly pretentious, but it does its job. In our society, a person who studies a book intensely, for ages, is accorded respect and a sense of education or enlightenment, while a person who pores over a website or who stares intently at the details of a painting for hours or days, is generally not. By suspending the scale that weighs these different forms of communication, by calling them all “text,” they are - at least for the moment - afforded the same worthiness as those texts made of the written word.
We come to this appreciation bass ackwards. While it has become involuted with mystique, this faith in the written word, this exaltation, is rooted, really, primarily in the ease with which it could be replicated and transported, back in history, as opposed to acted plays, audible song, paintings, statues, and to a slightly lesser degree, in its usefulness in legal arbitration. It has nothing to do with the written word being more powerful, or more true than the drawn face or the sung aria.
A song is not sung, by a great singer, without consideration to voice, to rhythm, to accent or volume or accentuation. The words count, but the words do not count for all and they are not the only planned aspect. Nor, is written music, which is simply another language written down, more true or pure or considered than played music.
When Walt Simonson draws a shield-carrying warrior, there may be a dozen sketches that took him to the awareness of how that shield would rest strapped to their back, and that is as much “writing” a comic as the written words in the dialogue balloons. Despite a script never calling for entire scenes to be awash in blues or reds, that decision by the colorist or whomever is as significant and can be as strong as any THWAK! or TNNK! or BA-THROOOOOM! sound effect laid down on the page for us to read.
Above is a three panel sequence at the end of Gregg Hurtwitz and Mico Suayan’s Chill in the Air (Batman: The Dark Knight #0) wherein the most important words are not the narration, but the TAP TAP TAP TAP of rain that, because of the height of our viewpoint, we cannot see hitting anything, but now know that it is, because we read, and thereby in our heads hear, the impact. Our distance, overhead, high and away from Bruce Wayne in the first panel, communicates the bigness that surrounds him, more than words will. The two panels below this, as we grow closer to Bruce, show a poster for the circus melting in the rain, to approximate a Joker that is never spoken of or verbally cued. Why is an outdoors painting running that significantly in the rain? Why now? Should it not be dry? If this was in words, solely, it would behoove the writer to explain, as is our social expectation with the written word, but as a visual, it is more important that it reaches and affects us, than it is that it makes a causal sense. The transition from generic clown to specific Joker would, in words, need smooth and careful transitions, the way we want the Riddler’s riddles to be actual riddles or a pun to be a pun and not just vaguely close. Visual punning, visual intimation, can run much more abstract.
And, if we look closer at the final of these three panels, we see that not only is the paint running, but Bruce’s hand, pressed up against it, is also dissolving in the rain. The black of his hair runs across his face, his jacket and his flesh distort and run downward with the rain. Written words would make that blatant. They would push it to bathos. But, like the lighting in a movie, we do not so readily ask a drawing where it’s smallest aspects come from, even if on a subconscious level, we still take them in. Whether Hurwitz scripted that detail or the penciler put it in, it is indelibly part of the comic that we read and it would be ruined if relegated to prose explanation.
If you look at any John Cassaday comic, you’ll see that when he populates a scene, from panel one, everyone he needs is already there, in position to transition to the place and action he needs from them later. Regardless of whether Cassaday is credited as as penciler or director, and not as writer, John Cassaday is a storyteller. He is, more than that, a storyteller with a great talent and obvious interest in establishing continuity. His visual style, his carefulness in positioning characters, his full development of scenes and setting come together to carry us, panel by panel over a page with a veracity that few other comics talent can touch. That time of communication, the imparting of those sensibilities onto an audience, cannot be achieved through the written word alone, certainly not with that efficacy.
When an audience follows an artist on a comic, or buys a comic because of an artist, there are too often side remarks, as if that audience is simply dazzled by a simple light, like a cat chasing the red dot of a laser pointer across the floor, while those who follow writers or characters or a company are concerned with higher things, such as the manufacture and engineering of the laser pointer or the generation of the dot. Ridiculous! But, I’d wager, we all follow the assumption, to one degree or another. We are societally trained to do it, even if we are the one buying for the art. Writers think; artists do. This is, perhaps, too, why we dismiss artists using reference, photo reference or models or screencaps, as a kind of laziness. Why can’t they just generate from their own head how light from source X moves across faces Y and Z and changes the coloration of liquid A, window B, and hair C though E? We know, objectively, that ancient “masters” used live models, and we know that a live model sitting very very still, is essentially the same as a photographed model and vice versa, but we respond to them differently. One is accepted, the other is seen as a cheat.
This is expanded into an unconsidered assumption that drawing from a script means the artist is not authoring anything, just as drawing from a model is somehow merely copying, or that a writer who reuses a phrase they overheard once is failing to be creative.
We have a sociological anxiety for creativity that is not from whole cloth. We have a conviction in this anxiety that is so strong, we often lead condemnations of creative work or people with an outcry against their reuse or collaboration with a preexisting element or structure.
It is not uncommon to see people imply Wally Wood was lazy or just in it for the money. Or, Alex Toth. But those same critics and speculators rarely say it of Stan Lee or Edmond Hamilton, who, in a clearer light, can’t really be said to have thought deeper or more articulately, to have applied more technique and consideration to their work in comics. When Warren Ellis or, particularly it seems, Jonathan Hickman puts a comment about a genuine scientific phenomenon into his comics, people will accord him bonafides as a physicist, when these things are, by the writers’ admission, probably copped from someone’s article somewhere or received knowledge from conversations. Nobody minds, it seems, when a writer borrows from another source or outright copies a scientific theory or engineering jargon, but if a penciler copies the position of a body from a painting, movie, or another comic, it’s swiping and swiping is bad, yes, very bad. A penciler who draws a perfectly replicated real world boat or designs a plausible aircraft based on research and design sketches, it’s considered unremarkable. It’s just copying.
On the subject of Toth, I just want to slip in that most of the notes he infamously made to a Steve Rude comic are not simply art notes, they’re not about replication for the most part, they’re criticism of the storytelling. They are story, which is in a sense to say they are writing notes. When Alex Toth drew a page, he told a story. When Alex Toth designed a costume or a scene in which characters would interact, he told a story, which is why he is concerned with region and era specificity in architecture, where towers should be or where tipis should be. Toth tended to be much more careful, in his work, of ethnic caricature than his contemporaries in comics and animation, because caricature gives its own stories. Toth’s interest in what someone would, plausibly wear, versus how an ethnic stereotype would dress, won’t be addressed as “detail-oriented” or “realistic” in the way an abundance of hatching and stipple might, or - especially - how we would traditionally praise writing that took the same things into consideration.
The way Alex Toth draws a body, the clothes that Phil Jimenez puts on a body, the landscapes that Katsuhiro Otomo envelopes his characters in are storytelling beyond what words do, with a subtlety and strength that words can approximate but not achieve. We often dismiss colorists, we’re critical beyond all reason if a book is late or delayed for a colorist, but ponder this: yellow and green Spider-Man. That’s not a words issue, and no words are going to fix that, long term. Green Spider-Man fails. And, what about the subtler? Red Skies, in a comic from DC represents more than just a red sky, being tied to famous stories of alternate realities merging or being threatened. Red skies, without words, will call up these threats, will imply the existence and merging of realities or ultrareality visitations, but at the same time, to an audience not immersed in the DC Universe, it may just look threatening, implication of a coming storm, weird smog, or an amateurish and garish coloring choice.
It may not seem it, but it is harder to be literal with a picture than with words. There are ways of phrasing to tell your audience not to read too deep, or how to read, but pictures invite speculation, they invite an audience to fill in the gaps, because a picture is never the thing it represents and we often, without realizing it, feel that words are the truth, words are the truth of that thing.
It is harder to skim the visuals, too. Visuals haunt. Buried or casual details, visual pacing and framing, all this can imprint on our mind in a moment. Most people don’t sight-read, many can’t read on the fly, more than simple or dramatic words. We are not even very good listeners. We all have levels of eggcorns, mondegreens, dyslexia, misreadings, failures of vocabulary. There are words were are not sure how to interpret or respond to, because they are unfamiliar, but pictures? A picture has to be pretty special for a person to not have a near-instantaneous response of some kind.
But, we make a judgment about the accuracy of a drawing so much faster, and with weird conviction, compared to written or spoken words.
Visual elements must fit an expected framework or us, or we question their accuracy or talent. We can misinterpret the drawings, sure. But, we can’t jump over the visuals as easily as we do paragraphs of text. In a sense, written words are easier to praise for the inventiveness or consideration in them, because they spell it out for us. It is easy enough to presume a penciler did something ignorantly or accidentally, but when it is in words, we take it as planned, even when it’s an obvious error, like the issue of Flight of Bones where the dialogue was all misplaced, or the Wolverine comic invoking, in prose, “the kike called Sabretooth.”
We know that’s not the right word, or we should. It is much more offensive than a Marvel comic is going to consciously be. It also disrupts a passive narration with an emotionally charged epithet. It doesn’t fit Sabretooth, seeing as how he’s not in any way Jewish. Any one of those things should stop us, help us reevaluate what we’ve read, to see it as an error. Instead, many readers went right on speculating as to what the author intended it to mean, how, and why, without considering that it could be a typo. For many, actually, the word probably went right by them. Even those comics readers who enjoy large blocks of text tend to, in my experience, skim, especially on the first reading. But, beyond that, for most readers, the primacy of the word, the notion that once printed by an authority, a word or wording cannot be wrong or accidental but only serious, concrete, and true, prevents even a casual consideration that they may have got something wrong.
That words could be the wrong words can inspire a lapse in interpretation in an audience. They might rather not understand, to suspend awareness, than to admit that the words may not apply or apply well. But, if a leg is drawn wonky, if there is a style shift without narrative “cause” or justification, we bite down and do not let go. It is wrong.
It is common knowledge that even great comics writers often used words to communicate visual information they felt the art did not (or, if sight unseen and script done first, might not). When this is in error and the art is communicating just fine, it’s called duospecific. This happens, then, so often, when unnecessary that we have a term for it. And, generally, we believe the words. Even in the face of visuals that show us something else, we reflexively believe the words. Jack Kirby draws a character jumping but Stan Lee says they’re throwing something? They are throwing something. John Byrne draws chains wrapped around a tree trunk and a character tugging on it? If Chris Claremont says in words that the character is struggling, he is. But, how he got the chains around the trunk, and under the ground before dislodging the trunk? Probably on Byrne even if Claremont scripted it, because we don’t see the script.
I do not believe in the supremacy of the word, because the word gets the benefit of the doubt. The words can skate over the visuals, and the visuals are always working, even when we are not attending them.
It's a weird game. And we’re weirdly forgiving. And, if you note how many times I have used weird in this piece, you might understand some of why.