Will Eisner on imagery as a communicator

Will Eisner is a pioneer of contemporary comic art and his contribution to the field has been immense. So much so that the largest annual comic book awards, The Eisner Awards, are named in his honour. Comics and Sequential Art is essentially a text book outlining what Eisner considered to be best principles and practices within the field comic art and is held to be essential reading for anybody studying comic art. It is for this reason i have chosen to take on an analysis of his arguments.

Eisner begins by arguing the point that “Comprehension of an image requires commonality of experience. This demands of the sequential artist an understanding of the reader’s life experience if his message is to be understood”. Eisner is proposing that in order for a sequential artist to effectively communicate an idea to the reader the artist must have an understanding of the readers life experience and be able to present the idea in a manner that is recognisable to the reader. The notion of “Commonality of experience” which Eisner refers to is the notion that the artist and the reader hold a common experiences in their minds. If the artist express this experience effectively it should be instantly recognisable to the reader. I agree with Eisner to a certain degree on this point. I think that the artist will be most effectively able to express their idea to the reader if both parties share a common understanding of the experience. I don’t think it is possible, however, for the artist to claim complete understanding of the reader’s life experience as this will vary from person to person. Rather I feel that the artist needs to express an idea which they believe to hold some form of universal truth. The degree to which this experience is understood by the reader will then depend on the reader’s level of understanding of the imagery presented. Thierry Groensteen also argues this point in The System of Comics. Groensteen says “effectuated reading varies from one image to another, and from one reader to the next. My hypothesis is that each reader will find in the image – and retain – whichever details are significant”. Groensteen is arguing that in situations where we are asking the reader to interpret the images presented, the interpretation will vary from image to image and from reader to reader. Each reader will take from the images the details which they find to be significant and the meaning which the attribute to it.

Eisner continues this argument by stating that the “The success or failure or this method of communicating depends on the ease with which the reader recognizes the meaning and the emotional impact of the image. Therefore the skill of rendering and universality of form chosen are critical”. Here Eisner furthers his argument by suggesting that in order for the artist to successfully communicate an experience to the reader they need to choose suitable imagery and must have the skill to create the appropriate imagery. Again I agree with Eisner in part. It is important to remember that Eisner was one of the first contemporary comic artists and his style reflects a particular style of action comic which broke ground for future artists. Eisner’s silent comics are quite literal when compared with some modern comics, they contain a large degree of pantomime in the way that characters express themselves, with little to no ambiguity (see Figure 1). In this case I agree with Eisner, in order to effectively communicate a visual narrative of this type the artist must choose precise imagery and develop it concisely so as to leave nothing to interpretation. However, since the time in which Eisner wrote Comics and Sequential Art, there have been many developments in the field of wordless comics and it has been demonstrated that a certain amount of ambiguity within the visual narrative is often used as tool by sequential artists. One such example is the use of ambiguity in Peter Kuper’s The System. Kuper uses ambiguity to lead the reader into making assumptions about the characters, he later exposes these assumptions in order to challenge the readers prejudices and stereotypes.

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(Figure 1. Example of pantomime-esque expression in Eisner’s sequential art)

Eisner suggest that “Images without words, while they seem to represent a more primitive form of graphic narrative, really require some sophistication on the part of the reader (or viewer). Common experience and history of observation are necessary to interpret the inner feelings of the actor”. Eisner is arguing here that there may be a temptation to believe that narrative delivered through graphics alone is some what primitive. Eisner contends this belief and argues that such narratives often demand a greater level of understanding and observation on the behalf of the reader. This argument is supported by David Beronä in his essay Pictures speak in comics without words. Beronä states “The artist has to insure a clear flow of the narrative and the reader has to discern more intently all the elements in each panel or page in order to follow the story clearly. The narrative in wordless comics, therefore, demands more visual competency from readers than in traditional comics”.

Eisner proposes that creating sequential art for comics “presents a technical hurdle that can only be negotiated with some acquired skill. The number of images allowed is limited, whereas in film and animation an emotion or an idea can be expressed by hundred of images displayed in fluid sequence at such speed as to emulate real movement”. Eisner is arguing here that a comic artist has lot less space in which to express their idea or emotion. Eisner does not perceive this challenge as a disadvantage however as he believes that it offers the reader a unique experience in visual narration. Eisner believes this challenge “enables comics singular ability to allow allow a reader to consider many images at the same time, or from different directions, a capability films lacks”. Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, shares this belief with Eisner. McCloud states “The basic difference is that animation is sequential in time but not spatially juxtaposed as comics are. Each successive frame of a movie is projected on exactly the same space, the screen, while each frame of comics must occupy a different space. Space does for comics what time does for film”.

Eisner next states that “The absence of any dialogue to reinforce action serves to determine the viability of images drawn from common experience”. Eisner is suggesting here that when sequential images are presented without dialogue it provides an opportunity to determine whether or not the images can successfully communicate the experience alone. This is true and Eisner provides proof of by using an example taken from his comic “Life on another planet” (See Figure 2). Eisner contends that in a visual sequence such as this the precise language is not important and the reader is encouraged to provide their own dialogue. Eisner says that a visual narrative like this  which demonstrates “real” emotion and “sophisticated interaction” does not leave room for ambiguity. I agree with Eisner, the narrative is clear to the reader here based on the expression and actions of the characters, the reader can easily understand the sequence based on the clear and literal expression of the experience by the artist. That said i feel that the type of experience which Eisner is present to the reader is very literal and lacks space in which the reader can provide their own interpretation.

 

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(Figure 2. Wordless Narrative in Eisner’s Life on another planet)

I believe that in this piece that Will Eisner puts forward strong evidence which demonstrates the ability of sequential imagery to communicate a narrative to the reader without the addition of dialogue. Eisner’s concept of silent comics in my opinion is quite pantomime-esque and promotes a very literal interpretation of the narrative. If we look at some contemporary silent comics such as Hendrick Dorgathen’s Space Dog or Peter Kuper’s The System we see some strong examples of how silent comics have evolved. Within these comics we can see examples of Eisner’s influence, for example the use of semantics in place of dialogue. We can also see the subtler methods developed by these these artists as they attempt to express more ambiguous ideas in their silent narrative.

Reference:

Eisner, W. (2008) Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist. United States: Norton, W. W. & Company.

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