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Word and Picture Relationships

Chapter 6 of Understanding Comics, 'Show and Tell', is mostly devoted to more details of McCloud's iconic theory. It does have an interesting section on pages 153 thru 155 which breaks down word-and-picture relationships into categories: 'WORD SPECIFIC combinations, where pictures illustrate, but don't significantly add to a largely complete text.'

'PICTURE SPECIFIC combinations where words do little more than add a soundtrack to a visually told sequence.'

'DUO-SPECIFIC panels in which both words and pictures send essentially the same message.'

'ADDITIVE combinations where words amplify and elaborate on an image or vice-versa.'

'In PARALLEL combinations, words and pictures seem to follow very different courses-- without intersecting.'

'MONTAGE, where words are treated as integral parts of the picture.'

'INTER-DEPENDENT, where words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone.'

This list contains the potential for a rich discussion. For example, some critics have ridiculed comics for using the 'word specific' combination, with the dictum that comics should 'show, not tell.' I've always disagreed, feeling that this technique produced very interesting results.

'Picture specific' combinations seem to be more in vogue in current comics. This is the method most often used in Love and Rockets; it has a cinematic feel to it. Unfortunately, it also results in confusion when the artist puts more of a burden on the pictures than they can hold.

'Parallel' combinations are used often in trendy comics such as Vertigo's titles. They seem to free the writer to express themselves on a range of subjects, while the art introduces the story proper. Unfortunately this technique adds confusion, as the reader tries to follow the two separate tracks, neither of which may have much point. I always think it's a danger sign when a comic begins this way-- 'This one's gonna stink!'

'Inter-dependent' combinations seems to be used less and less, as comics become less concerned with story and plot, and more concerned with collectible art. This technique requires close coordination between artist and writer, which tends to stymie their efforts to be stylish and outre.

I have in mind an additional kind of combination, which doesn't fit neatly into McCloud's scheme; it seems to overlap his categories. It is an IRONIC combination, that is, a combination in which the words and pictures are saying opposite things, and are related to one another in an ironic way.

One of McCloud's illustrations of the 'inter-dependent' combination on page 155 is really an ironic relationship: the caption says 'After college, I pursued a career in HIGH FINANCE.' The picture shows a safe cracker and masked robbers.

A notable example of ironic combinations of words and pictures in a dramatic story is Harvey Kurtzman's THE BIG IF. Throughout the story, a series of sedately composed pictures show routine scenes of soldiers advancing into enemy territory. The captions, though, are filled with tension and elude to threat. 'If only' is a refrain at every juncture, as the hero recalls the various forks in his path where he might have chosen a less deadly direction. This strongly ironic tone pushes our compassion for the doomed soldier to a higher level, making it, I think, the greatest comics war story of all time.