How comics can invigorate your storytelling

shang-chi.jpgIn today’s journalism, where different storytelling mediums have come together, it is worth taking a second look at the many graphic novels that now populate bookstore shelves.

Graphic novels, what some consider glorified comic books or “sequential art,” have increasingly become appreciated as a distinct, often touching art form. However, it can also serve as a source of inspiration in our storytelling, particularly online. Take Slate‘s recent presentation of the Sept. 11 Commission’s report in the form of an online graphic novel. Some may argue this is entertainment in the vein of a Hollywood film like World Trade Center.

But take a closer look. The graphic novel is well-researched and adheres tightly to the commission’s report. Instead of a writer interpreting the story, in this case, we have a writer AND an artist. Isn’t this similar to a news graphic, which also explains something or tells a story? This is clearly a form of unique journalism that merits further exploration.

As many multimedia journalists will attest, what is new about the Web as a medium for journalism is the ability to control time. Like a newspaper, one can let a reader control the speed at which he consumes the information. Or, one can do it for him, as do television journalists. The Web offers both.

When I create an audio slideshow, write a story or create a Flash package, I often look to comic books a source of inspiration for storytelling techniques. Some of the best comic creators, such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, can use words, design and timing to create a whole range of experience for the reader, from joy to suspense to shock. These techniques can be translated as which images are used in that slideshow, how one edits the audio and even how long a particular image is displayed.

Let’s take for instance these famous panels by Neal Adams from a Green Lantern/Green Arrow story published by DC Comics in the 1970s, a time when this particular comic book was exploring social issues such as racism and corporate greed:

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Now take another look at these panels, but this time, think about it as if it were an audio slideshow. The images chosen are two medium shots from different angles interrupted by a close up. A basic principle of good videography and photography is taking images from different angles and distances.Also think about how “audio” is used here. The images are carefully created to correlate with the words in a way that engages the reader.Take a closer look at the backgrounds. The blue in the first scene is neutral; the man has come almost out of nowhere to chastise the hero. This is a surprise to the reader. Now, notice the red in the close-up conveying a sense of anger and tension. Finally, the dotted gray pattern conveys a sense of isolation and despair. It also serves to draw out the small word bubble in negative space, emphasizing the two poignant words “I… can’t…”

For another interesting example, take this scene by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely from Marvel’s New X-Men, where an enemy is threatening to take over Professor Xavier’s mind and use it for evil purposes. Xavier responds to the attack by threatening to kill himself.

Surely not a scene one would encounter covering a city commission meeting, but think about the basic elements in the panels. It is a man sitting in a chair; he is angry, and he is holding an object.

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What compels us about this scene, aside from the death threat, is the focus on individual aspects that make us take notice: the bloody nose, the enemy’s lips, the gun being drawn. Using similar “camera” angles and timing, imagine this is an angry resident at a city commission meeting gripping a microphone. Or, it could be the city commissioners themselves contemplating legislation while compelling audio is playing. This could be a pen at a bill signing or a poll worker handing out a ballot.

Take a look at this audio slideshow by the Sun-Sentinel that uses many of these comic book-like techniques. While I can’t say whether the editors are comic book fans, they do use timing, motion and detail in this presentation to creatively engage a reader in what is actually a very simple scene.

For anyone interested in exploring comics as a medium, I would highly suggest purchasing a copy of Scott McCloud’s’ Understanding Comics. This primer, told in comic book form, is arguably the best book on comics ever written and has various sections on timing for effect. For actual graphic novels that employ some excellent cinematic techniques, check out Watchmen by Alan Moore and Sin City by Frank Miller.

Oh, and don’t get caught reading that fluff around the newsroom either…

About Danny Sanchez

Danny Sanchez is the Audience Development Manager at Tribune's Sun-Sentinel.com and OrlandoSentinel.com. Danny has been with Tribune since 2005 in a variety of editorial, digital and product development roles in Hartford, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. He has also previously worked in the newsrooms of the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald.
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