Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ditko and "Word v. Picture"

In The World of Steve Ditko, Blake Bell recounts a story about the editing of Ditko’s Static, which appeared in the first three issues of Eclipse Monthly in 1983. Dean Mullaney altered Ditko’s script for the episode in #2 because he felt it was “too wordy, and visually unappealing.” (Bell agrees with Mullaney’s assessment, noting that Ditko’s debt to Ayn Rand “continued to have an impact on the quality of the storytelling” (145).) Ditko rejected the changes, and the story ran as he intended.

Mullany’s criticism reflects a common belief about comics storytelling: comics is primary a visual medium and so the text must always be dramatically subordinated (at least in terms of the amount of space it fills per panel) to the image. But I think the intensity of Ditko’s sequence visually depends upon the fact that, moving through the first three panels, the words take up an increasing amount of space as the image area decreases (with the fourth panel echoing the first):

The third panel brings the focus solely on the image of Mac’s calm, yet intense eyes, surrounded by his philosophical argument:

To lessen the text would be to lose the visual effect – the art would read differently, featuring more of the character and diminishing the focus on the eyes (a Ditko hallmark). The words function both as a visual frame and as dialogue; the image becomes an extreme close-up because of the text, not because of the “camera-to-subject” distance, a uniquely comics effect.

Here is the passage in context. Ditko frames the part of the conversation that takes place on this page with parallel long shots with full figures (panels 1 [figures are stationary] and 7 [figures in motion]):

It’s true that pages four and five of this story are relatively ‘text heavy,’ but the pages before and after return to a much more conventional word/text ratio. This fact gives the story a kind of rhythm clearly intended by Ditko, one in which conversation-heavy pages are followed by action sequences:

If we look at Ditko's independent comics in the period, we find a real diversity of text/image ratios. In many ways, page 5 from EM #2 is an exception, that like Ditko's text-minimalist pages (e.g. 1985's "The Expert"), demonstrates the considerable attention he paid to the issue.

It seems that Mullaney was not thinking of Ditko as a cartoonist and designer, but as a writer whose characters spoke too much for the tastes of 1980s comic fans, who Mullaney likely believed (and was certainly right), wanted more action than dialogue. Readers often come to Ditko with narrow expectations about how the comics page should look and strict rules about the visual balance between word and picture. They often wish that Ditko remained “faithful” to the corporate storytelling principles that governed his mainstream work, especially his 1960s Marvel comics. Although I enjoy this work, his independent comics (and his Charlton work with Joe Gill) reveal an artist constantly expanding comics’ visual and verbal aesthetics. And you can look at the word-picture ratio on pages by artists such as Kevin H. and Ivan Brunetti and trace a formal lineage back to Ditko:

From Brunetti's Schizo #2.


LOOKA said...

Yup, thanks!

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