Do you read comics? Even if you don’t want to admit it, I bet you do. In fact, most people read at least something in comics form almost every day even if they are completely unaware of it.
When I utter the word ‘comics’ most people immediately think of spandex clad superheroes, talking animals or a gang of perennial teenagers who never seem to graduate high-school. There is a common misconception that comics are a genre with a limited range. They aren’t. In fact they aren’t a genre at all.
Comics are a medium. Just like film, theater, prose, poetry or any other process of telling stories comics can be used to convey all sort so information about a wide variety of subjects to multiple audiences. Comics can make you laugh, cry, gasp in wonder, shake in terror and they can also make great instruction manuals, training aids, white papers, or any other type of business or technical communication you can think of.
The word ‘comic’ has an unfortunate connotation of suggesting that the medium is inherently lacking serious intent. This is just a mishap of language specific to the English speaking world. In other parts of the world what we call comics are known by a variety of names, most of which emphasize the medium as an art form.
So what do I mean when I talk about the medium of comics?
In his ground breaking book “Understanding Comics” theorist Scott McCloud proposes the following definition of comics:
“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
While accurate, that’s quite a mouthful, so I prefer a simpler interpretation. – I define comics as a graphic medium in which images are utilized in order to convey a sequential narrative.
In other words comics are the combination of art and literature.
They are also the most enduring and effective form of communication yet devised by man. Comics represent the oldest continuous form of communication in history. If you take the idea of a comic being a sequential narrative, then certain cave paintings are comics, as are a large proportion of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In more recent history the Bayeux tapestry telling the tale of the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 is also a comic strip.
Why is the comics medium so enduring?
- Studies have shown that humans as a species are hard wired to understand certain sequences of symbols and icons. We understand the basic language of comics on a fundamental level.
- Comics can transcend language and cultural boundaries. Outside of the Anglo/American cultural sphere comics are the most widely read medium.
- Even the CIA consider comics as the most powerful communications medium, most of the propaganda leaflets drops over the years have been in the form of comics.
There is also a long and successful history of using comics and comics techniques in various types of business and technical communications. Consider the following examples:
When Google launched its Chrome Browser the accompanying technical documentation was a widely distributed comic book.
The most widely read piece of technical documentation in the history of the US Army officially known as “DA Pam 750-30 Operation and Preventative Maintenance of the M16A1 Rifle” is a comic book better known by the troops as “How to love your rifle.”
The visitors guide for the European Organization for Nuclear research is a comic.
Comics have been produced on all the major sciences including DNA research, paleontology, philosophy, just to name a few.
The graphic novel version of the official 9/11 report outsold the prose version.
So what can we learn from studying the comics medium?
Sequence – the fundamental backbone of comics is the idea of sequence, that one image follows another to impart information to the reader. Most technical documentation is also built on sequence and structure, yet often that sequence is ignored, or jumps in logic occur that confuse a reader. While working out the sequence of steps for a procedure just think if someone had to draw this sequence as a comic strip, do they have enough information to do so, have you covered each step? Instead of overloading your reader or end user with information, just show them what they need to know at that given point, one step at a time.
Narrative – The second fundamental of comics is the idea of narrative. Narrative should drive and guide the reader / user along on a journey. All communication is story telling (and that is perhaps meat for a future blog post), and in story telling your narrative must have a beginning, middle and end. Even if you use a topic based authoring approach like DITA, each topic should be a ‘story’, the reader should be guided through the information and know more at the conclusion than they did at the start.
Symbols / Icons – The language of comics is built on symbols and icons, and as I mentioned earlier we, as a species, are culturally hard wired to understand many icons. For instance the smiley face icon transcends cultures and is instantly understood even by people who have never seen it before. Comics have developed their own visual short hand that also seem to be universal, such as the speech balloon. Think about the use of icons and symbols in your documentation, they can speed up comprehension and drastically reduce translation costs. But beware, while many symbols are cross cultural – others are not.