In a recent superhero comic, the artist introduced a character who was notable for his small stature. Nowhere in the first 20-odd-page issue did you see him clearly in scale next to normal-sized characters that demonstrated he was small. This was covered in passing in the dialogue. That’s bad comics. If you were telling this story over a campfire, one of the first things you’d say is that this guy was very short; you might make it specific, with a comparison. In comics, the art should do that for you. Something about a picture painting a thousand words. Visual info should be conveyed visually.
– Dark Horse editor Scott Allie, not referring to the specific panel above, but talking about the same thing.
Allie writes at length about the importance of visual storytelling to comics. He uses lots of examples, both positive and negative, but one of my favorites is when he points at some Alan Moore comics to prove that it doesn’t matter how talented the writer is. If the artist doesn’t convey the right information, the comic’s going to suck.
This isn’t to say that the art is more important than the writing. That’s not true, and neither is the reverse. What’s true is that art and words BOTH have to do their parts to make a good comic.
Neil Cohn, who studies the visual language of comics, has some interesting things to say about this comparison of French translations of Marvel comics with their American originals. As you can see from the image above (and there’s another at the second link), the localizers didn’t just translate the words, they changed the images in very significant ways. The speed lines are missing in the French version, as is the “impact star” that marks the point where Captain America’s fist makes contact with Daredevil’s chin. The sound effects are missing as well. The changes were supposedly made to water down the violence for young readers, and indeed, they visibly change the meaning of the panels by taking away the immediacy of the visual impact.
Cohn points out that French comics use minimal speed lines, and when I think of French comics I certainly think of a cleaner look, so it may be that the localizers were, consciously or unconsciously, trying to make the comics look more French. Or, as Cohn puts it, “In other words, they are trying to translate the American Visual Language closer to French Visual Language.” This raises some interesting questions for further research (did I mention that he’s an academic?) including whether the presence or absence of speed lines indicates different ways of visually processing information in different cultures.