Storytelling Elements - and Comics
By Freddy Milton


Conflicts arise everywhere. They are results from confrontations where the preference of one individual is violated by other individuals or collective boundaries. In a civilized society much of this violence works on a psychological level. One way to cope with this frustration is the consumption of various forms of fiction where one can escape from or live through conflicts in dramatic form without getting harmed from it.

When it comes to drama there are four different types of reader mechanisms in play.
The first may be called ‘identification’. You recognize matters you can relate to in the characters and their environment. This reader mechanism can be summarized as "It could be me". Mechanism number two you can call ‘information’. The fiction discloses practical information on how things stand. The reader says "So that's how it is". The third mechanism is called ‘projection’. It is based on people's desires and dreams. The consumer says "I wish it was me". The fourth mechanism is called ‘therapy’. It is based on people's fears and concerns. The consumer says "I’m glad it's not me".
These four mechanisms are found all over within fiction, and the way they are given priority tells us what kind of fiction we are dealing with.

When well-established forms of expression such as literature, theater and film generally has a higher cultural status than comics, I think it is due to more frequent occurrence of the first two types of reader mechanisms. It is typical of media where people are mainly presented as real people, at least the creators try to get as close as possible to a convincing description of reality. Although it is not always the case, the mere fact that we have characters like that as our entrance point to the fiction put limits on how far the fiction creator can freak out.

If we look at comics there is certainly a predominant use of the last two reading mechanisms.
Here the author may not have intended to provide a naturalistic image of reality, and specifically applying to comics there are obvious reasons for that. We have a different form of presentation than we see in film, literature or theater. Comics have to be drawn.
I have previously tried to think of a comprehensive definition of storytelling comics, and I have come to the conclusion that comics present "caricature in epic context". This definition pinpoints what comics have going for them over other forms of expression, namely excessive elements associated with an epic form, a tale.

It must be admitted that some creators are trying to draw photographically or illustrate stories intended to be perceived as realistic, but then the question arises whether or not literature, TV or film, in essence, would have been better media for the purpose?
It is hardly a coincidence that comics have made most progress through the forms of fiction that would have been impossible in other media. Many comics operate with shapes that are stylized or symbolic compared to "our" world.

It is possible that media products with a high degree of projection or therapy might come to convey a simplistic or naive attitude, but not necessarily. Looking at the superhero comics in the United States produced for boys and youngsters, the mechanism of escapism is quite obvious. It plays on emotions as superiority versus inferiority, the need of powerful leaders and a trust in a simple strong authority. There seems to be a particular need for such stories in a society with a larger degree of class distinction and paternalism. In Scandinavia there is fortunately lesser patronizing and class differences or common threats, so attempts to market this kind of fiction here has not been a substantial success.
The situation is different with the epic caricatured humor series, and if we look at the reading mechanisms, we might get some explanation.

Here is also in part projection and therapy in circulation, but it is not as dominating, and identification and information play an important role. And it is precisely when all four mechanisms interact to varying degrees in the storytelling that the highest appeal arises. A larger number of readers will be able to find something that meets their demands and wishes.
In the debate on comics there was previously a tendency to ignore their ability to present a nuanced serious depiction of problems because there was a disturbing element of "caricature", but the solution is not a more naturalistic documentary imagery.

If we compare with literature, comics fail short in areas dealing with depiction of nuanced feelings. In a book you can write page after page about people's thoughts and feelings. In fact this is actually where literature is at its best, but there's no room for that in comics. When applied, a negative expression on that is ‘talking heads’.
If we compare with film, TV or theater, the comics also end up short when it comes to timing, movements or delivery of dialogue. Within these media we see it all in exactly the pace that the director wants. We have positions, movements and expressions accurately reproduced. Whether the audiences perceive all details of intended expression is uncertain, but the director and the actors are at least getting the best possible chance to communicate it.

In comics it's different. We have no control over the timing. You cannot be sure the reader experiences the comics at the pace the comics creator wishes. Therefore one must use a more general timing and cutting so that variation in reading speed is not critical to the outcome of the experience.
All the variations the medium of film control when it comes to movement, does not exist in comics. But the main difference probably lies in the conveying of dialogue. An actor can through stressing and timing express nuanced emotions. In comics you can just write the dialogue bubbles and hope that the reader perceives it in the proper manner. If you want to reduce the risk of misunderstandings, one must express things in general terms.

One must also tell the story, so the atmosphere is not gone, if the reader jumps back to recap. All in all it is difficult to capture the more subtle moods and emotions in comics. Moreover one does not accept long explanations or detailed arguments for or against a certain issue. You have to simplify things.
The option for describing reality at a level in line with the tradition in film and literature are limited within comics, but that does not necessarily mean that the comics for that reason is a poorer form of expression. You just have to find a way in which the comics instruments are used for the best. Then the quality of the reading experience can easily compare with what you can achieve through other forms of expression.
It is quite evident that the comics reading mode has its advantages. A film will completely pacify the audience. You can only accept or reject the product and your own imagination is heavily monitored. It can also be risky, because the audience is totally under control for those who want to manipulate.

Compared to that, there's something absolutely charming that comics are not complete illusions. The reader may even be active to get the full benefit of the experience, and one must decide pace, sound effects and tone of dialogue. What could be thought as a communicative weakness may well turn out to be a perceptual advantage. The reader also has to guess what lies between the panels for an experience of continuity to appear. This can be made easier or more difficult for the reader depending on the comics creator's abilities and intentions, but the reader is active to create his personal experience because he decides upon the depiction of parts of the storytelling elements.

Society has created an unfortunate obstacle on the use of comics as a more widespread way of expression. If we compare with literature, it is in fact a very abstract expression, but everyone has a theoretical possibility of resorting to the media, if you want to convey something, because you learn to master the written language in school. This provides an advantage for literature as a medium. Not so with comics or sequential storytelling as it is sometimes referred to.

In practical terms it becomes difficult to express yourself through comics, because you do not learn to the same degree as literature to master the comics medium. Many of those with difficulty in doing so are later on are so busy coping with the problem to learn how to master it, graphically, that it risks being an end measure in itself. You experiment with the mere form instead of using it to tell something that can have real interest to others. And it's actually a shame, because there are certainly some people that could have filled the comics medium with some interesting story substance, if only they had been given the opportunity to learn how to use it in a natural way at an early age. As a comics creator you often work alone, and it is seldom one person master all the elements of creation. In film and theatre the management is always a group effort.
Today, the start-up difficulties are big, for one must first learn to use the language with a certain degree of professionalism if you want to reach out to a larger audience. A fair market is necessary to make your effort worthwhile, and most comics take long to execute. Furthermore conditions have not been easier with today's constrained market.

This was a series of theoretical principles regarding the use of comics. Moreover we have the practical and traditional elements and they are closely related. It concerns the reduction of the scope of subject matters, which has had a negative effect on the perception of comics and it has given publishers and audiences a narrow view of what comics can be used for. These elements have been annotated in many other contexts, so I will not dwell on them here. But one matter I want to mention is the principle of using the same characters over and over again, which is probably what gave name to the medium in the first place.
It is based on an effective reader mechanism, namely "recognition". It is also tempting to draw upon. In each episode you have not much time or space to tell about the characters' backgrounds, so here it helps that the readers already know them from previous installments.
Here comes an element that has been developed especially in USA, the focus on individual accomplishments, the star syndrome. The outcome of a conflict is closely knitted to one single individual playing the all important role.

American comics are often built around a single individual. The audience's attention completely becomes concentrated on him and everything is seen and judged from his perception. Other occurring characters will mostly in the viewer’s perception be seen and judged through the eyes of the protagonist.
In Europe this structure is fortunately not as pronounced. Here the characters in comics are often placed in a meaningful overall context where the story substance becomes what it really is all about, and the characters' importance is related to their presentation of the story. There is often a collective of equally important characters with no tendency for star worship. Here the reader mechanisms not only work in relation to the characters in play but also in relation to the entire narrative structure and the description of the community behind it.

Here I think the comics have a fine opportunity to reflect a society which readers can identify with. Comics creators must take in subject matter related to what today's readers encounter in their everyday lives and immediately recognize. If the performing characters react to the situation in the fictional society the way that people would do in "our" world, identification is immediately present, and you do not have to spend extra time on explanations.
This level you may often be satisfied with in film, literature and theater, but within comics we can add elements relating to caricatures, simplifications and symbolism as well as the use of a personal graphic styling.
With caricatured characters the audience will not react negatively or skeptical if something shocking or surprising happens to broaden the spectrum around Projection and Therapy. In my opinion it is through the fantastic or fantasy-like features we pinpoint the depiction of society. Here you can point out elements that it would have been difficult to make clear if it had been tied to a description of reality in a traditional cinematic or literary sense.
This is where I think comics have a great potential, which may be explored even more, and I have been trying to do that myself over the years with my funny animal characters and their strange yet recognizable adventures in a fable like universe not so different from our own.