Monday, September 03, 2007

One Panel Comics?

I've been thinking a lot about context. You have to establish context before you can twist or highlight things, so every game, movie, book, speech - everything out there starts by establishing a context. Movies even have a specific term for that long, establishing shot where they show bucolic fields or Brooklyn back streets or whatever. You need to show context so you can give meaning to whatever the meat of your presentation is.

There's a bunch of ways to build context. The most common is to let the visual be dominated by the context. If you're going to do a sports-theme, it's not uncommon for the first visuals to be of a game, or a locker room, or cheerleaders, or similar. The same is true of any kind of context. Familiar contexts can be built easily using this method, but unfamiliar contexts (like an American trying to understand a Shogunate-era context) take a lot more time to explain.

But I've been thinking about how to establish a context FAST.

So I turned to one-panel comics. These comics establish a context and put a twist on it so fast it makes your head spin.

The common way to do this is to have a visual context that everyone immediately sees, then a linguistic context that they read as a twist. Unlike a normal approach, this usually works in the reverse fashion you would expect. Instead of the context being normal and the twist being interesting, the context is often bizarre and the twist explains it. Therein lies the humor, usually.

The Far Side is the obvious example, but Family Circus and every political cartoon ever are also examples.

This is really an application of a more basic idea: that the context is established by the element that the audience recognizes first, then twisted by the element(s) the audience recognizes later. People see the visual context before they read the text, so the visual context is the context and the text is the twist.

But they also see the big visual elements before the little visual elements. A picture of giraffes with chicken heads will be context: giraffes, twist: chicken heads. It'll take people a split second to see the chicken heads. Then you can twist it even further with a bit of text, which is recognized later still.

Of course, this happens most easily by simply placing contexts and twists in chronological order and revealing them - we call that a "story". But it's always best to know the basis you're working from.

It's important to remember that some images are recognized faster than others - it's not merely size. In addition to fun visual tricks, some topics are simply more instantly recognizable. Darth Vader, for example. He's recognized faster than just a generic human. Nudity is also recognized faster, as is clear violence. (I've seen some comics where the violence was so muddy I couldn't recognize it AT ALL...)

I don't know if this is useful in any way, but I thought it was interesting.

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