crude illusions

Kathleen Turner held a gun and cocked one eyebrow inquisitively. Since she was just a cardboard display in a movie theater lobby, Kate and I walked right up to her.

“A private detective with a name as tough as she is,” Kate quoted the advertising copy on the display. “What does that mean?”

“It means her name is supposed to be hard to pronounce,” I said.

“Varshahvski,” Kate said quickly, with a dark, round accent. “That’s not hard.”

“Most people haven’t studied slavic linguistics,” I explained. “This ad copy is aimed at them.”

Kate read the credits, and I examined a different aspect of the display.

“Did you notice she has six legs here?” I mentioned casually.

“Is that how you prefer your women?” Kate asked.

“How do I know? I’ve never met one before.”

I examined how the display had been made. Kathleen Turner’s picture was printed on three separate pieces of cardboard. The one in back had the entire poster printed on it. The other two boards were cutouts of Turner’s image. One cutout was placed several inches in front of the backing poster. The other cutout was farther forward.

From a distance, the layered cardboard gave the display a vaguely three-dimensional look, but up close it made Turner look insect-like. It reminded me of the gaffes you find in old comic books.

Like the cardboard display, comics try to achieve verisimilitude with pictures and words on pieces of paper. That is, comics try to convey an illusion of reality. Early in comic book history these attempts to convey reality were sometimes cruder than the poster with three Kathleen Turners.

The problems that I notice most occur when the words and pictures try to describe the same thing. The famous EC horror and science-fiction comics of the 1950s had very wordy captions. Sometimes, the words described some detail that the picture showed differently.

In a story called “The Jellyfish” from Vault of Horror 19 (1951) (reprinted in Gladstone’s Vault of Horror 5, 1991), a caption says “Charles grasps the table for support!” The art (by Jack Davis) is so expressive that one look at Charles tells you that if there was a table, he’d grab it.

But there is no table in the picture. The discrepancy jars me. Instead of responding to the story, I start noticing the artwork, the writing, and the formal structure of the story.

If you’re trying to make an emotional connection with your readers, the last thing you want is for them to stop caring about your characters. But a flaw like that discrepancy breaks the illusion of reality. It attracts attention to the techniques of storytelling, and destroys the reader’s involvement with the characters. One minute, the reader worries about Charles’s health; the next, he wonders where’s the table?

So, if you want to engage your readers’ emotions, if you want to present a strong illusion of reality, remember “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Unless you are writing humor. Then, it’s fine to have your hard-boiled detective say, “I heard the sensual buzz of her nylons as she crossed two of her shapely gams over the other four.”

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Originally published in The Comicist (1991; Vol. 1, No. 19).

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