visual metaphors

I noticed an interesting storytelling technique some months ago. I was reading Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha. Actually, since I don’t read Japanese, I looked at the pictures and tried to follow the story. A wizened old man with a frail body and a sunken chest lectured a younger man. The old man wore a turban and a loosely-draped cloth. Suddenly, in one panel he carried a bass drum, like a guy in a marching band. He pounded on the drum as he shouted.

In the next panel he wore a bikini. He posed like a fashion model. I could almost see his long eyelashes fluttering. In the next panel he was the old man again. What was going on?

We’ve all seen a light bulb over a cartoon character’s head. We know what it means. We’ve seen sweat drops fly off characters’ faces. In a “Bloom County” strip spoofing cartooning conventions (July 5, 1987), Berke Breathed called these drops “sweatles.” Mort Walker, in another spoof of cartooning codification, The Lexicon of Comicana, called them “plewds.” Whatever you call them, you know how they work.

They are visual metaphors. Little symbols that stand for something else. The light bulb stands for “I’ve got an idea.” The sweat drops mean “I’m scared!” These are traditional symbols that every cartoonist knows.

Because of the current emphasis on “realism,” these visual metaphors have almost disappeared from comic books. But a few cartoonists buck the trend and make imaginative use of old and new symbols.

Terry LaBan, a former small presser, used visual metaphors in every issue of his comic Unsupervised Existence from Fantagraphics. (Unfortunately, the comic was cancelled with it’s March issue, #7.)

Instead of relying on traditional cartooning symbols, LaBan invented new ones. In issue 3 the massive and mixed-up character Bob left his home in America and flew to Greece to “get away from it all,” but he still felt trapped. Henry, an Australian pal, told Bob: you are away!

Finally, Bob got the idea. Instead of using the old light-bulb-above-the-head trick, LaBan invented a new symbol. An open door appeared in Bob’s forehead. Through the door, the sun shone. This simple image instantly revealed Bob’s sudden feeling of freedom.

LaBan used visual metaphors to show his characters’ thoughts at times of strong emotion. In a story from issue 2 of Unsupervised Existence, Suzy needed a job. She hated looking, she hated most of the job opportunities available. One morning, as she considered postponing her job search, she looked in a mirror. Instead of seeing herself, she saw a hideous leech with her face and hairdo.

LaBan didn’t mean this as a hallucination. He used it as an immediate, powerful way of revealing Suzy’s thoughts. Instead of telling us with a caption, “Suzy suddenly realized she was leeching off her friends,” LaBan showed us Suzy’s thoughts by making the metaphor visible.

For small press purists who refuse to look at professional comics, check Danny and Suzy’s cubist kiss on page 7 of LaBan’s self-published Unsupervised Existence 1. It’s another example of LaBan’s use of artwork to reveal his characters’ emotions and sensations.

I asked LaBan about visual metaphors in his work and about his influences. I mentioned that I really first noticed the technique in manga—Japanese comics—like the one mentioned at the beginning of this essay. LaBan said, “I knew manga used this sort of thing to show sex, but I didn’t know it was used to show other stuff. For me it comes more as an extension of my political cartoon work than from anything I’ve seen in other comics. Political cartoons depend on those sort of visual metaphors, usually labeled (I labeled one myself in issue 5).”

In the future I’ll be looking for places to use visual metaphors in my comics. Reading Terry LaBan’s work shows that visual metaphor is a useful storytelling technique. And, as LaBan says, “It’s something you can do with comics that you can’t do in other mediums.”

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Originally published in The Comicist (1992; Vol. 1, No. 25).

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