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25
May 2016

How graphic novels benefit from the “show, don’t tell” principle

One of the most interesting things about images, about using images in conjunction with text, is the effect that it has upon a reader’s brain. One thing that cropped up consistently in the research for my Honours year is that people tend to trust words more if they’re accompanied by pictures, symbols or pictographs. There’s something about an image that is inherently authoritative. Like it taps directly into that part of our brain that says “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Image from Academaesthetics. Research from Lefferts, R. (1982). How to Prepare Charts and Graphs for Effective Reports. New York: Barns & Noble.

Image from Academaesthetics. Research from Lefferts, R. (1982). How to Prepare Charts and Graphs for Effective Reports. New York: Barns & Noble.



I actually tested this hypothesis during my Honours year at university. The year consisted of a single creative project, plus an exegesis. My project was a comic/essay hybrid, in which I used all the tools of the comic language: image, text, gutters, the whole lot. That project led to Academeaesthetics, which was published in a refereed academic journal and is available to read for free here.

Then I took just the text from that argument and pasted it verbatim into my exegesis.

Both the faculty members assigned to mark the work noted in their remarks that the argument held up better as a comic than it did as plain text, despite being the exact same argument. They were a little astonished by this outcome, and I guess I was a little, too.

I think that looking at something iconic like Superman will illustrate my point more clearly.

From DC Comics Presents, by Jim Starlin.

From DC Comics Presents, by Jim Starlin.



There’s something ethereal and mysterious about the power of comics, and their ability to tell stories that just wouldn’t work in any other medium. This is especially evident in the superhero genre. (Disclaimer: I don’t have much interest in this genre, so apologies if this summary comes across as dismissive or incorrect.) For example, I contend that Superman is a character who could only exist in a visual medium. You need to see it to believe it, because the concept is just so bizarre. He’s a humanoid alien in red underwear who can shoot lasers out of his eyes, race speeding trains, and toss skyscrapers like tennis balls. And just by donning a pair of spectacles, he can blend into society and no one recognises him.

I can’t imagine a prose writer ever, ever, ever being able to get away with writing anything like this without being crucified in critical responses. But in comics, we can see it happening, and it’s so very hard to deny the existence of something we can see. Our brains aren’t wired to reject what our eyes tell us. And so we can accept Superman, and all his oddities. And once we overcome that suspension of disbelief, we can embrace this bizarre story and allow it to become a huge part of the cultural zeitgeist. Thanks to the power of allegory, the silly stuff becomes more than just a bizarre hook: it’s a whole new window through which we can glimpse our humanity or learn a lesson to bring back into our everyday.

Why is this?

To be honest, I don’t know. But the research is clear, and the case studies here solidify that argument: we tend to trust pictures more than we trust words. Perhaps it’s something to do with the extent of abstraction – words are far more abstract representations of concepts than images, and maybe that makes them inherently more difficult to trust.

I think it’s why “show, don’t tell” has become such a truism in storytelling. Even in prose, the notion of showing something conjures an image, a visual concept, in the mind of the reader. I think it’s a tacit admission that words are, in a lot of ways, empty signifiers. They can’t be implicitly trusted, unless they’re backed by some sort of evidence. And our brains are trained to see visual clues as evidence.

Can you imagine a line like this in a novel? And yet, it pops like crazy here.

Can you imagine a line like this in a novel? And yet, it pops like crazy here.



Undad is definitely one of those books I would never have been able to write as a novel. Weird as it may sound, I’m not a huge fan of zombies. I think that, but for a few notable exceptions, they make pretty terrible fiction, but without the visual element that comics, movies or TV bring to the table, the zombie genre is almost irredeemable. The premise for Undad, as much as I try to distance it from the zombie genre, is I think just a little too out there to be anything but a comic.

But Undad is more than a wacky premise to me. Writing Undad let me really dive into what it means to be a parent wrestling with depression, struggling against a monster inside you that you can’t really control, and the difficulties that people face in asking for help. And in Volume Two, I took it a little deeper and started to unpack what all that means in terms of being an ongoing role model for your children. Being a good dad to my kids is my top priority, and I second-guess EVERYTHING.

Having access to a toolbox like the comics language to write a book like Undad, to unpack and process some of my feelings and anxieties as a family man.

p116


What does that mean for writing prose?

I’ve taken a lengthy sabbatical from prose writing, although I do have a couple of new short stories doing the rounds on magazine editors’ desks, and a handwritten novel that will probably never be published. It’s always been my intention to transition back into prose, maybe even on a permanent basis. But my years in comics have taught me one thing: prose writing has a lot of extra heavy lifting it needs to do. It’s got a harder job when it comes to convincing an audience that its world and characters are genuine. (NB: I contend that a really good comic is just as hard to write as a good novel, but I’ve got the feeling that the threshold for ‘bad’ is a lot more forgiving in comics.)

Here’s hoping I’m up to the challenge.

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