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Bordwell on Show and Tell

David Bordwell is the kind of critic we need in comics. His brand of poetics overlaps quite a bit with Ken Parille’s analytical criticism”. If you’re not reading his (and Kristin Thompson’s, his wife and also a prominent film scholar) blog, you’re missing out on some great essays (always well illustrated) on film, that often have some bearing on comics and narrative.

I found this essay, “Tell, Don’t Show,” on the old adage that one should “show not tell,” a really engaging and insightful piece. Bordwell makes the case where “telling” can be a more powerful and effective means to convey narrative than “showing.”

The HBO tv series “In Treatment,” is another great example of this. The show, consists (almost completely) of 30 minute episodes of a psychologist and a patient talking. Almost all the episodes take place in the same room (the psychologist’s office) and none of them (that I’ve seen) include any sort of flashback. Rather, we see a lot of the patients narrating past events. Like Bordwell’s “Persona” example, the act of narrating becomes a major level of narrative in itself, in conjunction with the content of the narration. The story is as much about how the characters feel about the narration and how they tell it (omissions, digressions) as the narration itself. And, at least in this case, it is engaging and entertaining. (Season 1 is out on DVD with Season 2 coming in the very near future. Recommended.)

This got me thinking (naturally) about comics. Comics are a “visual medium”, as people like to say, so I think the tendency is to use images of the narrated content rather than the narration itself. There is the old conventional of having a little head of the narrator in the upper corner of the panel next to a narrative caption, with the panel itself mostly containing an image that corresponds to the narration. Can comics effectively convey the same sense of multi-leveled narrating/narration as film/video?

In some cases, film has the advantage. A lot of comic artists just don’t have the style/skill to show the subtlety of expression and gesture that can be easily captured on film. On the other hand, the stillness of comics allows a reader to linger over the images, with more time to appreciate subtleties that are of a different sort, such as stylistic variations, representational levels, visual detail. If the artist works at it, the images of the narrating could be engaging and add depth to the narration, but too often you see lazy work of “talking heads” whose only real effort at maintaining visual interest is constant changing of the perspectival angle on the character(s). These shifts in perspective usually seem less motivated by narrative need than as a cheap way to avoid visual repetition.