This post formerly appeared at the The Panelists on January 3, 2011.
Porcellino, John. King-Cat No. 65. Spit and a Half, 2005. p.7 panel 4.
The most conventional uses for words in comics are sound and narration, both most often separated from the image, enclosed within boundaries of balloon or caption box. Less separate, but still common uses, are those such as onomatopoetic sound effects and words found in the diegetic world of the image itself (business signs, words on a t-shirt, etc.). Then there are the uncommon uses.
This panel from John Porcellino’s King-Cat No. 65 attracts me for its multifarious uses of text. The panel starts with text as narration: “We played the pixies song… twice!” This text forms part of the story’s larger narration in Porcellino’s voice and is enclosed in a caption box. In a sense, this text is separate from the image, cordoned off, while the four other words in the panel are more a part of the image. The first word, “Whoo!”, though lacking its own balloon, is a fairly conventional sound representation, though, unlike sound enclosed in a balloon, it is ambiguous in attribution: an attendee in the crowd or the figure in the foreground.
From here the words becomes less conventional in use. “Noise” floats in the air, not speech, not an onomatopoetic sound effect, rather a description. A slew of sounds (music, crowd) have been abstracted down to this single word from which we must (if we desire) imagine the components through the context. Similarly, Porcellino’s art is so simplified, so representationally abstract, that it approaches the same level of abstraction. The image is representational enough that we know what we are looking at, though for many components this is strongly dependent on context. The pieces of the drum set in this panel would be quite ambiguous (one circle inside another circle?) taken out of the context of the other pieces and the figure with his drum sticks. Like the “Noise”, we are invited to fill in any details.
Further over in the panel, “Blur” sits near two figures. Here the word strays from sound into visuals. Rather than representing or describing sound, the word describes, modulates perhaps, the image. Some might say this is a form of comics cheatery, using words to make up for a lack in the artwork, but I see it as a further level of integration between words and pictures that so many see as integral to comics. Porcellino is using words to supplement his images, one might say, to supplement the limitations of his images. The word is also pleasantly ambiguous. “Blur” could be the visual blurriness of the crowd, but it could also be a description of time passing in a “blur” as the band’s set might seem to the band members themselves (Porcellino is one of the members, thus the reading of these words from the band’s subjectivity).
Lastly the word “chaos” sits just off-center, neither sound, visual, nor narration, the word is an overarching descriptor, a summation of the panel: sound, action, and image, subtly reinforced by the figure’s breaking out of the panel borders at two points.
A few comments from the original post at The Panelists: