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Thursday
May132010

Meanings, Pictures, and Words

I got around to reading the Watchmen graphic novel, and I was thinking about how well-crafted it is. I also thought about how much it uses double meanings. On one level, super heroes themselves have dual personalities: their normal self and their super-hero self. (Though Alan Moore posits that Rorschach's dual roles switched along the way and the masked version is now the "real" him. Nite Owl has a dream that hints the same thing about himself.)

But actually the double meaning I was really referring to has to do with juxtaposing two scenes such that the dialog from one seems to comment on the situation in the other. In the first few pages, some cops investigating a murder are talking, but every other panel shows what really happened (in the past), so the cops' words have one meaning in the context of talking to each other, but a different meaning in the context of those words juxtaposed with the true events of the murder. Watchmen does this same kind of thing throughout the book. Some might call it cutesy or trying-to-hard, but I think it adds cleverness and a feeling that we, the readers, are in on something.

The TV show Dexter relies heavily on this same concept. Like a super hero, Dexter leads a dual life: one as a crime scene analyst and one as a serial killer. Often, things Dexter says to other characters have two meanings: one that applies to the situation at hand, and another meaning that only we the viewers understand, because it applies to his secret life as a killer. Dexter narrates the show, and this gives him even more opportunity for these double meanings because it allows him to say clever things that simultaneously apply to both of his lives, even when he couldn't believably say them out loud.

One quick example from the animated series Dexter: Early Cuts. Dexter watches a murderous magician's assistant on stage, about to be the subject of the saw-a-woman-in-half trick. Dexter narrates: "The magician may be the one who gets the glory, but if you ask me...Cindy's the one doing the tricks. She's still in one piece...but not for long."

Oh yeah, and if you somehow forgot to watch Season 4 of Dexter, you really, really should see it. I won't even say anything about it, but god damn. (Link to DVD and Blu-ray.)

Anyway, back to Watchmen. Consider this other kind of multiple meaning. It's a story about "what if super heroes really existed, and it was more like real life than super hero stuff?" and yet, the story itself *is* a super hero story. It's the very thing its commenting on. Even more notably, the character Dr. Manhattan's super power (well, among others) is basically the ability to see the rest of the comic book. It's a linear medium, and we experience it much like we experience life: a moment at a time. We can remember the past, but not actually experience it, and we can't see the future. But Dr. Manhattan can see and experience all of it at any time; he can basically read the whole book at once. (This insight has surely been pointed out before, but I stole it from famous game designer Clint Hocking while he was half drunk).

Here's Alan Moore himself talking about Watchmen. A spoiler in there though, so careful:

So I was thinking about all that and looking at how the panels of Watchmen are actually laid out. How different configurations convey that we are looking at quick events in slow motion, or that we are looking at a slow event over a long period of time, or that a very large panel conveys importance and grandeur, and so on. Hard to think about any of that without thinking of Scott McCloud. I hope you've read Understanding Comics by now, which incidentally, is hardly about comics. Also, here is Scott talking about that book, among other things, and he even mentions that he thought it was for other comic artists but really lots of people from other fields like it, like game designers. Ha. I think he and I would get along really well actually (if he had any clue who I was). I'm down with everything he says in this video:

Another fun fact is that I used to have a copy of Understanding Comics signed by McCloud himself. It was also signed by Will Wright. They were both on stage together doing a presentation at GDC, so I got them to sign it. Will Wright said, "Wait, you want me to sign a book that I didn't write?" I said, "Yeah because you're here, and you're Will Wright." This seemed plausible enough for him to go along with it. Unfortunately an ex-girlfriend (not ex at that time) borrowed it, and I never saw it again.

Back to McCloud, you might as well read his comic book that launched Google Chrome, if you haven't. Tufte would be proud. If you don't know who Tufte is, it sounds like you have quite a lot of reading to do. (He is a professor of information design, focusing on the visual display of information.) Also, here's a video of Tufte talking about the interface design of the iphone. It will give you a surface-level understanding of what he's all about:

Because Scott McCloud is so great and I was thinking about the visual design of comics and graphic novels, I also started reading another of his books, Making Comics. Even though it's much more closely targeted at comics than is Understanding Comics, I still see the same sweeping concepts of design there too. For example, early on he talks about the balance between making something CLEAR and making it EXCITING. I have faced the same kind of thing in character art for my card games, in package design, card layout, data presentation, and so on. No matter how much Scott talks about comics, he can't help but talk about universal design concepts. ;)

I checked out McCloud's blog to read more about him thinking about pictures and words and I found these two videos. I can't speak to the validity or invalidity of any of the content in these videos. I mean, they seem pretty interesting and thought-provoking to me at first glance. What I mean to highlight here is the use of pictures to enhance the words. The videos are extremely opposite, one for humanities majors and the other for students of hard science. (Or should I say one for Harvard students and one for MIT students?)

Let's all have empathy:

And now for something more confusing that will hurt your brain:

I think you probably need a rest now if you really read and watched all that stuff, so I'll let you go.

Reader Comments (4)

Thank you for your blog. It is simply very inspiring and informative.

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMat

Looks like the last video is broken. I really enoyed this post, thanks!

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

The video links (especially the last 2) has turned me onto some ideologies that I did not know were out there. Thanks a heap for the food for thought! Please post more stuff like this :).

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Sirlin,
I have been following your site for a while, do not know how long exactly (before the website revamp) but I find your posts (the information, the writing, the videos, ideas) very enlightening. You do not post as much as you used to but your posts are still (and maybe more) very special. This is my first comment and basically what I wanted to say to you is to keep up the great work!

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPeter
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