Thomas Sutcliffe: Are pictures worth a thousand words?

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The Independent Online

You don't usually expect to encounter confessions of illiteracy when you're chairing a Radio 4 arts review programme, but it has happened two weeks in succession to me, with guests on Saturday Review admitting – without obvious shame – that their reading skills aren't very good. In fact, there was an edge of defiant pride in the way they announced their incapacity – the explanation being that it wasn't printed prose they were admitting to having problems with, but comics, or graphic novels.

It happened first when we were discussing Posy Simmonds' latest book Tamara Drewe, an knowingly updated version of Far From the Madding Crowd. "I don't know how to read it," one of the guests said fretfully, explaining how they found themselves perpetually tugged between the pictures and the text.

And oddly enough, exactly the same lament surfaced the following week, when Zadie Smith's anthology The Book of Other People came up for review. Two of the contributors to this collection of character studies, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware (whose work should be familiar to readers of The Independent on Sunday), are cartoonists, and their pieces apparently induced a similar kind of anxiety in at least one of the guests. "I never know where to look first," was the way it was phrased.

I knew to a degree exactly what both guests meant, having encountered similar problems in my youth, when I discovered that reading techniques honed on the The Beano and The Victor were simply inadequate when it came to absorbing the postmodern inventions of American superhero comics. Instead of an orderly row of boxes flowing predictably from left to right, the pages exploded in a shrapnel of strangely shaped compartments, wildly different in size and significance.

These were pages in which the act of decoding – so practised that it was unconscious in the case of reading text – suddenly became painfully apparent again. And, as I wasn't much interested in the dilemmas of a chimera spawned by radioactive leak or accidental chemical ingestion, I couldn't really be bothered to learn how to do it. The unabashed candour of my guests seemed to imply something similar; if the content made it worthwhile, their manner suggested, we'd have taken the trouble to acquire comic literacy. But mostly it doesn't.

Thinking about all this afterwards, I wondered if there wasn't something else going on, a defensive reflex on behalf of words alone, which risk two kinds of diminution when they appear in graphic novels. They have to surrender some of their supreme command over a reader's imagination, sharing authority with the images that appear alongside them – and there are a lot of situations in which they're simply going to be regarded as redundant, if the image is clear enough on its own.

Some of the reactions to the news that a company called Classical Comics is to launch a series of graphic-novel adaptations of Shakespeare was coloured by a similar indignation. Even if the text is there in full, it is humiliatingly forced to share the limelight with an art that would conventionally be regarded as brasher and much less sophisticated. In the case of a Shakespeare text, it's a bit like yoking a thoroughbred racehorse alongside a seaside donkey, because you're keen to encourage children to climb into the cart they're hitched to.

I share quite a few of these prejudices myself. If I want to look at pictures, I go to a gallery or take in a movie. But my recent compulsory lessons in comic literacy did unsettle the complacency a bit. This is partly because both the examples I've mentioned are entirely their own thing – and the thing they are isn't quite conceivable in any other form. Tamara Drewe, for example, itemises the paraphernalia of time and place with a comprehensiveness that would appear weirdly obsessive if it was conveyed in words alone. You would need great Balzacian inventories of bric-a-brac and furniture and clothing to get even close to the cluttered richness of one of Simmonds' domestic interiors.

And in other cases the economy of the thing – the flat literalness of an image – is inextricably part of the appeal. Daniel Clowes' contribution to The Book of Other People is a short vignette of the critical life called "Justin M Damiano", about an internet movie reviewer who finds himself tugged between self-dramatisation, gloomy Weltschmerz and a desire not to hurt the feelings of his subject (which he construes as weakness). It takes about four minutes to read and it's very good – a funny, undercutting counterpoint of banal exterior appearance and tortured inner thought.

Having already learnt to read Shakespeare, I don't think I'll bother with the comic version. But I think I might try to improve my reading speed when it comes to graphic novels.

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