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What makes the story tick? A Glossary of Comparative Vocabulary

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Comics and Film are oft-compared, as story-telling media that use visual elements. Yet each medium has a technology and history that is unique, and each use different tools to get their points across.

How similar is a Comic Book to a Movie? What do they have in common, and how do they differ? What problems do comics creators and film makers strive to solve? Do graphic novelists have anything to learn from cinematic auteurs? Must comic book film adaptations be different from their source material?

Before approaching a comparison between the two media, it may be useful to make some cursory definitions for each, so that they remain distinct. In the interests of simplicity, it would be best to agree to use broad generalizations, and to avoid discussion of newly emerging comics technologies such as the internet.

Comics - a medium for capturing and portraying stories or moments, by juxtaposing two or more pictures (placing them next to each other) or by combining at least one picture with at least one set of words. Traditionally, these images are printed with ink on paper and compiled into pamphlets called “Comic Books” or larger collections called “Graphic Novels.”

Film/Video - a medium for capturing and portraying stories or moments, by recording one or more contiguous sequences, including audio and video information. Traditionally, films have been shown in rooms called Theatres or Cinemas, and later re-issued on other devices, i.e. VHS tapes and DVDs, for televised playback in individual homes.

One of the principal distinctions between cinematic and graphic media is the way that each conveys action and movement. In a movie theatre, characters appear to be moving and speaking on screen. In a comic book, the most considerable movement is that of the reader’s eyes. Here are some of the key tools used to create action, and to separate moments from each other:

Panels - In comics, panels are boxes (or other bordered elements) that contain information, in the form of words and drawings. When two panels are placed next to each other, they create a context. That is to say that the first panel is the beginning and the second panel is the end.

Shots - In film, shots are uninterrupted recordings of characters and objects. Shots are edited together in an order to create the illusion of continuous action. Most often, all the shots of a film will be projected onto a screen, where cameras shift, and characters appear to move and speak.

Composition - In comics, each page is composed of a collection of panels, captions, and unbordered drawings. In film, each shot is composed by placement of characters and objects (including props, set and landscape). The composition of a shot or a page is the ratio that each visual element shares with each other visual element.

In western (American and European, et al.) comics, it is assumed that a reader will start at the upper left-hand corner of a page and continue reading until they reach the lower right-hand corner of the same or the next page. In film, the eyes of the audience are attracted to certain points on the screen by movement, light and sound.

Spread - two pages of a comic book (as they open) form a spread. Information can be viewed by a reader as a whole spread, page-by-page, or panel-by-panel.

Screen - In a cinema, images are projected onto a screen. All of the action in a film takes place on the same screen, and the amount of time each viewer is allowed to watch each moment is identical, as determined by a film or video editor, and by the speed at which the film is played back.

Text vs Audio

One very exceptional distinction between Film and Comics is the method that each medium uses to capture speech.

Word balloons - In comics, word balloons convey text that is meant to spoken from the mouths of a character. Thought balloons convey the thoughts of a character.

Captions - In comics, captions convey text that is used as narration, sometimes from an omniscient narrator, and sometimes from one of the characters.

Audio - In film, most speech is conveyed by audio, recorded by actors and played back through speakers to simulate speech.

Dialogue - Dialogue is the portrayal of a conversation between two or more characters. A monologue is the portrayal of exactly one characters speech.

Cadence - The rhythms of speech. In films, each character has a particular cadence as captured by an actor’s voice. In comics, the cadences of each character are regulated by the use of word balloons and captions.

Inflection - An inflection is the way a word is stretched by a speaker’s mouth, or by the way it is visually portrayed on a page.

In film, each character maintains as unique a voice as an actor would give it. In comics, the voice of each character remains unique inasmuch as a writer can use cadences and inflections as well as colloquialisms to keep them distinct.

There are many other differences between the two visual story-telling media. In the next installment of the Glossary, we'll compare and contrast the jobs of the people who put together films and comic books.

Is something missing from this list? Surely yes, but feel free to add your thoughts in the Lowdown board!

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