Part 3 – Project 4: Exercise 3 – Visual Conventions for Time and Place

  • Find examples of different visual conventions used to convey time and/or place/ space – frame-by-frame storytelling, handling of perspective, use of speech bubbles, etc. – from different historical periods. Use this exercise to develop your research skills by accessing the online image libraries available to you at OCA, conducting internet image searches, or accessing your local library.

Think carefully about the key terms you’ll use to describe what you’re looking for. You’ll find sequential images in cartoons, graphic novels or murals, to give just a few examples, and you’ll see them described as frame-by-frame, cartoon strips, visual stories, etc. Any of these terms would give you some results. Reflect on what you’ve found, identify areas you hadn’t considered and refine your search terms. For example, you might have found a particular cartoonist or identified sequential images in Egyptian hieroglyphs, both of which can now become new search terms.

Although there are older visual communications,  I am starting with the ancient Egyptians.

Hieroglyphs represented the thing or action it depicted, as well as the sound of  a syllable.

Hieroglyphs, hypostyle hall (wall painting)
Hieroglyphs, hypostyle hall (wall painting) / Karnak Temple, Karnak, Egypt / © Sylvie Allouche / Bridgeman Images

The Egyptians also painted murals to depict events. These works were 2D, usually side-on in perspective and were painted on, or carved into, walls.

Statues of Menna and his wife in a boat, from the Tomb of Menna, New Kingdom (wall painting)
Statues of Menna and his wife in a boat, from the Tomb of Menna, New Kingdom (wall painting), Egyptian 18th Dynasty (c.1567-1320 BC) / Valley of the Nobles, Thebes, Egypt / Photo © AISA / Bridgeman Images
Detail from the Golden Shrine of Tutankhamun (c.1370-52 BC) depicting the Queen anointing him with scented unguent, New Kingdom (wood overlaid with gesso covered with sheet gold) (detail of 148191)
Detail from the Golden Shrine of Tutankhamun (c.1370-52 BC) depicting the Queen anointing him with scented unguent, New Kingdom (wood overlaid with gesso covered with sheet gold) (detail of 148191), Egyptian 18th Dynasty (c.1567-1320 BC) / Egyptian National Museum, Cairo, Egypt / Bridgeman Images

As well as decorating buildings, the Egyptians also wrote on papyrus. The famous ‘Books of the Dead’ were papyrus scrolls depicting magic spells to help one enter the afterlife, and were placed in the coffin or burial chamber.

The Weighing of the Heart against the Feather of Truth, from the Book of the Dead of the Scribe Any, c.1250 BC (painted papyrus)
The Weighing of the Heart against the Feather of Truth, from the Book of the Dead of the Scribe Any, c.1250 BC (painted papyrus), Egyptian 19th Dynasty (c.1292-1187 BC) / British Museum, London, UK / Bridgeman Images

[Search terms used: Egyptian visual communication, Hieroglyphs, Egyptian murals, Egyption books, Book of the Dead, Papyrus of Ani]

[visual communication in roman times, roman mosaics, roman narrative art, roman storytelling, roman murals, sequential storytelling roman, sequential storytelling ancient greece]

In Roman times, the Trajan Column was built which was covered in a spiralling story of war, told in 155 scenes. This is an example of a continuous narrative.

Colonna Traiana (Trajan Column) (Trajane), Rome, Lazio, Italy
Colonna Traiana (Trajan Column) (Trajane), Rome, Lazio, Italy / Photo © Bluered/Cuboimages / Bridgeman Images

The ancient Greeks told their stories on vases, and through friezes such as the Bassae Frieze, which is known as a panoramic narrative. The frieze tells two different stories, one of the Greeks fighting the centaurs and the other of the Greeks fighting the Amazonians.
Greeks fighting with Amazonians. Plate 534. London, British Museum

So far, these narrative artworks have been continuous, with no real distinction between locations, time, or perspective.

Representations of Christ’s life were numerous, but in 15th century Italy, pictures often occured in series, to allow viewers to trace the progression of events. Below is a frescoe painted by Gaudenzio Ferrari in the early 1500s on a wall in the Church of Our Lady of the Graces in Italy.

Gaudenzio Ferrari [Public domain]

In artworks such as Hans Memling’s (below), we start to see a sequential story being depicted, although, it is not easy to decipher the order of the events as they are all painted together on one canvas.
Hans Memling [Public domain]
Moving into the more recognisable realm of frame by frame storytelling, we find Rodolphe Töpffer (1999-1846), a Swiss man who is often credited as being the world’s first ‘comics artist’. He created picture stories that are considered predecessors to our modern comic strips.
Plate 13 of the book Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame by Rodolphe Töpffer (1830) [Public domain]
The style is of simple, sequential, line drawings. A very rough translation via Google translate follows:(39) She makes her lover admire the bright star of the day. Her lover finds it round like a cheese and pleasant like a lantern.
(40) She finds infinite love like the Ocean. He finds the ocean tedious like love.
(41) And to distract the chosen from her heart, she sets in motion a cheerful game of blind man’s buff.
(42) When Elvire’s turn comes, Mr. Cryptogame gently climbs onto the bridge.This story is narrated, as opposed to using speech bubbles or other direct speech devices.

You can also read an entire Töpffer comic book here.

Other comic strips from the period include ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’ which debuted in 1897 and was originally drawn by Rudolph Dirks, who was the first cartoon artist to regularly express characters speech in speech bubbles.

The first comic book to feature a recurring character is widely noted to be Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, first published in 1884.
Gilbert Dalziel (1853-1930), Charles H. Ross (1835-1897), W. Fletcher Thomas (1862-1926) [Public domain]
The below comic strip is entitled Krazy Kat and is a short daily strip from 1918 by George Herriman. He also produced full page cartoons for the Sunday papers.
George Herriman [Public domain]
Up until the late 1920s, comic art was generally part of newspapers and magazines, not publications in their own right. In the late 1930s, The Dandy and The Beano were launched, which changed this situation entirely.

A spread from the first ever Beano Annual, which dates from 1939
A spread from the first ever Beano Annual, which dates from 1939

Also around this time, superheroes started to appear in US comics, with Superman being the first ever superhero, followed by Batman.
Action Comics #7 (1938)
Detective Comics #27 (1939)

Superhero comics often made use of ‘sound effects’, like in this example of the sounds ‘swik’ and ‘snap’ being used to demonstrate the sound made when Spiderman catches Gwen Stacy.
Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 #121 Published June, 1973

Peanuts may well be one of the most famous comic strips of all time, and hasn’t really changed over the years (other than being in colour), as can be seen below:
Peanuts. January 21st, 1977
Peanuts. 18th August, 2019

There are plenty of examples of comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels since the ones above, but many of the styles have not really changed in the past 100 years.

With regards to how time and/or place/space are conveyed, comics and graphic novels have a few different ways of transitioning between times/locations. In his 1993 book Understanding Comics (The Invisible Art), Scott McCloud details 6 types of transition:

Moment to moment: Simply just one moment to the next. Different stages of a some normal momentum such as someone closing their eyes, or zooming in on a face. This gives a slow motion type effect.

Action to action: Quicker format than moment to moment. The first panel shows the start of the action eg. Driving along a road, and the last panel shows the end of the action eg. The car crashed into a tree. There may be more panels in-between showing different stages.

Subject to subject: This transition moves between subjects while staying within the same scene, or sticking to the same idea.

Scene to scene: These transition move us across significant distances of time and space/location. An example would be moving between countries in each panel, or a ‘5 years later’ transition.

Aspect to aspect: Rather than deal with time, this transition allows the viewer to look around at different aspects of the same scene, idea, or mood. It freezes or bypasses time altogether. It’s like taking a look around a scene to see all the things that are going on, but it’s displayed as separate panels of the sequence.

Non-Sequitur: There are no logical relationships between the panels – they can be several completely random scenes, ideas, objects etc. Despite the unrelated nature of these panels, McCloud believes that just by being next to each other, the reader will consider them as a whole a relationship will develop anyway.

  • Reflect on your research in your learning log. What has it told you about the evolution of visual conventions and how time or place has been visually represented? Also reflect on the process of researching. What approach(es) did you find useful?

I looked at many types of sequential stories for this exercise, but from the last 100 years, I mainly focussed on comic books and comic strips.

What I noticed is that things with the short comic strips that you might find in a newspaper have really not changed much. Many are still in black and white, and they are often very simple line drawings. Locations are either non-existent (because it’s irrelevant, so therefore backgrounds are plain), or they are generally very few ie. the characters tend to stay in one place, at least, only one place is shown in detail. Sometimes the scene is zoomed in on and we go from a view of a room/scene, to just a close up of the characters, or occasionally, we just get small details from the previous background like a corner of a wall that wall in full view in the previous frame.

Speech bubbles are present in all the examples I looked at since 1940, and the use of ‘sound effects’ is common. There’s no mention of time frame in any of these examples, so the reader assumes it is just linear from the left panel, ending at the right.

I also looked at many comic book examples from 1940, mostly superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Spiderman.

The most obvious evolution in these is the actual artwork. Until the 90s, there was not really much improvement in the quality of the art, and after that it became sharper, brighter, and more stylised, clearly taking some influence from Japanese manga characters. After 2000, it is very digital looking, and frames stopped being quite so uniformly shaped. We started to see overlapping frames, as well as diagonal cut frames too.

Although the places depicted in the comics are more detailed and varied, we still see the plain backgrounds in places, as well as the close ups on faces. Perspectives are varied too – more so it seems in later comics. We see shots from above the action looking down and from below looking up, particularly in fight scenes where this gives a sense of the bad guy flying up through the air.

Later comics seem to make more use of the moment to moment transition rather than action to action and/or scene to scene, while earlier comics had a lot of ‘narration’ going on in blocks to say where the frame was taking place, or what was happening, for example there were a few instances of banners in the 1940s-1960s comics declaring things such as ‘But suddenly…’ and ‘Back at police headquarters…’.

Overall, I’d say that in these comic books, there is a lot more focus on action than on the actual location. Yes, the location is sometimes a plot point, and it’s then that we see more detailed representations, but the rest of the time, we see very little. This makes sense when you think about how much room there is to work with in each panel. If the set of panels starts and ends in the same location, then it’s fairly obvious where they are in the in-between frames, so they don’t need so much detail, if any.

As far as time goes, in most of the examples I looked at, it ran in a linear fashion and there was not a lot of ‘x years later’ scene-to-scene transitions and nothing I saw made me confused about timelines.

As far as researching goes, I actually found this quite a difficult task. One search query leads to another and another, and I found myself with many tabs open and far too much information in front of me. In the end, I picked just a few historical time periods to go with, despite there being many more I could have looked at. For more modern times, I focussed on the main times when sequential story telling was becoming more common, and then took a few further examples from the 20th century. Once I found a name of someone I was interested in, it was easy through Wikipedia and dedicated comics sites to find other artists to look at, and I modified my key words over and over until I had the most relevant and specific search term. Basically, I started off very broad eg. sequential storytelling, and ended up very specific eg. sequential storytelling ancient Greek vases.

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