One of the defining characteristics of comics is a hybrid use of words and images. The complex interplay between pictures and words creates meaning in graphic narratives. Additionally, this feature leaves comics at the crossroad between art and literature. But are words necessary? After all, not all comics include written words. Indeed, wordless comics push the boundaries of the hybrid medium, proving comics’ versatility and range.

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The Sound of Silence: Wordless Comics

In his classic UNDERSTANDING COMICS, Scott McCloud briefly states, “Oh, it doesn’t have to contain words to be comics…” Indeed, he is quick to remind readers that comics are already silent anyway. Moreover, McCloud leaves “words” out of his definition altogether, placing them under the category of “other images.” From here, McCloud arrives at this definition: “Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

wordless comics (UNDERSTANDING COMICS)
Image from UNDERSTANDING COMICS, courtesy of Harper Perennial.

How can McCloud make this conclusion? Originally, McCloud’s definition described comics as “juxtaposed static images in deliberate sequence.” However, as McCloud rightfully points out, this could just define “words” themselves. As a result, McCloud broadens his definition to encompass the blurry line dividing words and images as distinct concepts.

While they are vastly outnumbered by comics that use words and images, many remarkable wordless comics do exist. GRAPHIC WITNESS: FOUR WORDLESS GRAPHIC NOVELS edited by George A. Walker, Shaun Tan’s THE ARRIVAL, Véro Cazot and Julie Rocheleau’s ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB, Wilfrid Lupano and Gregory Panaccione’s A SEA OF LOVE, and Marnie Galloway’s IN THE SOUNDS AND SEAS exemplify the diverse world of wordless comics.

1. GRAPHIC WITNESS: FOUR WORDLESS GRAPHIC NOVELS

George A. Walker skillfully brings together four black and white woodblock comics in GRAPHIC WITNESS. Frans Masereel’s THE PASSION OF A MAN, Lynd Ward’s WILD PILGRIMAGE, Giacamo Patri’s WHITE COLLAR, and Laurence Hyde’s SOUTHERN CROSS make up the collection. The comics address significant social issues of the early 20th century. For instance, THE PASSION OF MAN tackles existential themes of industrialization and isolation. And Hyde’s SOUTHERN CROSS provides a social critique of American nuclear weapon testing in the South Pacific.

wordless comics (GRAPHIC WITNESS)
Image from GRAPHIC WITNESS: FOUR WORDLESS GRAPHIC NOVELS, courtesy of Firefly Books.

The stark images add to the overall angst and poignancy of the collection. As a result, the comic demonstrates how images can often be more powerful than words. Comics scholar Hillary Chute argues that comics have a unique ability to bear witness to trauma. In her book Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, Chute explains that “the essential form of comics – its collection of frames – is relevant to its inclination to document.” Importantly, Chute notes the ways comics presents visual evidence. Comics are able to link “form and ethics.” Bearing witness in graphic form offers an interesting and accessible alternative to written portrayals of trauma.

2. THE ARRIVAL

Shaun Tan’s THE ARRIVAL debuted in 2006. It is one of the most charming comics I have ever read. The whimsical illustrations might make you think it’s a children’s book. However, the juxtaposed images mark the comic as a graphic narrative. Moreover, like the comics in GRAPHIC WITNESS, THE ARRIVAL addresses the trauma of fleeing a hostile country as a refugee. Antagonistic forces are represented as shadowy monsters or giants in hazmat suits with grotesque vacuums. Conversely, the sweet creatures greeting the refugee help him engage with his surroundings and other people in the foreign land.

wordless comics (THE ARRIVAL)
Image from THE ARRIVAL, courtesy of Arthur A. Levine Books.

THE ARRIVAL quietly takes readers on an adventure through borderless square panels. The protagonist, a father who has made his way to a new city, encounters magical creatures and kind people. The sepia-tone images give the impression that the comic takes place in the early 1900s. The magical landscape captures the intense emotions associated with coming to a new place. Ultimately, Tan successfully uses comics to help readers empathize with the traumatic experiences of refugees. It also shows the importance of welcoming people from different backgrounds.

3. ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB

While GRAPHIC WITNESS and THE ARRIVAL are darker and muted, BOOM! Studio’s ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB is anything but quiet. Indeed, Véro Cazot and Julie Rocheleau’s comic about one woman’s recovery from breast cancer is a vivacious celebration of life after trauma. Cazot and Rocheleau’s heroine Betty faces the loss of her breast and the accompanying process of healing. If that wasn’t stress enough, Betty also manages life with an unaccepting boyfriend and an oppressive work environment. Luckily, Betty discovers a band of misfit cabaret performers who radically transform her life. ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB is a spirited comic about recovery, love, and body-positivity.

wordless comics (ABOUT BETTY'S BOOB)
Image from ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB, courtesy of Boom! Studios.

ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB may be wordless, but the comic still relies on conventions such as speech bubbles. However, the bubbles don’t contain words. Instead, Rocheleau cleverly places illustrated symbols to convey meaning. By including the speech bubbles, Rocheleau pays homage to classic comics such as BETTY BOOP. Additionally, the comic pops with color, even as Betty faces emotionally intense challenges. As a result, the story feels loud and celebratory.

A Spectacular Comic ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB

4. A SEA OF LOVE

A SEA OF LOVE by Wilfrid Lupano and Gregory Panaccione takes a similarly humerous approach to their story. The comic from Lion Forge features a small-town fisherman who gets swept out to sea. Fearing for his safety, the fisherman’s exceedingly proper wife sets out to hunt down her missing husband. Lupano and Panaccione offer bright details and pep. But the comic doesn’t shy away from making important observations. For instance, the old man’s journey makes us bear witness to a major ocean garbage gyre.

wordless comics (A SEA OF LOVE)
Image from A SEA OF LOVE, courtesy of Lion Forge.

Indeed, the comic blends the humor of the two lead characters with their dark circumstances. Without words, readers rely on the artist’s ability to capture the characters’ emotions. Indeed, A SEA OF LOVE portrays a wide range of feelings. In particular, the tiny fisherman’s large bespectacled eyes convey his annoyance and fears. The fisherman’s wife gives off an air of anxiety and determination as she bustles through life.

5. IN THE SOUNDS AND THE SEA

Another nautical-themed comic, IN THE SOUNDS AND THE SEA follows the journey of three women across a vast ocean. Marnie Galloway shapes the landscape with waves of tessellating fish, rabbits, and birds. Different figures and patterns intertwine to give the story a fluid backdrop. The intensely detailed comic carries mythological themes and symbolism.

wordless comics (IN THE SOUNDS AND SEAS)
Image from IN THE SOUNDS AND SEAS, courtesy of Marnie Galloway.

Like ABOUT BETTY’S BOOB, IN THE SOUNDS AND SEAS is not devoid of speech bubbles. However, Galloway leaves hers completely blank, just hinting at conversations between characters. The patterns do take the comic to abstract and surreal places. Nevertheless, IN THE SOUNDS AND SEAS is another powerful example of how images can often say more than words.

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Picture Reading?

A major criticism of comics, as articulated in Frederick Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, is that comics promote “picture reading.” Wertham describes this as “an evasion of reading and almost its opposite.” It would seem that wordless comics would only drive this point home. However, these five comics prove that wordless comics require a unique and attentive type of reading. Indeed, “picture reading” requires active engagement from the reader. Certainly, the wordless comics here do not shy away from difficult topics. Instead, they require an empathetic and curious reader to invest in the narrative.

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