Posted by: Sally Ingraham | March 15, 2015

Layers of Communication in Comics

I just finished Ray Fawkes’ One Soul. It is a pretty fascinating experiment in storytelling, and although the story and characters themselves didn’t grab me, I appreciate what Fawkes did and am filing it away into my growing library of ideas about visual literacy and communication.

I’m excited about comics right now, as you can probably gather, because it seems to me that they bring together so many types of communication – and they do it well. In my last post I talked about the connection between comics and music, which I’ve been thinking about a lot thanks to Frank Santoro. In his recent article for The Comics Journal Frank quoted Chris Ware (whose work I need to find) saying this about music and comics:

As far as the musical sense of comics goes, in 1988 when I first quit using words in my comics, and I decided to use pictures only, what I was trying to get at was that sense of unheard music in a comic. If you read any comic without words you’ll still ‘hear’ something in your head. It’s not really like music. It’s not even really tones, it’s just a broken pattern of soundless rhythm. I had the inkling that these ‘sounds’ were probably the root of what the real power of comics was: that sort of visual patterning that would then be reinterpreted as a perceived rhythm in the mind.

Frank goes on to wonder if the reason comics aren’t readily embraced by the literary world has to do with folks not knowing how to “read” the images – “Their visual literacy is limited.” This makes sense to me, as I have noticed myself learning, over the past few years, how to read comics better. I’ve been able to let go of a lot of my reading habits that are based solely on understanding written words, and be able to see (and hear) more of what is going on on a page. Accept the layers of communication that are going on.

It can be overwhelming at times. One Soul is overwhelming. It tells 18 tales at once. Fawkes used an 18 panel grid, spread across two pages, and devoted one panel to each of his 18 souls (or perhaps they are the same one, being reincarnated over centuries?) They are born at the same time, each in their panel, and then their lives spool out. You could follow one life across the pages, reading just the 5th panels for instance, and get to know a Chinese silk-worker, or a priestess in a Greek temple, or a Revolutionary War soldier, or a British punk kid – or you can read all the lives at once.

The narration pushes the individual stories along while tying them together, a sort of poem, the thoughts behind the eyes of the 18 souls, the one soul. It can be confusing if you try to focus too hard on one story, but if you let the beat catch you up it works pretty well. Like I mentioned, I wasn’t pulled in by the characters or the overall story, but I liked what Fawkes dared to try. (He’s a writer/artist who seems especially keen to play with communicating in new ways, as his current project – Intersect – clearly shows.)

Lilli Carré likes to experiment too. Her collection of short stories – Heads or Tails – is a fine example. Her stories are trippy and insightful, and the colors she uses always surprise me. My favorite story in the book is ‘Rainbow Moment’, which unrolls in layers – two men are having coffee and one talks about his tipsy wife, who was telling him about an adventure in a bookstore, where the shopkeeper told her about bat-watching with her uncle, who once brought a bat home to show his girlfriend, who locked herself in the bathroom like she had as a child…and each layer has it’s own color pallet, and you get deep in it and then come back out through the layers. Pretty cool.

Then there’s Emily Carroll and her collection Through the Woods which is just about the creepiest thing I’ve read in a long time. What Carroll does with words and pictures is amazing. Her work, even at it’s darkest and most horrific, is glowingly beautiful, so that I couldn’t look away even when I wanted to. I often watch scary movies through my fingers (blurred images becoming bearable…) and I wanted to do that with this book! The stories reminded me of Poe, and other fairy tales gone wrong, and while the narration carries some of the weight it is the visuals that make you flinch and squirm. It is a startlingly good example of how much can be going on in the play of words, images, color, design, and the soundless rhythms of the comic or graphic novel form.

The mind’s ability to stitch it all together, to gather the clues and be suddenly alive in another place, to be communicating with another person like this, amazes me. To be walking through Frank Santoro’s Storeyville and hear music and feel wind and be surrounded by a grey and yellow landscape that is lovely and melancholy…is a wonder.

I have a lot more to learn from comics and the ways that people are trying to communicate through them. And of course, many more fabulous stories to experience!


  1. Dear Sarah –
    I am writing to find out how I can get my book, Wealth and Privilege, into your book pile. Your reviews are fantastic (I adore David McCullough’s Johnstown Flood, and your review of it is awesome!!), and please, please, please, would you consider doing MINE? I apologize for contacting you in a comment, but I couldn’t figure out from your page how to reach you.

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