Visual-Verbal Blending (Sigh)

Posted by on November 8th, 2010 at 9:52 AM


As you may know, I’ve been lobbying for visual-verbal blending as the heart and soul of the art of cartooning for several generations now. In short, in the best representatives of the medium, the pictures and the words work together to create a meaning that neither the words nor the pictures, taken by themselves, achieve. And here’s a good example:

The pictures in Jef Mallett’s Sunday Frazz don’t make much of a joke until we read the words in the speech balloons. Then, once we do that, the joke emerges.

Same thing happens in Sunday’s Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman.

Although the pictures are hilarious in themselves (as they often are when Borgman draws them), the pictures are also, in effect, a puzzle that the words give meaning to.

Sunday’s Pearls Before Swine is another breed of the same species.

The picture in the fourth panel makes little sense until we “de-code” it with the words. Even then, the sense is somewhat senseless. In the last panel, however, neither the words nor the picture make comedic sense alone without the other.

But the joke to which the strip is building is in the fourth panel, not the last panel. In the fourth panel, Stephan Pastis has bent the blend of word and picture into a pretzel in order to create one of the outrageous puns he delights in torturing us with. These puns are deeply rooted in verbiage; they don’t need the pictures all that much.

And on the same Sunday (just yesterday, tovarich), Mike Peters perpetrated a similar verbal offense in Mother Goose and Grimm.

It must be contagious.

The joke is verbal, but the visuals have an assignment, too. The cute pictures of Leif Ericson serve a subversive purpose: they divert our attention so we don’t notice until it’s too late that Peters is cobbling up a genuine swine of a pearl to cast before us.

But Derf brings us back to the visual-verbal blend.

John Backderf’s assault on Sarah Livingston Palin is outrageous, no question. The pictures in the first two panels don’t add much to the meaning of the words except in the sense that salt rubbed in a wound increases the discomfort. The picture in the third panel, however, adds a dimension—or, perhaps, a nuance of meaning—to the implication of the caption. But in the last panel, this installment of The City’s punchline, the picture is the final gross-out (and therefor the joke).

So what’s the political message here? That big boobs are essential to a political career?

Outrageous, as I said.

If you want to know more about Derf, you can find more (including an interview) at Brian Miller’s where Miller offers this intelligence: “Derf is the ink-stained madman whose incisive, bawdy, outlandish and consistently hilarious comic strip The City has graced the pages of scores of alternative newsweeklies for nearly two decades. The Ohio-based humorist has drawn a weekly installment of The City since it debuted in 1990, and it has since become one of the country’s most popular alternative toons.”

At this informative website, you can find at least one more Derf strip about boobs and another about Sarah the Palin, whom Derf describes as “the second shooter at Dick Cheney’s quail hunting mishap.”

Until concocting The City, Derf was notorious for attending high school with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, which circumstance Derf regaled us with in his comic book My Friend Dahmer, subsequently praised as being of “genuine interest and quality” after being selected for inclusion by Paul Gravett in Holy Sh*t! The World’s Weirdest Comic Books— according to Wikipedia, which goes on: “Following a brief stint at art school, Derf worked for a year on the back of a garbage truck, an experience that was the basis for his graphic novel, Trashed.”

A year on the back of a garbage truck might well result in the world view and graphic style that dominates The City. Gross, as I say, but hilariously monstrous. Just think: without Derf, we’d have to contemplate Sarah as if she were actually serious.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a more exhaustive examination of how words and pictures blend to achieve the unique meaning of which cartoons (and only cartoons) are capable, you can find it at in the December 12, 2005 installment of Harv’s Hindsight, “Defining Comics Again”; or in one of my books, The Art of the Funnies, which is described at the same site. End of shameless plug (the first, I confess, of almost none). As you’ll see, the “Defining” essay backs away from “defining” comics in favor of simply “describing” them.

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “Visual-Verbal Blending (Sigh)”

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    No one packs grotesque hilarity into every line the way Derf does! ( ) He can make a brick absurdly funny.

    And no cartoonist explores the possibilities of the “visual-verbal blend” more brilliantly than the great Saul Steinberg: