Look at that happy dude above this sentence. Born from a couple keystrokes, they’re nothing more than a colon and half a parenthesis.
And now they’ve winked at you. Since graphic designer Harvey Ball invented the yellow smiley face in 1963, the smiley has become a ubiquitous part of our culture. At its core, however, the smiley face is not a face. It’s a couple of dots and a line, sometimes encased in a circle. These dots and lines work because humans naturally seek out patterns. We recognize the dots as eyes and the line as a mouth, and we think “hey that looks like a dude”.
A smiley face is an example of an “icon”. According to Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, an icon is “any image used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea” (27). Every face on the page, every tree in the background, even the speech bubbles in the panel are all icons — images serving as placeholders for tangible things.
These images, “designed to actually resemble their subjects” (27), vary in detail and depiction. They can range from the concrete (consider a detailed portrait or lifelike drawing of a tree) to the abstract (the classic smiley face). McCloud illustrates this range with a pyramid — “a comprehensive map of the universe called comics” (51).
On the left side of the pyramid rests the realm of reality. The farther left you go, the more you will find photorealistic sketches, featuring characters like Flash Gordon from Flash Gordon, the Vision from Marvel Comics, and Tarzan from Tarzan of the Apes. On the right lies the world of abstraction and meaning, with the smiley face sitting in the corner. Moving away from the smiley, you find characters including Fone Bone from Jeff Smith’s Bone Chronicles, Tintin from Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin, and Charlie Brown from Charles Schultz’ Peanuts. The tip of the pyramid represents the picture plane, “where shapes, lines and colors can be themselves and not pretend otherwise” (51). Basically, the top of the pyramid serves as a place where no meaning is assigned to shapes — a dot is just a dot instead of a smiley face’s eye.
An artist can achieve different goals depending on their drawing style, and each end of the pyramid provides a particular benefit. With a realistic style, the images represent specific things more effectively, leaving less room for interpretation. This audience will be seeing the same thing more objectively.
On the other hand, an audience will project themselves onto abstract drawings. With abstract art, the audience can connect their lives to the work because there’s space to fill in the gaps with people they recognize. Simplicity through abstraction helps the artist obtain universality.
When selecting an art style for a comic, the question lies in the detail. Do you want the audience to see things as they presented, and develop their opinions on the story itself? Or would you prefer the audience to see themselves reflected in the actions of the characters, and identify with your protagonists?
Of course, if written well, all of these things should hypothetically be obtainable regardless of art style. But the consideration of icons is another tool to help you achieve these objectives, and adopting one style over another can align your comics with the concepts you present in your writing.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.