3 years ago, I expressed my desire to collect and identify the visual-literary devices specific to the comics medium. More than 50 devices later, it’s becoming a Thing.
I recently secured a Teaching Fellowship with the Sequential Artists Workshop. What this means is that I can talk about it more openly aka I can start doing documentation. I have never documented a non-comics project before, so this is going to be interesting. Nevertheless…
This ‘taxonomy of comics devices’ – which is what other people have called my project – has been haunting me for quite a long time.
I had talked about it before whenever the topic of comics as NOT a genre appears, but for the most part I was quietly doing research: DMing myself comics pages and giving names to patterns, and putting them in a proto-website on the Notion app. I didn’t want to document the research on Twitter as I was turned off from using it as a host for information; Twitter’s function as an archive and knowledge repository sucks… like, it wasn’t even meant to do that. Anyone who struggled with trying to look for a Twitter thread they didn’t save will get why. It would not be wise of me then to recreate that contract of unreliable reliance for myself and my readers for this taxonomy. (Note: With what’s happened to Twitter in 2023, I was right in this suspicion)
So for years I kept to myself… until early April 2023, when things came to a head: the Notion proto-website was bugging (I keep hitting the image file size limit), the list had grown to over 40, the official name for the taxonomy finally came to me, and I felt this sinking suspicion that I was hitting a knowledge gap. The project’s grown to such a size that I needed outside help, which meant I needed a website, which meant…
I bought the URL and set it up the way I usually set up my other sites.
Then spent a couple of days determining the site’s aesthetic as an internet encyclopedia. Internet encyclopedias tend to look very utilitarian with strong elements of Web 1.0 (which makes sense: Web 1.0 was the era of internet as an information superhighway). Information is central to the design, with enough clarity to railroad you into finding the stuff you need easily and enough freedom for you to get sucked into rabbit holes. The best ones have no ads, the worst ones are chaos with a thousand pop-ups. (Looking at you, Fandom)
Some of my favourite designs for this type of website.
I was thinking of a two-column affair for the taxonomy, kinda like how Khan Academy does it, with the fixed scroll table of contents on the left, and the contents on the right. I could code this in HTML5 too… but I have no time. One day I will revamp the code to work as HTML/CSS; for now it’s a drag-and-drop builder situation.
I wanted a minimalist, yet unsterile retro look; which is just as well since blocky, colorful sites are having a moment.
I settled on a look and colour scheme reminiscent of a risograph zine: pink, blue, purple and cream – with dots, a handwritten header, and thick borders for that aesthetic connection to comics. Devices are listed in grids with name, definition and most importantly, a featured image that visually defines what the devices are.
The featured image – what I call “thumbnails” – is the backbone of the taxonomy. On an aesthetic level, the thumbnail has to match the rest of the site’s design and be appealing. At the same time, it operating crucially and seriously as an image that carries knowledge.
Much like how stained glass windows tell the story of the Bible without the peasant church-goer needing to have read the Bible (or even possess literacy), or how IKEA pictorially guides you on the intricacies of table building regardless of your mother tongue, the thumbnail is the device itself and its explanation.
I think the thumbnails themselves are both the reason and evidence for why a comics taxonomy (and many kinds of scholarship in comics studies) benefits highly from the involvement of a comics creator. Beyond the benefit of the production of a cohesive and appealing aesthetic for the project, the specialised knowledge that I have – as illustrator and comics creator – enables me to transform verbal definitions into an iconic, representative image that distill the definition to its most core and clear (exactly like how comics are made). Drawing my own material adds authenticity as well – every part of the taxonomy has the touch and perspective of a practising comics creator.
There are still other design issues that I need to resolve, i.e a critic friend of mine wants me to clarify the direction of how a new visitor approaches the site. But overall, I am very happy with the look of the taxonomy.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.
Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
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French Book Tour, January 2024