Focal Point: Methods of Emphasis in the Comics Medium


For this post, I made a more detailed version of my disassembly to talk about how sometimes subtle differences in a graphic novel’s artwork can drastically change its meaning.  The changes that I made also raise questions about remediation and shift the balance between which artistic medium is emphasized.  I focused on one of the last scenes in Watchmen when Ozymandius essentially blackmails the rest of the Watchmen into keeping quiet and not telling the rest of the world that he murdered millions of people.  In a lot of ways, it’s the most important scene in the graphic novel and the story’s culmination.  The panel I disassembled was this one:

Disassembly original

It’s an intentionally busy image.  Ozymandius is drawn as an imposing, agressive figure, which helps to emphasize the newfound power he has over the Watchmen.  The T.V. images behind him are visually overwhelming.  I think this panel is masterfully done as the sense of scale and chaos of Veidt’s actions is metaphorically represented in the artwork itself.  In my opinion, expressing visual metaphors like this is one of the big strengths of Watchmen.  The original disassembly I did looked like this:

Disassembly altered

Without the text and images on the T.V.’s, the panel loses its stregnth.  In terms of what it does for the story, not having the T.V. images completely derails the plot.  I think it’s a testament to Watchmen’s artistic prowess that a single image can do so much for the narrative.

So if the disassembled image lost its strength, what was making it strong in the first place?  Before I altered the image there was a huge visual contrast between the T.V. screens and Ozy.  I think this basic visual contrast is what the reader processes before he recognizes more specific features of the image.  By having a bright background contrasted with a dark foreground, Ozy came off as sinister.  In the altered image, both background and foreground are relatively dark, so Ozy blends in with the rest of the image a bit and as a result looks much less threatening.  Taking away the text also severely diminishes the image’s narrative power and again makes Ozy appear less threatening.

I also played with color inversion to try to make the image more dramatic.  This technique is used a lot in manga to emphasize key panels (which makes it our first example of remediation.)  I came up with two different versions, one where everything is inverted and another where Ozy still has his normal color scheme and everything else is inverted.  Here are both of them:


Personally, I think the second image is more effective because Veidt seems to stand out from the background more, but both the images are dramatic.

Something I find interesting about comics is that the sense of focus is established through color choices and the placement of images as opposed to a more natural, “photographic” kind of focus.  In a comic, the whole image is perfectly visible.  While this gives comics their own look and feel, I wish some graphic novel artists would start experimenting with a more realistic way of focusing images because it would add an original sense of perspective and would be an original way of emphasizing what really matters in an image.  Even comics I’ve seen that are drawn from a first-person point of view don’t have this hyper-realistic feature.  This is the kind of thing I’m talking about:


I interpreted the panel as being from Dr. Manhattan’s point of view, as Veidt is talking to Dr. Manhattan.  Veidt is just now revealing the images on the T.V.’s, so I thought that Dr. Manhattan’s attention would naturally focus to them.  Choosing to bring the text out of focus was something I played around with and I ultimately decided that it was a good way to show the overpowering nature of the T.V. images.  Going back to the idea of remediation, when an image is focused in this way (which is artificial for the comics medium), it incorporates a feature of photography.  This is sort of a strange example of remediation because while comics naturally adopted some elements of mis en scene (space, composition, lighting) from photography, copying the photographic sense of focus isn’t intuitive at all and it seems to defy some key visual laws of the comics medium.   If remediation is usually defined as a new medium borrowing from an older one early on, it might be better to label this “reverse remediation” or something along those lines.  Even though photographic focusing is unconventional, I still think it’d be really interesting to see some graphic novel artists experiment with it.

  3 comments for “Focal Point: Methods of Emphasis in the Comics Medium

  1. February 24, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    First of all, this is a really cool demonstration of how the deconstructive approach can yield insight into how a text works. I especially like your final transformation where:

    I interpreted the panel as being from Dr. Manhattan’s point of view, as Veidt is talking to Dr. Manhattan. Veidt is just now revealing the images on the T.V.’s, so I thought that Dr. Manhattan’s attention would naturally focus to them.

    You call attention to the specific optical situation for the story as it unfolds, and you end up using a film-derived technique (focus) to create a narrative focalization. And really, you reveal by exaggeration how this method was already in place in the original comic.

    Incidentally, Ozy’s wall of TVs always reminds me of Nam June Paik’s installation piece, Megatron / Matrix, which is up at the Smithsonian. You’ve really got to experience it in person to get the full effect, but it’s interesting how Ozymandias’ wall-of-TVs reflection on Burroughs (beginning of Ch. XI) sort of places his TVs along the same aesthetic trajectory as Paik’s.

  2. joshroberts
    March 14, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    Thanks for the good feedback! I’m just now reading your comment, so sorry for the late reply. I’d like to see Nam June Paik’s installation piece in person. I wonder if the artist took any inspiration from Ozy’s wall of TVs. Anyway, it seems like a great piece of art as well as a fresh commentary on the information age.

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