It's not about the breasts.

So, yesterday's post got a ludicrous number of hits, and a small minority of the visitors stayed to actually read what I said.

Which was nice.

But looking at the two comments I got (and some "behind the scenes" feedback) I think I may have shot myself in the foot with that title. The first commenter thought that I was offended by the size of Monica's breasts and the second thought I was objecting to it or complaining about it.

Paul Taylor sent me a brief and polite email where he seemed a lot more interested in my criticism of his slightly disjointed storytelling than of his use of visual cues. Which is fair enough.

I happen to be a fan of Taylor's work. My daughter has a poster of this image on her wall. I wanted her to have it because I think it both showcases Taylor's talent for composition and colour and for the distinctiveness of his style, and is a terrific representation of female body confidence. Somehow he has painted two young women who are sexy, not because they are suggesting that they are available, but because the make me want to get to know them.

If it's not about the breasts, what is it about? It's about symbolism. As usual, I'm going to try and fail to avoid being pompous and intellectual.

In 1957 the French critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes published an influential and important book, Mythologies. The central thesis of Mythologies is that in visual media (he concentrates in particular on cinema) there is an established language of visual cues that he calls "signs". I have already mentioned this in another post. Russian theatrical experimenter Vsevolod Meyerhold developed a system for actors intented to make them hyper aware of their every movement and gesture, because, he maintained, everything the audience can see has meaning for them. Therefore, actors should not even move unintentionally, knowing that every movement will mean something to someone watching. By extension, movement and gesture can then become a means of active and deliberate communication.

These are two examples of visual language.

In textual fiction (novels, novellas, short stories, epic poetry, etc), visual language also exists. It is present in obvious forms such as simile, metaphor and emblem. But it is also present in a more pervasive and less obvious form: symbolism. Imagine a Regency novel about the rise and subsequent fall of a country gentleman. All the major events in the story take place in and around a water mill. The reader gradually builds up a mental picture of the mill, and through careful writing, the author ensures that the wheel becomes more and more dominant in that mental picture. The wheel is of course a symbolic representation of the medieval idea of the "Wheel of Fortune" - an idea that is still a resilient element of our culture.

Comics and graphic novels are a mixed medium. The use both text and pictures - and many of them use both textual and visual examples of visual language.

So getting back to Wapsi Square. In my opinion, and he can object if he wants to, Paul Taylor is creating art. If I feel that at the moment his visual talent is more developed than his storytelling talent, it isn't to say that there isn't clear evidence that both are improving and developing. And I feel that his style is now doing a disservice to his message in some cases.

Let me contrast this with another webcomic, where the creator keeps his symbolism simpler, but is, in a way, delivering the same general message.

Consider J.E. Draft's Zona. Draft is properly unashamed about his adulation for the female body, but his artistic style is derived from his medium. In my opinion he has made his own life very difficult by chusing to use Poser to create scenes and then adding detail, effects and subtlety to them in a (sometimes complex and time-consuming) post production phase. However, using Poser gives an impression of realism.

Draft is also a good story teller. Zona moves forward at a generally even pace, it has solid plot construction and steady internal coherence. One thing that comes across very strongly is that the worlds (there are two) in which it is set are well thought out, and highly detailed. It has it's weaknesses, but they aren't germane.

Probably the first thing you will notice, however, is that the central characters undermine the standard male
 fantasy archetypes - while still playing along. It's a clever piece of tightrope walking that I suspect comes naturally to Draft. The two main characters are the titular Zona and Mentl.

They are a loving and affectionate couple, and Draft is not afraid of showing it. Zona is extremely buxom, but it is she who is tall, muscular and powerful - she even has a big, masculine jaw. Mentl is short, a little on the skinny side, and has a face that is very far from being "conventionally handsome". Indeed, all of Mentl's attractiveness is in his personality. He is non-confrontational, sensitive, honest, kind, loyal. The third regular character is Zona's sister, Tula. Also drawn as an "Amazon", she isn't nearly as tall and muscular as Zona. But Tula is the smart one. Indeed, Tula is a genius.

In other words, the major characteristics of the male power fantasy archetype, physical and mental prowess, have been given to the main female protagonists. One might argue that characteristics that are stereotypically (for which read, "not always true") female have been assigned to the male protagonist.

Are the women sexualized? Yes, but. And it is a big but and you have to read the whole comic to realize why. The culture that Zona and Tula come from is one where many human interactions are sexualized. It is a culture that is completely without sexual reserve of any kind, which occasionally makes Mentl uncomfortable.

So, does Draft take that to its logical conclusion?

Draft's message is simple and plain: people's good qualities are complementary. Match the right people with the right variety of qualities and they can achieve great things. And most of all: you can't tell because of someone's gender what qualities they will possess.

In exactly the same way as Taylor, Draft is telling his reader that prejudice is of very little practical use.

Draft and Taylor take different approaches in artistic technique, and in their use of visual language.

Draft's apparent realism means that there is little risk that his visual language will be misconstrued. However his celebration of sexuality may offend some people, and the pleasure he takes in representing semi-naked women may lead those who don't read his comic to believe that he is just another Neanderthal.

Taylor's stylization leads him to a completely different risk. That his visual cues may be dissonant with his message. It's a difficult target to hit, especially when he is sometimes aiming to be dissonant.


I'm still not completely confident that I will have managed to make myself understood. But remember, this blog is supposed to be for writers, to make them more sensitive to technique, so that they can better understand and improve their craft.

And finally, thank you to both commenters. Noone should ever feel that they daren't voice their honest reaction.

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