whoosh lines, strokes and metaphors in 20thC illustration

(Some twenty years ago), Kennedy, Green and Vervaeke wrote an interesting article in which they considered the history of whoosh lines and strokes to indicate actions or sensory experiences in comic illustration of the 20th Century. Their interest in this article was to argue that such lines draw on cultural metaphors, blending the realist and the figurative to communicate with modern audiences. It’s an interesting article. Some interesting passages include:

“Gombrich (1960) […] noted that there hardly is a picture-panel story to be found that does not have a few convenient strokes standing for motions […]. As fans of comics throughout the world must know, the strokes stand for smells, surprise, tension, and more. Gombrich commented on these devices that “there can be no question of realism” or “naturalistic representation.” The aim of this article is to consider these devices as metaphors, contrasting with literal or naturalistic representation.” (p.243)

One of the most popular and yet exotic and curious features of drawings today – a feature that is only widespread in 20th-century illustration – is the added graphic, which are the stroke or strokes around a comic-strip actor. These strokes may indicate paths of actions as precisely as trails along a muddy path or wakes in water that reveal the passage of an animal. They belong literally in some locations, but they are being shown in situations where they would not ordinarily appear, in empty air rather than on soft surfaces.  Miller (1990) described “whoosh lines” that show the trajectory of an otherwise static limb as a pictorial convention we have learned to read or interpret. He commented that a naive spectator might take them to be threads or pennants attached to an upraised arm. Many of these devices are not understood by naive subjects, for example, African people with little exposure to comics (Duncan, Gourlay, & Hudson, 1973; Winter, 1963). They are commonly misidentified (e.g., as lines standing for sticks or edges of objects) by people from a nonpictorial culture.” (pp.244-245)

“Brooks (1977) noted that action lines are not arbitrary; for example, they are not like language put alongside a figure to explain what it is doing. Vertical lines, she suggested, do not portray horizontal movement. This is not a good example because vertical lines may be used like a trail of postures, or “multiple images” in Carello et al.’s (1986) terms, to show that a vertical surface (e.g., an edge of a door) is moving. This device was used repeatedly in “The Flash,” a U.S. comic, and “The Eagle,” a British comic (where in the 1950s it was used to show the motion of the Black Cat space vehicle). But Brooks’s basic point is surely correct; the devices are not arbitrary.” (p.246)

Interestingly, a revolution in depicting action occurred during the 19th century, with action lines coming into common currency. The developments in action photography and action devices in drawings may be closely intertwined, with some photographic effects, as they became familiar the use of features such as the blur as pictorial devices for action.” (p.247)

“Comic-strip devices that show events of many kinds are now found in publications throughout the world. The spread of these devices, and their ready acceptance, calls for a psychological explanation, not just a historical one. Agreeably, they do provide information, which shows a kind of trail in the air, for example. But also they seem to be misunderstood by young children. In our observations, the devices are not generally explained to children. Their appreciation of the devices is reached spontaneously, individually, with children comprehending on their own what they must mean. Verbal metaphors have this character, too. They are often blankly puzzling to the young (Winner, 1988). Even though children can be brought to think metaphorically by suitable juxtapositions of objects (Dent-Read & Szokolszky, this issue), metaphoric lines seem to be appreciated late in childhood, and we suggest that they are generally figured out spontaneously by each child.
Action lines were not the sole use for the strokes accompanying actors and events in comics. Many uses arose in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Lines radiating from a person may mean pain or surprise or a tender spot, for example. Radiating from the mouth, they typically mean shouting. They may also mean a sneeze or a cough. They are used to mean shiny (and so attention getting) or to highlight a space where something may happen (and so attention is due) or to show that something may have disappeared from the space (and again, attention is due). The common thread is the importance of attention being drawn to the location.” (p.249)

I think it is worth noting here that this article was written before the internet became such the norm for children that it is today. Even before television imagery became as complex as it now is. Similar studies reiterated now might actually prove the point, in that children are getting many more opportunities to make sense of these things much earlier. There are also a number of more recent studies challenging the age at which children make sense of metaphor.

Tropes also use parallel systems of classification. “Lawyers are the sharks of business” implies, perhaps unjustly, that those nice people in the legal profession have the same role in their world as predators of the sea. Parallels of this kind are matters of course in caricature. The use of trails left in air in comics showing motion is a kind of parallelism. The trails are derived from another context where surfaces, not just air, were present. Also, showing pain by radiating lines may be a kind of parallelism.” (p.253)

I wonder how different cultures use such whoosh lines?

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) John M Kennedy, Christopher D Green and John Vervaeke (1993) ‘Metaphoric Thought and Devices in Pictures’  Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 8(3), pp.243-255

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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