Internal Contrasts And Shock Value In Comics – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Shock Value and comics

Even though this is an article about how to make your comics more dramatic, I’m going to have to start by talking about making my own upcoming webcomic mini series yet again. As usual, there’s a good reason for this. But, if you want to check out my previous mini series (so you can see what I’m talking about), they can be seen here, here, here, here and here.

Anyway, when I was making the seventh comic in this upcoming mini series, I ran into a familiar problem that I’ve had (in various ways) with all of my other mini series. Namely, I started worrying that the comic in question was “too shocking”. By my own standards, it wasn’t even close to “shocking”, but I started worrying about how everyone else would react to it.

The comic in question is a comic about horror movies. Basically, Roz has tricked Harvey into seeing a modern horror movie and he spends the half of the comic grumbling about how old horror movies are better than new ones because they’re less gruesome and less risqué. This is, of course, accompanied by stylised drawings of both types of horror movie.

When I’d finished the comic, I was really proud of the illustrations, but I started to worry that the illustration of a “gruesome” and “risqué” horror movie was “too shocking”. Although I made a few nervous self-censorship changes to the final picture, I was thankfully able to stop myself before I ruined the whole thing. This was mainly because I realised that I’d already self-censored a lot when I was actually making the illustration.

Not only was the illustration a greyscale illustration with a red tint applied to the whole image in post production (to imply the presence of blood without actually showing any), but most of the violence in the image was implied rather than depicted (eg: you see someone swinging a chainsaw at a zombie, but the chainsaw doesn’t actually make contact). These are some of the classic self-censorship tricks and, yet, I was worried that people would think that the picture was “too violent”.

Not only that, the “risqué” parts of the illustration mostly just consisted of the characters wearing less formal (and slightly more revealing) clothes than the characters in the picture of the “old” horror movie do. There was also a small sign in the background with three “X”s on it. This is hardly top-shelf stuff, and yet I was worried about how people would react to it.

Thinking about it logically, it is a ridiculously tame picture. If it appeared in a movie, it probably wouldn’t gain more than a “12” certificate or a “PG-13” certificate. If it appeared as an illustration in a magazine article, no-one would raise an eyebrow. Hell, even “The Simpsons” has probably shown more “shocking” things. I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if someone else had made a similar illustration. And, yet, there I was worrying about whether it was “too shocking” for my comic.

And I think that I know why. It’s all because of internal contrasts.

The image comes across as more “shocking” than it actually is for two reasons. The first is that it appears directly after a rather genteel image of an aristocratic vampire lurching out of a coffin – by contrast, it comes across as more shocking. The second reason is that most of the comics in my previous mini series (and most of the comics in this mini series) don’t include that much horror movie imagery – so, again, it’s more shocking by contrast.

This, of course, is something to bear in mind when you are making comics or writing fiction. In other words, any “shocking” things in your comics or fiction are only shocking because they contrast with other things. After all, people are only shocked when they see something out of the ordinary.

It’s kind of similar to the old idea of “keyed colour” in paintings. Basically, you can make an area of your painting appear lighter or darker than it actually is by making the surrounding area much lighter or darker than the area in question.

The classic example of this can be seen in the old piece of advice about only using four-letter words sparingly in fiction or comics. This isn’t because your audience are dowdy old puritans who faint whenever they hear realistic everyday expressions. It’s because if every other word in your story or comic begins with the letter “F”, then this awesome word loses it’s dramatic value fairly quickly.

If most of the dialogue consists of these words, then they are “ordinary” and they carry less dramatic weight. Whereas, if they only appear a few times, then they stand out more in comparison to the rest of the dialogue.

The same is true for anything “shocking” in the things that you make. Shocking things only have shock value by contrast. A classic example of this can be found in some of the horror/thriller novels written by Ryu Murakami in the 1990s. Objectively speaking, they are actually less gory than most classic splatterpunk horror novels from the 1980s and 1990s are, but they seem more shocking because Murakami only includes one or two gory scenes in his horror novels – and spends most of the novel building up to these scenes.

So, yes, shock value is all about context and contrast.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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