Why Making A Comic “Unfriendly” To Readers Can Work Sometimes – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about webcomics and talk about narrative comics instead. This is mostly because, whilst sorting through some of the stuff in my room, I stumbled across a rather cool graphic novel that I’d forgotten that I owned.

It’s a graphic novel from 2005 called “Silent Hill: Paint It Black” by Scott Ciencin and Shaun Thomas which tells a self-contained story that is based on the disturbing fictional world of the old “Silent Hill” videogames. This article may contain some mild SPOILERS though.

Suddenly discovering this graphic novel was both a cool… and mildly ominous… experience at the same time.

Anyway, one of the most interesting things about this comic is that it is very deliberately designed to be “reader-unfriendly”. In other words, this isn’t the kind of comic that can be read mindlessly in five minutes. And, surprisingly, it’s actually a better comic because it isn’t designed to be easily read.

This decision to make the comic “unfriendly” to readers mostly works because of the context. It wasn’t just a random decision that was made in order to appear “edgy” or “avant-garde”. So, the main lesson here is that context matters a lot when it comes to deciding how ‘reader friendly’ to make your comic. But, let’s look at some of the reasons why it works in the context of this comic.

Firstly, this is a horror comic based on a series of disturbing horror games. As such, the story needs to evoke a feeling of unease in the audience. So, making a comic that can be easily and quickly read without thinking about it too much wouldn’t really work in this comic. By including things like disturbing artwork, an unusual main character, a slightly bizarre storyline etc.. the comic is deliberately designed not to be relaxing.

Secondly, the occasionally bewildering story of the comic works well because it is a brilliant fit with the comic’s main character. The comic follows a homeless artist who ends up travelling to the haunted town of Silent Hill and living there. After a while, it quickly become apparent that he is more comfortable when surrounded by evil monsters than by people.

As such, some of the story’s more confusing and outlandish plot elements (eg: such as the arrival of a bus filled with cheerleaders at one point in the story) work because they make us question whether we’re seeing the “real” world or merely the main character’s anxieties, memories and nightmares. This is also heightened through the use of bizarre visual symbolism too – for example, any visitors to the town of Silent Hill that the main character sees appear as indistinct mannequin-like figures who are dressed in yellow overcoats.

All of this means that the reader also sometimes has to pause for a second to work out what exactly is going on. This approach to narrative is designed to make the reader feel like they’ve been dropped into a strange and dangerous place. If the story was a bit more logical or straightforward, or if the comic explained some of the symbolism a bit more, then this effect would be lost.

Finally, a lot of the art in the comic deliberately looks slightly “unfinished” too (eg: with visible sketching etc..). Not only does this reflect the fact that the main character is an artist but, in a stroke of genius, this “unfinished” art style is also combined with some rather slick-looking digital artwork. This visually-jarring blend of art styles helps to heighten the disturbing atmosphere of the comic surprisingly well.

This is a detail from “Silent Hill: Paint It Black” (2005) which shows how the artist has blended an “unfinished” sketch-like style (eg: the man’s hands and trousers) with more advanced digital effects (eg: the lights in the background)

Yes, the comic could have probably heightened this effect even more by using a more unique style of lettering than the “standard” type of lettering that appears in virtually every print comic. But, this small concession to readability actually sort of works since it focuses the reader’s attention on the events of the story. Even so, a more erratic and/or scrawled style of lettering would have also worked really well.

But, yes, sometimes making a comic “reader unfriendly” can actually work. However, it requires a lot of careful thought in order to get right. Not only do you have to take the context of your comic’s story into account, but you also have to make sure that you have a good reason for every reader-unfriendly thing you include in your comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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