Hey, Wait… was Norwegian cartoonist Jason’s first book published in English (2001). It is organized around an isolated tragic event that will resonate, by contrast, with the banality of everyday episodes found throughout the book and the protagonist’s life.
Hey, Wait... presents a varied collection of strategies which help express emptiness and lack of meaning; the metaphorical use of silences and visual minimalism are two of these, and will become frequent in the author’s repertory in the following books. Meaninglessness, though, can also be expressed by adopting an aesthetics of visual excess (since both lack and overload can be equally menacing to the production of meaning). In this specific page, this is done at a typographical level.
As a general norm, lettering in comics tends to avoid the mechanical typographic effect presenting, rather, something closer to the gesture of drawing (even if it is mechanically generated to emulate human trace). This happens because it is precisely the unstable dynamics and random vibration of the trace that, according to Philip Marion, would function as the “voice”, the fragility that would charge the drawing with its expressive force (1993: 55).
At the same time, lettering in comics also normally seeks to emulate some form of standardization for the sake of readability and narrative homogeneity (even if in manuscript form). The tension between these two effects (manuscript and typography) would be manipulated and dosed according to the desired level of proximity with the reader (Marion, 1993: 57), among other things.
There are situations in which the preference for a purely mechanical typography can be used with expressive goals, as a strategy to achieve a specific effect: colours, typefaces, letter spacing, width, shapes, etc. can be used to suggest personality variations, change in moods, volume, pitch, nationality and so on. And that’s the case here.
The situation presented, as in most of the pages from this book, is very ordinary: a classroom, a teacher and students. The text inside the balloons, though, is nothing like what we usually expect from a speech balloon, a space conventionally reserved to oral language. First, the extreme regularity of mechanically reproduced letters is very similar to a textbook regarding the choice of fonts (serified), size (small), layout (crowded). Besides, there are no margins: the balloons are densely occupied by words, with no space for “breathing”.
The standardization of typography and regularity of the layout only reinforces the feeling of monotony experienced by the students (who prefer, for example, to draw Batman as a form of distraction). The discrepancy between text layout and balloon and the visual similarities with the printed book signal a distance from oral discourse, hinting to a not so engaging oratory by the professor.
Although we can still have an idea of the subject (something related to Indian history), readability is highly compromised: what is offered to the reader are not completed sentences, but fragments, chopped sentences, as in a collage from a book. From that point of view, the chunks of words occupy predominantly an iconic function rather than a linguistic one.
Later in the book, Jason employs the same resource to show a conversation between colleagues in the factory. This time, the text layout emulates another printed form – a newspaper column of baseball scores and statistics. The words inside the balloon, of course, do not correspond to the words pronounced by the characters. Again, readability is compromised and words are so tiny they are barely recognizable, but the layout, on the contrary, is very familiar, and brings enough information about the conversation’s possible content (and how conventional and based on clichés it is). Match results are just another excuse for making up conversation, as trivial as weather forecasts.
What happens in these two examples is that the visual organization of text inside the balloons destabilizes reading expectations of comics form by borrowing conventions from other printing design formats. In these balloons, the usual illusion of an oral discourse – disguised by a human trace – is replaced by purely mechanical text and saturated design, calling attention to the materiality of printing.
The reader is left with two options: either ignore the verbal text, interpreting the group of words as a recognizable layout (and this sounds the most reasonable one), or try to read it, but, in that case, the immersive game of fiction would be disturbed, promoting disengagement, and defying readers’ patience and attention, just like the students’ in the classroom.
Jason (2001) Hey, Wait… (Seattle: Fantagraphics)
Kannenbeg Jr., G. (2001) “Graphic Text, Graphic Context: Interpreting Custom Founds and Hands in Contemporary Comics.” Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation. Eds. Paul Gutjahr, and Megan Benton. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press)
Marion, P. (1993) Traces en cases travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur (Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia).