One of the ways in which comics can be defined is as a combining of words and pictures in order to form a narrative. But what happens when the words are taken away?
The following five comics are all ‘silent’, by which I mean without word balloons, narration or thought bubbles (sound effects are still allowed). Often used in tales where dislocation or surrealism are key elements, wordless comics can also focus on playing on strong emotional reactions as there’s one less thing intellectually separating the reader and the characters. With silent comics, the reader’s involvement becomes deeper and more active, as you have to bring so much more to putting together a story without the guiding hand that words provide.
If you’re looking for a ‘reading’ experience that’s a bit out of the ordinary and will flex parts of your brain you didn’t know you had - here are five examples of amazing silent comics.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
The Arrival is a book that contains serious, and often quite dark, subject matter, but is totally understandable and relatable to readers of all ages. Chased from their home by unknown forces, a man travels to a strange land to create a new life for his family.
Tan uses surrealism to represent the immense and overwhelming confusion which a new arrival would feel in a strange land and transforms a narratively simple tale of displacement, immigration and integration into a sometimes disturbing visual feast. The removal of speech allows the allegory to speak all the more loudly; without placing his characters in a specific world or even providing them with names or nationalities, Tan’s immigration fable can be understood without political or national overtones. His mixture of pages of small panels with double-page spreads crammed with surreal details means that the reader, like the new arrival, experiences the dislocation of moving from claustrophobic offices and bureaucracy to wide expanses of chaotic cityscapes. The tale of the immigrant is universal and The Arrival tells that story with heart, beauty and a touching understanding and sweetness.
At the other end of the scale from Shaun Tan’s dense and atmospheric pencils is Gustavo Duarte’s Monsters and Other Stories.
Duarte uses clean linework and sparing colours combined with a sharp eye for graphic design to create light, breezy pages, which heighten the surreal and darkly comic nature of this collection. His use of matte blue against clean white backgrounds gives this book a look unlike anything else on the shelves.
The three stories in Monsters feature a man who turns into a pig, the tale of two birds and their run-in with death and the titular story, in which a fisherman takes on three enormous, rampaging kaiju. Duarte gives a masterclass in visual comedy excelling in expressive faces, grotesque creations and comedic timing. Small comic details and beautifully laid-out pages make words totally redundant to have you laughing along with this one.
If you’d told me a while back that I would be not only reading, but enjoying, a comic where Godzilla takes a Dantean trip through the underworld vanquishing old foes I probably would have... well, I’m quite open minded so I imagine I would have been fine with it.
It seems only to make sense that a comic starring Godzilla would be silent; the big guy’s always been the main event, and whatever human subplot is going on, it is only ever there as an distraction. Who needs all that chatter when all you want is that iconic roar? In Godzilla in Hell the eponymous kaiju takes centre stage, but even here, where silence makes so much sense, the combination of the eerie hellscapes combines with the lack of words to create a book that’s alien, isolating and oppressive. We feel for Godzilla in his struggles. And then he fights another big monster and we cheer.
From what is essentially a giant dinosaur to the real thing: Richard Delgado’s Age of Reptiles is a series that depicts the harsh, brutal life of when dinosaurs ruled the earth.
Of course, it makes total sense for a comic about dinosaurs not to have speech, but to remove narrative and descriptive text as well - allowing the artwork to speak for itself - is a brave move. But Delgado’s faith in his art is not misplaced. His vibrant pages are packed with detail. They recall nothing more than the late Victorian paintings of the land before time, showing landscapes teeming with fantastic and monstrous creatures. Yet, instead of simply exhibiting an imagined prehistory, Delgado brings the world of the dinosaurs to life and fills it with a sympathetic and understandable cast. You’ll pick sides, boo at villains, cheer our hero, and barely remember that they’re just big lizards.
French comic artist and filmmaker, Winshluss, doesn't have many books on the shelves, but his tour de force Pinocchio is a visually stunning book, displaying what I feel is a quintessentially French mixture of satire, pathos and grotesquery.
The book follows the titular Pinocchio on his quest for humanity, but this is no wooden puppet with a good fairy and a happy insect, but rather a robot designed for war, guided by nobody; lost in a world both brutal and surreal. Pinocchio confronts all the vices, sins and hypocrisy imaginable and his journey is enough to bring the reader to tears.
Admittedly, including this book is a bit of a cheat as, while the bulk of the book is wordless, exacerbating the confusion and disconnectedness Pinocchio feels, it is also intercut with the story of Jiminy Cricket. This foul-talking, hard-drinking bug moves into Pinocchio’s head and proceeds to drink heavily and wax philosophical. These comic interludes heighten the loneliness of Pinocchio’s struggle and make you feel for the little guy all the more.
By the time the curtain closes on his journey, you’ll want to take Pinocchio home, wrap him up warm and protect him from all the evils of the world. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and Pinocchio’s expression of wide-eyed innocence speaks volumes.
When not slaving away at his day job as the comics and graphic novels buyer forForbiddenPlanet, Jamie (@jjbeeching) is reading all the comics he can while desperately try to improve himself. Since graduating from uni and living in Hong Kong for a year, he has done nothing of note.