The Shortcomings of Words

I love print fiction but, sometimes when I’m reading a good graphic novel or manga, I find myself envying those who work in an illustrated format. There really is some truth to the proverb, “One picture is worth more than a thousand words.”

Here. Let’s grab a manga off a nearby shelf. Fruits Basket, volume one. Black and white, so we don’t have the complication of color.

Open at random. Page 11. Pick a panel. Top right. What do we find?

Tohru’s mother curled up on a floor mat next to the toddler Tohru, telling her a bedtime story. Mom wears a mini-dress, long-sleeved, covered in flowers. Her legs are covered in either tinted tights or stockings. Her hair is loose and falls to between her shoulder blades. Her head is resting on her bent arm, hand extended behind; her knees are comfortably crooked.

Tohru is tucked into bed. Her eyes are angled toward her mother. She wears a little smile of anticipation. Her blanket is flowered, but in a different pattern than her mother’s dress. The mat and cover are obviously thick and cushiony.

The atmosphere is of love and comfort. Those are joyful flowers. This is a relaxed and happy place. These are people completely comfortable with themselves and with each other.

And all this in (grab ruler, take rough measure) two inches by three and a half inches of space.

Not all manga (or comics in general) are so evocative. However, as a prose writer, I sometimes find myself looking at a fight scene—whether a duel or a mighty battle—and sighing as I think how very many words I would need to tell what can be told so very vividly in a handful of splashy panels.

And yet…

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there’s nothing like words for taking you right into a character’s head, even to make you that character for the time you’re immersed in the story.

There’s no question of what the character is like. The writer gives you some details, but you provide the rest. Those characters are yours, and yours alone.

Perhaps for this very reason, if I like a book, I’ll hardly ever see the movie. By then, it is a rare performer who can top what my imagination has come up with.

I did see the three Lord of the Rings movies, which I wouldn’t have, except that Jim (my husband) really wanted to do so. Although the characters didn’t look precisely as I had imagined they would, I didn’t find myself having a negative reaction. Afterwards, I realized why.

I’m young enough that visual adaptations of those stories have been part of the landscape as long as I can remember. I’d been exposed to other people’s ideas of what Frodo or Gandalf or whoever looked like. In a sense, I was conditioned in advance to accept yet another interpretation.

I don’t have the same reaction to manga made into anime as I do to novels made into movies. In fact, several manga/anime that I have enjoyed in both forms—Saiyuki and Revolutionary Girl Utena to name two off the top of my head—have plot lines that diverge so radically from each other that they eventually become almost different stories. But this doesn’t bother me in the least.

Perhaps this is because I always had someone else’s version of the characters in front of me. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine live actors playing those characters. They need the flexibility offered by being drawn. In fact, one of the great advantages of manga is the encoded, non-verbal symbol system that joins with pictures and text to add depth to the story.

Now that I think of these three variants—movies (all picture), manga/comics (picture, text, symbol), novels (all words)—I realize that I prefer at least some written text to no text at all. Yet, if a picture truly was worth a thousand words, I should prefer movies over everything else.

Maybe words aren’t as limiting as I sometimes wistfully find myself thinking, especially when forced to tell in a linear format events going on in simultaneous chaos. Words build a bridge between the imaginations of writer and reader, creating something unique between them.

Does a picture equal 1,000 words, as has been said, or do those words bring something extra, something intangible, to the tale told?

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