In our image-centric society, graphic narratives are more popular than ever, but for all of their technical advancements the core of the medium remains unchanged, human-drawn stories about primary-colored heroes. The tradition even predates comics. Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages featured brightly colored stories of saints in the margins for those who couldn’t read. In Ancient Greece, structures like the Parthenon featured stories of Greek heroes facing Amazons, centaurs, and giants in brightly painted metopes (sequential panels that ran along the top of the structure). Even in the prehistoric cave art of Lascaux and Altamira we find colorful depictions of humans overcoming physical obstacles of nature.
Beyond the story and the idea of a hero, the visual appeal is partly in the artificial nature of a drawn image. When we read about a person in words, we picture a real person. A false representation such as a drawing evokes the uncanny, a sense of familiarity beyond the familiar. The effect is increased over a series of linked panels that suggest movement without actually showing it. Readers are immersed in a new universe. They have an understanding of its occurrences but lack the moment to moment actualization of its time and place. The result is a subconscious sense of allure and probability just outside the reach of the logical mind.
The rest of the visual appeal comes from textual materiality, which is a scholarly phrase for the physical nature of the medium. Cave paintings were created on the uneven surface of rocks and painted in the brightest pigments available to show up in dancing, shadow-producing torchlight. The experience would have been different than looking at images on Google. Similar observations can be made for Greek sculpture and illuminated manuscripts. And comic books have their own distinct appeal through their unique materiality.
Bright primary colors were used when comics began for both ease of printing and to catch a reader’s eye. Consider the psychological effect of the colors seen on the first superhero, Superman. The blue suit causes a reader’s body to produce calming chemicals, inducing trust in the hero. The red cape, however, added to simulate movement, stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. And the effect of color doesn’t stop there. Virtually all color printing is done with yellow, cyan (blue), magenta (red) and black. All other colors are made up of dots of those four, the white of the paper, and a process in the brain that makes us see a merged color as the result. Visual scientists hypothesize that in printing such as comics this process in the brain also causes the illusion of movement. So in addition to the psychological effects of the uncanny artificial and mood inducing colors, readers experience the subconscious sense of movement on the page.
For the most part, these effects carry over to the latest innovation of digital comics. Whatever the pages may lose in the digital picture display, they gain in the reader’s ability to zoom in on panels and swipe back and forth. Our technology continues to focus on images because we are image driven beings. The appeal of visual storytelling has remained the same from cavemen scrawling on rocks to modern graphic novels. Whether you read a comic book today or enjoy or a virtual reality tomorrow, take notice of your physical and emotional responses to increase your appreciation of storytelling through a timeless medium.