Reading Like a Writer: Pictures and Words and The Ticking

Posted on Mon, Sep 21 2015 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


I've always wanted to write about a graphic novel in this space. Even though the column is about words, I thought maybe I could make it, once, about pictures.

And then I read Renée French's The Ticking. It's a graphic novel about a boy born with facial irregularities and the strange relationship he has with his father, who tries to protect him in misguided ways. The Ticking does some amazing things with pictures—the kind of things that writers (of the non-graphic variety) hope to do with words.

When we first meet Edison, it's through a drawing of his face. His eyes are placed very far apart, on the side of his head, rather than in the front, but this doesn't strike me as a deformity. Instead, I think it's simply the way characters look in this world. I don't mean that I necessarily take it to be a fantastical world, but I think it's a stylized depiction. In the first two-page spread, made up of four panels, the only face shown is Edison's. In its unique proportions, I become accustomed to it.

Then I turn the page. I meet the boy's father, whose eyes are in a more traditional place. And this—the starkly different face of the father—is how I know the boy is odd.

The effect is visceral. This world is not as it first appeared, not as I've come to know it. My first view of this book's world is through Edison's intimate, even somewhat claustrophobic, perspective. With the introduction of a "normal" face, the paradigm shifts to let in a bigger reality. When I see what a "regular" face looks like—it's like getting slugged in the stomach. And because I've had just enough time to identify with Edison, to become loyal to him, the normal face is the frightening one.

This shift happens so quickly—with just a few drawings—but it reverses my idea of monstrosity quite profoundly.

Even more important, it mimics the way the character learns about himself. He's born and he just is. He's normal. He can only learn later that he's different. He can only become different when he's compared to someone else.

And there's something else about the father. There are marks on his face—scars—in the place where the boy's eyes are. The marks look like eyes that have been drawn in pencil then erased. So it's apparent that the father was born the same way as Edison but has been surgically altered.

What a lot of story that is! We learn years of generational history through a few smudged shapes. They tell us of the father's past. They also hint at what might be in store for the boy. And there's genius in how it's shown so quickly, without a hitch in the forward momentum of the boy's story.

The timing of this revelation—with its backstory and foreshadowing—is key. Another writer might have introduced the father first. Often, the more forward thrust you can create in a story, the better. And it would set up the family history before Edison's appearance. But French's order of revelation is exactly right because we get to meet the boy on his own terms. Without the baggage of his genetics, without any expectations, we identify more strongly with him.

Of course my analysis is complicated—and also made more clear—by the way we read graphic texts. When we read a text with only words, we read them in a fixed order. We've trained our eyes, mostly, to start at the beginning and to process one word at a time, with minimal skipping, in the sequence that the writer dictates. But a graphic text has multiple entry points. We can choose to start with the words or start with the pictures or jump between them. There's nothing, except perhaps habit, that forces us to begin at the top left of the page. And an artist might purposefully draw our eyes to a starting point somewhere else.

In a graphic novel, we know we're supposed to look at the panels in order, but our eyes might jump to another picture on the same page—spoiling the surprise. In The Ticking, French controls our processing of the information by requiring a page turn between meeting the son and meeting the father. Only page breaks can forcefully dictate the dissemination of information—she uses them purposefully.

The Ticking starts with a limited perspective and then expands to let in the greater world. The effect is profound. In pictures and in words, the secret to this effect is in carefully controlling the order and pacing of each bit of information, each revelation. The specific techniques for controlling the information may be different for words and pictures, but a writer must be intentional about it, no matter the medium.

When have you read a graphic novel that accomplishes with images the same kind of things that (non-graphic) writers hope to do with words? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.

Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (Mad Hatters' Review)The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.