Home > Literature, Pop Culture, Writing & Communications > Words worth a thousand pictures

Words worth a thousand pictures

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere recently – fulfilling my duties as both a Sandman devotee and a literary Chicagoan, since the book is April’s selection in our Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program. As any Gaiman reader would expect, the story is propulsive and chock-full of rich world-building and encyclopedic literary allusions. But at times, I feel like the strictures of prose lead to pitfalls that a comic book would skip over: some of the characterizations are a bit too on-the-nose, and descriptive passages occasionally lean on triteness.

And then I come across a passage like this one (which I quote here without context in order to prevent spoilage):

“The marquis felt, then, that much of what he had gone through in the previous week was made up for by the expression on Hunter’s face.”

Only pure prose can render that moment so perfectly. In a comic book, the expression on Hunter’s face would have to be drawn by an artist, who interprets the meaning of the sentence and the scene a certain way. The reader’s interpretation of that drawing may, in turn, diverge from the artist’s intent, but will nevertheless be restricted to the range of emotions conveyed by a particular physical image.

As it stands, that passage encapsulates the competitive advantage of a verbal medium. By relying on the limitless malleability of language, Gaiman allows every reader to process the meaning in her own way. In that sentence, Hunter’s expression might be one of anger, shock, bemusement, respect, relief, astonishment, joy, disbelief. It might contain any combination of those emotions. So it contains all of them, while stating none of them. It’s a Schrödinger paradox of a sentence. It forces the reader to do a bit of work, to invest himself in a way that a visual medium cannot.


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