Inception in Comics

In an attempt to dig deeper on the relation between word and image that help construct a comics, I came across a comic strip named “Cheap Novelties” created by an author named Ben Katchor. Katchor is most famous for his work on “Julius Knipl”, and has been referred to as “The creator of the last great Amercian comic strip” by famous novelist Michael Chabon.

In this specific comic strip, I find that the Katchor’s clever use of word balloons, captions and images all help to construct a deep and multidimensional comic strip to be both amusing and worth sharing. The specific comic strip is shown here:


In the first panel, the store clerk is reading in his mind, “Prince Satkura knew that only one thing stood between himself and the…” before he was interrupted by a customer asking for assistance. In the second panel, narration begins in the caption, stating that “in this novel, the progress of a fictitious character is constantly thwarted”. The caption apparently is referring the store clerk as the “fictitious character”. In a sense, the clerk’s reading of his novel is challenged by certain obstacles just as Prince Satukura is facing an obstacle in the clerk’s novel. Thus, the caption and the event depicted in the panel establish a sense of two different dimensions as a novel within the novel, where both are referring to the same thing: the progress is being stopped by an obstacle.

From the third panel to seventh panel, the word balloon of the characters each scene is completely disconnected with the caption and the drawing illustrations, further generating the multidimensional effect. For example, in panel three, the caption states “Not by an impassable mountain range” while the word balloon of the character in the scene states “do you know if these shrink much?”. In panel five, the caption states “An unexpected turn of events” with the image showing a death of a character on the side walk, while the word balloon for one of the character is showing “Is this on sale?”. In panel seven, the caption states “or a storm at sea-“, while the character stranded in the ocean says “I’d like to return something”. In this sense, it is intuitive that the word balloons are most likely referring to the complaints by the customer while the illustration is representing what is being told in the caption. The disjunction between the caption, word balloon and image helps establish an effect of comic relief, showing that character speaking completely irrelevant topic in the depicted scene. This enables the comic strip to be unique, multidimensional and interesting to the reader.

Moreover, the organization of the caption, word balloon and thought balloon divides the story into three distinctive and independent components. First, the thought balloon of the store clerk is about the story of “Prince Satkura”. Second, the caption of the comic strip tells the story of the store clerk. Lastly, the word balloons throughout all the panels depict what is occurring in the store, specifically the interaction between the clerk and the customers.

Overall, the disjunction and organization between the caption, image and word balloons in this particular strip is able to help establish a deep and multidimensional story that is interesting for the readers. Katchor is very clever in making a comic that seems disconnected at first, into a story that make sense.

-Xiao Yue Cai

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One Response to Inception in Comics

  1. dcfoy says:

    After reading this strip by Katchor as well as those which were included in the class reading schedule, I too was very impressed by his comic style for several reasons. You would think that including three different levels of dialogue in a single comic would be confusing, however I agree that Katchor has organized the narrative in such a way that creates a predictable and relatively easily understood pattern of switching between the three.

    Something I would like to add to your discussion is his ability to develop elaborate and interesting plots around objects which would normally go unnoticed or would be labeled as ‘uninteresting’. The dramatization of a pen, a price tag, or even a collection of dried fruit is suddenly made intensely funny by the skillful Katchor who forces us to consider the narrative potential in everyday objects. His style seems to rely heavily upon text while his illustrations serve to visually demonstrate the narrative.

    The dry humor and microscopic punchlines presented by Katchor makes me wonder what demographic he is targeting through his work. Is it possible for a younger audience to also enjoy his strip if it were in the Sunday morning funnies section? Let me know what you think!

    Duncan Foy

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