Despair in Graphic Narrative
and the Law of Similarity or Equality
André Franquin, a frame from a comic from Die Laughing (1988)
We see things that are similar to each other as a whole; as a collection. André Franquin makes use of this in one of his comics from Zwartkijken (1988) Translated as Die Laughing (US Link); The bottom layer of people forms a whole. They are not just random people; they form ‘the mass’, and as a whole they form a symbol used as stepping stones, not by random people but by a group of people; ‘the happy few’.
What is called the Law of Similarity in the Gestalt theory has a parallel in the visual salience and visual search theory. Visual searches are easier if what is sought (the ‘target object’) looks different from the things that surround it (the ‘distractors’). A detail stands out if it is different from its surroundings. Deviation in colour, contrast, shape, size and ratio or a combination thereof, can cause an element to stand out from the whole and attract attention.
Gemma Plum, King Midas Screenprint – a study (2003)
The last apple of King Midas stands out. His wish that everything he touches turns to gold, backfired. The amount of despair represented by the number of gold apples, all failed attempts to eat. They no longer are some gold apples, they form a whole representing the enormity of the problem. The red dot becomes the centre of attention. Holding the eye while we realise what the King must realize. If he touches it, it will turn to gold and all hope is lost. But is it an option to stop trying?
If a red object is to be found between many gold, then the selective attention ensures that you only have to pay attention to the colour. But if you had to find a red round object between gold square and red square objects, this will take more effort. You now have to look at two characteristics. In other words: the less difference there is in the background and therefore the more the background is seen as a whole, the faster a different detail is noticed, the more attention it gets and the more can hold.
Alfred Hitchcock, Suspicion (1941)
In Suspicion (1941) a glass of milk that might or might not contain poison is highlighted by Hitchcock (literally; Hitchcock put a little light in it to make it stand out, he reveals to Truffaut in the book Hitchcock Truffaut). The white milk works great against the dark and ‘clean’ almost graphic background. Hitchcock takes his time. The suspense builds while it is almost impossible to take your eye of the glass of milk.
The highlights on the pillar base halfway up the stairs battle for attention but the dark framing of Cary Grant’s body has the eyes back on track in no time. The moment he steps into the room the surroundings give the glass it’s context back. His bad intentions are not all-mighty. She has to drink the milk. If she doesn’t it’s just a wasted glass of milk…
In Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo? (1987) (US Link) Wally the detailed and colourful background makes the search an intended challenge. Searching among innumerable other individuals who visually do not look alike is a lot harder than someone who looks different in a crowd that behaves (visually) as a group.
Martin Handford, Where’s Waldo? (1987) Spanish version
Ingmar Bergman, uses this principal in different ways in his movie The Serpent’s Egg (1977) (US Link). In the first shot of the movie we see the dark mass of poor workers. Emotionless, numb and marching on in the humdrum of their meaningless lives (brilliantly intercut with frantic Charleston music that gives a sense of mechanical and desperate hysteria). Frightening, depressing… Among them, a small woman, clean, blond, looking delicate. She attacks the eye. She is a symbol; she will become grey and dirty too. Her and all innocence will be lost in the necessity to stay alive…
Ingmar Bergman, The Serpent’s Egg (1987)
Later he uses the law of equality to make the protagonist stand out in a club. His depressing situation, (or actually his awareness of the situation) in painful contrasts with the people surrounding him partying (to forget?). He stands out like a sore thumb, eh… heart.
A simple principle, which can give a tremendous symbolic meaning to a scene or image.
Ingmar Bergman, The Serpent’s Egg (1987)
Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.
Loved this. I must remark that a similar visual trick is played out in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” — though reversed. In one scene man is sat at the edge of a rainy and gray scene (the camera not moving) eating from a pile of red apples. You find yourself drawn to look at this, disregarding what is happening in the centre of the screen. And then…. I remember first seeing the movie in a theatre, the screen big and the sound booming, and such a small distraction of my gaze leaving me utterly dazed.
That sounds like a great example! Thanks Kelvin. Especially since it seems to intentionally give you the feeling of a pause, taking you away from the war to slam you in the face with it! I’ll check it out ASAP (I haven’t seen the movie yet).