Thursday, September 29, 2011

Vertigo and Synaesthetics

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud makes the claim that comics use visual cues to express emotions and the other five senses in a process called synaesthetics. There are many ways in which an artist can do this. Stylized lines and heavy mark making create patterns that give the viewer a sense of the mood, internal thoughts, and setting of the characters. Lynd Ward utilizes this concept of synaesthetics in Vertigo to portray the inner turmoil of the girl, boy and the elderly gentleman.

Vertigo is composed entirely of a sequence of images. There are hardly any words in these images and no written dialogue or narration is provided. So how is the reader able to pick up on what is going on in the story? According to McCloud, pictures have the ability to represent and address issues that are not so readily apparent. One way they do this is through setting. The way an environment is portrayed can provide the reader information about the character’s emotions. For example, the first image in the chapter titled “An Elderly Gentleman” is a depiction of the aged owner of a business. He stands in the center foreground looking up at a cityscape towering over him on a hill. A shining star hangs in the night sky above the clouds. Meanwhile the old man stands alone, staring up at all of this. Ward does not explicitly state in words that the man is contemplative, but the composition suggests heaviness on his mind. For one thing, everything is literally depicted on top of the man. The buildings have their physical weight bearing down on him. The vast night sky stretches away from him and the star is out of his reach. From this illustration Ward is able to suggest to the reader that the scenery is not just what it seems. It is symbolic as well as representational.

The story of the boy also demonstrates personal conflict. In the beginning of the boy’s story, we are shown that his father is abusive. As a child, the boy was unable to do anything to defend himself from being beaten. But once he grows up, he decides to change things. In one of the images, his father raises his arm up with his belt in a gesture preparing to strike. Instead of being passive, the boy grasps his father’s arm to stop him. His visible eye glows as it stares widely at his father. This moment is captured in time to dramatize the event. To further suggest this, Ward uses intense marks around his characters to describe the physical and emotional tension. These marks grow thicker and heavier the closer they get to where the father and son touch. It is as if a metaphysical energy built of rage and defiance converges, ready to erupt. Sure enough, on the next panel we see the outcome of such passion: the father lays crumpled on the ground defeated as his son prepares to walk out the door.

At the end of the girl’s section of the story, we get a curious illustration. While we are unable to see her actual face, the image uses visual cues to describe her emotional state. Thus far her father had just tried to attempt suicide, her boyfriend left, and her career hasn’t picked up. The fact that her face is seemingly emotionless seems to make her extremely emotional. Because we can’t determine what she is feeling it can be that she’s feeling a whole myriad of emotions all at once or nothing at all. The way the image is composed also denotes loneliness. The girl and the father are in the same room, but it seems as if they are in their own little worlds. The father, blinded, is literally alone in the dark. He sits huddled and facing away from the light. The girl stands away from him in the shadows playing her violin. In addition to all this, the marks that Ward incorporates around these figures also indicate emotions. The marks are all distinct in various sections, some cross-hatchings, some stipplings, and others vertical dashes. The combination of all these different marks can further indicate tension from conflicting emotions.

Scott McCloud described synaesthetics as a way to bring out what wasn’t readily visible. In Vertigo, Lynd Ward demonstrates this in the way that he portrays the three main characters. Bypassing verbal communication, Ward illustrates each figure’s personal issues through composition, lines and mark making.


  1. This is a productive beginning, but both the argument and the examples are remain, to a degree, more basic than they should be.

    I like your opening, and your use of McCloud. You are providing a good sequence of examples of how Ward uses/implements synaesthetics. The first one, which is most detailed, deviates little from what we said in class; the other two are fine, but less detailed and precise (although I liked the mutual isolation of father and daughter very much).

    Rather than just providing three examples of synaesthesia in Ward, though, I would have liked an argument with a little more ambition. For instance, do you have any observations about how syaesthesia works in Ward which might add to (or subtract from) what McCloud has to say about the subject?

    Or, alternatively, can you begin to produce a larger, conceptual/big picture intrepretation of *Vertigo* with these individual readings in mind.

    This is good, productive material, and I don't mean "basic" as a bad thing - but to indicate that it could be more than it currently is.

  2. Like Adam said, really good start to a paper. You explained McCloud's synaesthetics in a very clear and understandable way (range of readers would be able to make sense of your writing). You also describe the image that you're analyzing in Vertigo with finesse and detail, but I did not pick up on the connection of the image to McCloud's theory or the development of a new idea. Maybe if you pick a specific detail of the image that you haven't touched on or could expand on, you would be able to create a theory of your own. Overall, I thought this blog was really well written!

  3. I think your blog was nicely done. I would have to say I like the fist couple paragraphs the best because you are able to let us, the reader, know the concepts of synaesthetics more clearly. I do feel like you went away from this toward the middle, forgetting to compare these concepts to your examples in better detail. I would have to agree with Jennie and say it may have been better if you picked out a more specific detail in the pictures and elaborated on it more with the concepts. I myself have this problem as well, having so many good ideas and wanting to get them all out there and forget to focus more on just one idea going deeper into the meaning. But good job, your blog definitely grabbed my attention.