Editor’s note: I ran a poll on photo comics to see if I was the only one with a strangely firm prejudice against them—I wasn’t! Some really interesting discussion followed and as it developed I asked cartoonist Meredith Park to share her feelings in a longer form, here, on WWAC. Voila! Strong, personally held opinions: that’s what we like. Disagree? Here’s a longer piece on some great photo comics. Unsure? Here’s some scholarship!
I may be biased as an autobio cartoonist who usually relies on imagery that doesn’t correlate with the text of a comic. I can get away with a lot, since I write about feelings and draw things that are more stand-ins that actual representations of things. I realize with some cursory research that photo comics are more common depending on culture, and I don’t want to speak on a context I don’t come from . . . Historically, fumetti have been popular in Italy, as well as fotonovelas found across South America. I mean, however, to speak about current examples, most of which are webcomics from the early- to mid-aughts.
Until now I didn’t realize how much A Softer World may have influenced my comics, beyond memories of reading them often during my formative high school years. The quietly surprising, often absurd, and sometimes brutal captions were places where many people recognized a feeling they held in themselves, as unconventionally expressed by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau. The fact that out-of-focus and blurry photos of fragmentary ephemera became the calling card of ASW is no mistake—the literality of a photograph gave us the validation of knowing our feelings were rooted in reality, without the voyeuristic discomfort of clear focus. By the lack of particular focus, we had room to find ourselves in the work.
At first glance photo comics strike me as non-comics. This is to say nothing of whether an author makes a photo comic because “they can’t draw.” I understand that cartoonists (photographers?) are trying to do something unique in making a photo comic but personally I find little value there. Photo comics may obey the letter of the law, but they seem to miss the spirit of it. They ruin the suspended disbelief that carries one through a good comic by refusing to let the reader animate sequences in their mind or flex their imagination as page splashes, smears, colour, and line create a dynamic visual story. Photo comics seem to fall in line with airplane safety manuals and comic-con photo backdrops. Where do they leave room for a reader to imagine anything other than exactly who and what is on the page? What are they besides a literal paper replacement for TV?
Photo comics remind me of why Buzzfeed-esque “reviews” of TV and movies that include nothing but GIFs leave us feeling like we’ve binged junk food: all of our information-processing energy has been used up, but we’ve had none of the meat of actual content. It’s a tepid pit stop between actual creative content and pivoting to video.