The Open Panel

While Umberto Eco might not be a common name among comic readers, but his writing about the Open Work has a strong relation to comics.

Allow me to butcher Eco’s words and years of semiotics theory for you. There is a theory of The Open Work, in which the viewer of a piece of art becomes a participant by interpreting it. The viewer of a painting becomes a performer of the painting by interpreting their own meaning from the piece. The reader of a book is a participant by creating their own unique understanding.

Eco goes on to say that the most rewarding texts are the “Open Texts.”  These are the works that allow the reader to decipher from them many meanings.  The opposite would be the Closed Text, a work that a reader can only draw one meaning from.

Boooooring (Eco’s words, not mine).

So with all the heady stuff out of the way, how does it apply to comics?

Comics, at every moment, ask the reader to contribute meaning and interpretation. I’ve talked about it before: in that white gutter between panels, the comic reader switches from passive viewer to active participant in the construction of meaning in the comic.

It is up to the reader to fill in everything that happens in between those two panels. This is what makes comics so inherently open. It is not possible for a comic to exist that does not engage the reader’s imagination of some level (this also explains why some folks have such a hard time understanding comics).

But there is a question of degree.  Some panels are inherently more open than others. While still necessitating interpretation from the reader, this is essentially a series of Closed Panels:

There is really only one interpretation of the above page, unless you want to imagine Invincible running and grabbing a sandwich somewhere. And unlike Eco, I’m not knocking Closed Panels – they are the bread and butter of the medium, and are essential in almost all storytelling.  But it’s not the only option.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Open Panel – the gutter that asks the reader to do the heavy lifting. I’ve posted this here before, because it’s one of the best uses of the Open Panel that I’ve ever seen:

While these four panels give us an indication of the plot, the bulk of the traditional narrative–the entire interaction between the two characters–is placed outside the physical page. It exists only in the imagination of the reader. The reader is asked to become the performer of the strip.

And the difference between a closed and open panel is not absolute – it’s a matter of degree.  Every panel transition will exhibit its own level of openess – and this is one of the tools available to comic creators that other mediums do not have the benefit of.

The true masters of the medium know how to use closed and open panels in conjunction to engage the reader in an active and unique way.  I’ll leave you with a strip by one of the masters of this combination, Chris Ware:

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Guided View is Broken

As digital comics become more popular, it’s becoming more important to understand what ramifications they have on the evolution of the medium.  One of the first trends I want to address is the so-called Guided View, where the digital reader zooms in on each panel before moving to the next. This has a profound impact on the way we read and experience comics.

Last week, I talked a little bit about Montage and Collage in comics.  In short, we experience every moment of a comic book in two forms.  We read each moment as its own moment in a sequence of events, the Montage; and simultaneously as part of the whole construction of the page, or the Collage.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  When reading a comic with Guided View or a similar technology, we’re losing a number of elements.  We don’t see the construction of the whole page, which would peripherally influence our understanding of the current panel.  We also lose the sense of relative size of each panel, which is the most basic way that creators imply pacing.  Reading the same comic on and offline would leave markedly different impressions.

This leaves a very different impression...

...than this.

I’m not suggesting we dismiss online comics entirely.  Tablets provide a great replication of reading full page comics.  Turning a laptop sideways can do the trick too.  So what purpose does this Guided View technology have?

Creators need to look at it as an opportunity.  Guided View and similar technologies offer great, unique storytelling potential beyond what is possible on the printed page.  The future of digital comics will be digital only – creators attuned to the peculiar needs of digital comics will push the bounds of the medium. But so long as creators are designing for the physical page and then tearing it up for Guided View, digital comics will be a compromised experience.

Two Functions of a Page – Montage and Collage

A comic is not simply a sequence of images. What makes the comic medium distinct is the concept of the page. When reading a comic, we are experiencing the comic page simultaneously both in whole and in part.

The first and more frequently discussed function of the page is what I call montage. This is that incremental experience, the “sequential” in sequential art. It engages our brain by comparing the previous panel to the current panel, and filling in the change that happens in the middle.

Yes, Charles Schulz Rules

But we don’t strictly experience comics like this.  There is also a constant awareness of our place in the page, as well as a peripheral sense of the page as a whole.  This is integral to the experience of reading comics, and I call it collage.

The collage gives context to the montage.  Collage is, quite literally, the bigger picture. Every comic page has a collage element, and the most sophisticated creators use it to further our experience of the story. Collage is one of those elements that the reader may not be aware of, but is strongly coloring their perception of the story.

Examples are going to be the easiest way to see this:

Detective Comics by J.H. Williams III

J.H. Williams III is a great person to start this discussion with – his awareness of collage is very evident in his work. His entire catalogue is a master class in pushing the boundaries of collage. On just about every page he infuses meaning beyond the contents of the panels.

Instead of trying to describe everything going on here, I invite you to try a little thought experiment. Imagine if the panels were laid out in functional, traditional way, and read them that way. The context of the scene would be totally different – it’s the collage element that brings in this idea of duality and yin and yang to an otherwise straightforward scene.

Fell #1 by Warren Ellis & Ben Templesmith

There’s a tendency to think that collage/montage discussion is only relevant to really flashy comics with crazy page layouts, but that’s not the case at all.

Fell by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith is a supreme work of mood and tone. The stories are told mostly in 9-panel grids with monochromatic color schemes.

So while the layout may appear to be fairly standard, there’s a lot going on here collage-wise. Almost every page is practically monochromatic, preventing the eye from drifting across the page to splashes of color. The linework is subdued and direct, again, preventing eye drift. The thick gutters hem in the action unnaturally; every panel feels like it could use a little more room. The grid becomes a prison, trapping our eye inside each panel, if only for a moment.

Oh, and the story is about Fell being trapped in Snowtown. Coincidence?

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben

I’ve avoided using any examples from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, mostly because it’s just a bottomless can of worms when it comes to theory discussions. But it’s hard to ignore Moore’s grasp on both montage and collage. This page, the first of Moore’s seminal Swamp Thing story, is downright playful with the two concepts.

It almost makes your brain do a little backflip. We start with 3 standard panels, and from that perspective, the page appears to open up. But when your eye reaches the following panel, you realize that the montage and the collage have been fused into one. The panels of glass become the panels of the comic, lending the narrator an almost omniscient presence over the proceedings.

There’s plenty more that could be said on the topic. Every comic page has montage and collage – but just like the other techniques we’ve discussed, some creators are working this to their advantage and others are not.

So what examples do you have?

You Keep Copying Watchmen (but you keep doing it wrong)

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen is the towering giant against which all subsequent comic works have been judged.  In its time, it changed the direction and scope of comics and today, 25 years later, its influence can still be felt. While copying might be a strong word, let’s say its been a little more than inspirational to a bevy of creators.

And almost all of them missed the point.

What the industry at large saw was a chance to “grow up”.  To be dark, violent, “mature” and gritty.  Superheroes aren’t just for kids, man. A lot of this happened because the other best comic of the decade was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another tale of gritty superheroes (an awful coincidence). The imitators missed the mark there too.

These books weren’t primarily a revolution in content. They were a revolution in form.

Both books were calculated, mathematical, deliberate attacks on the stagnant storytelling of the medium. Watchmen took the classic 9-panel grid and transformed it into something fresh and dynamic. Dark Knight changed the page into a dense, frenetic, pissed-off assault of images.

So what happened?

Readers flocked to both books. The industry sees this and says “they love dark superheroes! Let’s just do that!”

But what did readers really want? Well-told stories. Stories that expand the potential of the medium, that challenge the way we read and how we think about comics. But what we got instead was lots of monochrome superheroes muttering the mildest cusses – and all told in the same old static ways of the pre-Watchmen era.

Let’s look at the first page of Watchmen. This page is the “Call me Ishmael” of comic literature. It’s been seared into the mind of almost everyone who has read the book, and it was one of my first tastes of what is possible in this medium.

Have you taken that in?

So what makes this page so important? It’s not the talk of burst stomachs and blood and scabs. It’s not the implied violence in the images. It’s not even the challenging political implications. It’s the evisceration of the medium that happens across 7 panels.

Take a look. The first thing we notice, form-wise, is a rather traditional layout. But the innards of that layout are anything but.

Notice the physicality of the “camera.” Instead of being passive observers, as is traditional in comics, the most striking motion on the page is the upward movement of our perspective. We’re asked to be participants in the story, active observers; the heft of the camera impacts a Brechtian awareness to the proceedings.

Then there’s another, subtler layer – pacing. Traditional comic theory dictates that panel size indicates pacing. Sure, but that’s just one of a bevy of methods. But across those 6 panels, there’s a very tangible acceleration, yet all the panels are the same size. So how’s it done?

First, look at the speed of action happening in each panel. Let’s use as our measuring stick the steps of the sign-bearer. Between panel 1 and 2, he appears. Between 2 and 3, he takes a single step. Between 3 and 4, he takes 3 steps. Between 4 and 5, 4 steps. And by panel 6 he’s gone quite a distance.

There’s another factor here, and that’s the “speed” of the camera rise. If you observe the size of the grate, you’ll see that it doesn’t decrease in size the same amount in each panel: it’s shrinking at a exponential pace.

Think I’m reading into it too much? Look at Moore’s script. He describes panel 3 as 9 ft above the sidewalk, panel 4 as 20-25 feet above the sidewalk, panel 5 40-50 ft above, and panel 6 “hundreds of feet” above the sidewalk. That’s pacing.

I could go on. I could talk about how the final panel slams to a halt, yet takes the least diagetic amount of time. I could talk about the interplay between the images and words.

But I won’t. You will.  Next time you read Watchmen (you’ve already read it at least once, right?) look beyond the incredible characters, the tight plotting, the philosophical and political implications. Dig into what Moore and Gibbons do on each page, how they bend our perceptions to their liking.

And if you’re a creator, challenge yourself to advance the medium. Don’t look at panels as little boxes to fill with story, but as opportunities for pacing and composition. Chances to twist the reader’s mind and perception. A shot to give your creation a voice.

And write about anything besides gritty superheroes.

XIII – Belgians Do it Better

Japanese comics have always served as a source of inspiration and imitation for American and British comic creators. But America and Japan are hardly the only cultures with a history of innovative comics. I want to focus on a culture that has had a big influence on me, but doesn’t get its fair share of attention in America – the Belgians.

Perhaps my earliest introduction to comics came through the incredible Belgian series Tintin. Sadly, Tintin is about the only Belgian comic most comic shops carry. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a rich culture of storytelling that has developed its own lexicon and grammar without much apparent influence from either American or Japanese creators.

My reintroduction to Belgian comics came when I stumbled upon 3 volumes of a series called XIII. The series, by writer Jeanne Van Hamme and illustrator William Vance, borrows a lot from the Bourne franchise (amnesiac killer) but goes in its own crazy direction. It’s been popular, spawning both a video game and 2 TV series, yet it remains largely unknown in American comic circles.

There were a lot of things eye-opening about the book. It’s an action comic without supernatural elements, which is rarer than it should be in comics.  The characters are human and at the forefront – dialogue isn’t filler between action scenes.  And the format, those slim 48 page squarebound booklets, seem to be the perfect comic delivery method.

But what really makes these books stand out is the storytelling.  Take a look at the first action sequence in the series:

Each of these pages tell a full story.  This page introduces a villain, and he’s dead by the end of the page.  Due to the horizontal nature of Belgian storytelling, width has everything to do with time.  In the first row, our introduction to the villain is short.  Then we have a long beat as Alan prepares to make his move, and an equally long beat as he jumps up and throws the knife – we’re invited to take in this moment.

Then we have an entire staccato row.  The villain, Chuck, fires twice and gets hit with the knife.  Then things start happening faster – Chuck stumbles, drops the gun, stumbles further, and then goes over the edge.

This row is fascinating because the first panel is super compressed – Chuck is firing twice AND getting hit with the knife, all in one tine panel!  But then, his collapse is drawn out across 4 panels.  This emphasizes Alan’s speed, and draws out the significance of his killing for the first time.

Again, this page tells a complete story.  It also shows the power of the horizontal strip – a feature common in Belgian comics, but infrequent in American comics.  This has partly to do with the format – Belgian comics are wider and allow for more horizontal storytelling than their American and Japanese counterparts, which trend toward a more vertical storytelling.

And look at the mastery that Van Hamme has of the format – each row shifts our expectations, and each ends with a cliffhanger. In the first row, the villain is searching, and then spots Alan. In the second strip, the villain makes his move, firing at Alan – but we don’t see the results.  Row 3 is the big reveal, where the trap, set in the first row, plays out, and the page climaxes with Alan taking the upper hand.

Again, every row presents a mini story.  In the first row of this page, we see horizontal timing come into play.  The long shot, combined with the width of the panel, draws out their initial struggle.  In a quick beat, the villain reaches for the gun – but equally as quick, Alan stops him.  At the end of this row, Alan has the upper hand.

In the next strip, we have the reversal, where in a quick motion (narrow panel again!) the villain takes the upper hand.  And in the third strip, if the action wasn’t enough, we get a character moment, where Alan is unable to kill the villain.  The page, and sequence, goes out on a shot of the car that seems to have driven into another landscape, another color palette – entirely out of Alan’s reach.

If you’re a creator, there’s a ton to learn from Belgian storytelling, and if you’re a reader, there’s a plethora of material out there, especially if you’re looking to get away from the cape and cowl thing.  Cinebook has been doing a great job reprinting Belgian comics in English in the UK.

Sadly, it’s trickier to get them in the States. It’s usually worth a few extra bucks to import them, but purchasing digitally is also a great option.  But if you’ve got a minute, why not let these publishers know we’d like to see some of these books in our shops over here?

Great Expectations

Comic books consistently demand more of the reader than any other form of entertainment.  Creators expect readers to be on a common footing in terms of both story and format.  But an explicit goal of comics needs to be drawing in new readers, and creators need to understand that not everyone has the same background.

What is expected of a reader?

The first and most obvious expectation is that the reader knows how to read a comic book.  This may seem silly, but it’s not always the case.  Many manga collections provide a detailed explanation in the beginning of the book to show how to follow the panels on a page.  Of course, this is mainly because the left to right reading method is foreign to American readers.  But the layout on many modern books could be just as foreign to someone who hasn’t read a comic since the 9-panel grid was the only game in town.

The next expectation is that readers have, at the very least, a passing knowledge of the characters in the stories being told.  In most movies the audience has no immediate anchor and has to be introduced to every element, from the characters to the rules of the world.  Comics can conveniently sidestep that introductory period and get right to the meat of the story.  Thumbing through the most recent issue of Fantastic Four, by Jonathan Hickman, I notice tons of new characters that are not Reed, Sue, Ben, or Johnny.  However, these characters only stand out as new and different if the reader knows who the FF is in the first place.  You are expected to have that basic knowledge coming in.

This makes his run stand out in comparison to other runs, but it also presents a problem for the more casual comic book reader, the type of reader I would argue is necessary for serious growth in the comic book marketplace.  Not only are you expected to know the basics of who the characters are, you are often called upon to know complicated histories of books in order to understand current developments.  Even in Marvel’s Ultimate reboots, the retelling of these stories doesn’t pack the same punch if you don’t know the way they were originally told.

What can we do to reach new readers?

Certainly the availability of collections helps matters.  When Grant Morrison began his lengthy run on Batman, it became immediately clear that he would be drawing from the most obscure corners of the character’s history.  So what did DC do?  They released a reprint of Batman: Son of the Demon, the story Morrison was explicitly building off of.  Later they came out with The Black Casebook, delving even further into the most out-there Batman stories.

The other recent development working in comics’ favor is the increasing viability of creator owned books.  Comic book readers are notorious completists.  We want to know every event a character’s been through, every relationship a character’s had.  Indie books are great at capitalizing on that feeling.  Want to read every Scott Pilgrim comic ever published?  Go pick up all six volumes from Oni.  Ditto for Ed Brubaker’s fantastic work on Criminal or Sleeper.  These writers are not interested in maintaining a property for decades on end.  They want to tell a story with a definite beginning and end point, which you can give to anyone as a commitment-free recommendation.

Mainstream comics are still the gateway drug for many of us, so it’s a good sign that Marvel and DC are starting to build on this model, creating pocket universes where anyone can jump on board.  Perhaps the Ultimate and Vertigo lines have been so successful because they’re contained stories and are constantly in print.

The further extension of the principle behind the these books and DC’s upcoming company-wide relaunch was recently suggested by Jonathan Hickman in an excellent interview with Comics’ Alliance’s Chris Sims:

I think we do comics wrong in a lot of ways. Like I almost think that when Brian Bendis comes on a book, it should be Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers, and then he does his 48 issues or whatever, his epic Avengers story, then he moves on to something else… They all have a beginning, middle and end, and that’s what we do. Here’s a bunch of X-Men books, and they’re all satisfying and not just blocks of trades… You see how much both companies are rebooting books to generate interest and we’re kind of reaching critical mass, where we’re going to have to say “all right, this is the new game. Tell your story, and when you’re done telling it, go work on a new property.”

This style of storytelling may seem shocking to long-time comic fans, but it’s already proven itself with the mainstream public in the form of comic book movies.  You take all the bits from the comics you want, regardless of continuity, and use them to tell the best story you can.  Everyone knows Marvel and DC are just going to wipe out the parts of the story they don’t want to keep after a run is over anyway, so why even bother with the pretense?  Tell YOUR Fantastic Four story, hit reset, then let somebody else tell theirs.

That’s just one of many potential solutions.  What’s yours?  Do you agree that comics demand more of its fanbase than other mediums?  And is that good for the industry or does it hinder potential growth?  I can’t wait to hear your responses.

Slow Motion in Comics

Slow Motion has become a standard technique for many filmmakers. It’s hard to imagine films like The Killer or Raging Bull without the lyrical use of slow motion.  While slow motion, as it’s portrayed in film, is not possible in comics, it has a number of analogues.  Time in sequential art is inherently malleable; it’s one of the greatest aspects of the medium, and any manipulation of time that slows down an action could be considered slow motion.

Discussing all of these aspects could fill a book; instead, I’m going to look at a couple of examples of cinematic-style slow motion in comics.  While it’s achieved in a manner distinct from cinema, it shares many of the same qualities. Namely, expanding a moment well beyond our normal perception of speed for dramatic effect.

The Ultimates Vol. 1

Marvel Comics / Mark Millar / Bryan Hitch

There are a few techniques used on this page to create a slow motion effect.  The first is a subtlety in the art – the detail in the debris and in Cap are very high.  In film, we associate motion blur with motion – this kind of clarity is associated with still images, and makes the image appear static.

The next technique is a time discrepancy between the words and the images.  The images show a small amount of action, yet there are large blocks of text.  The text takes us longer to read than it takes our mind to process the images: thus, we linger longer on each frame than the action would take: slow-motion.

Sin City: The Hard Goodbye

Dark Horse Comics / Frank Miller

Sin City, like all of Frank Miller’s work, demands a full-scale investigation of all the techniques pioneered, invented, or perfected.  I’ll start with this page, because it’s a great use of slow motion and contrasts nicely with the image from The Ultimates.  I pulled this pair of pages from this site, which discusses the pacing of this entire sequence, but I’d like to zoom in on these pages because they are awesome – the first page moves incredibly quickly, while the second demonstrates extreme slow motion.

Page one contains 5 panels, which is above average for Sin City.  They’re also particularly dense panels compared to a lot of the book – panel 1 has 3 actions (2 sound effects and Marv’s swing), panel 2 has 3 gun shots and a grunt — you get the idea. There is a lot happening.

This is further heightened by the lack of dialouge and brief sound affects – the words are small: none of the sound effects are more than 4 letters, and the dialogue is all brief. This has two effects – we read it faster, simply due to the lack of words, and we realize that each panel comprises a thin slice of time.

Now look at the placement of the sound effects, word baloons, and composition. Everything draws the eye down and right, the two directions associated with forward momentum in comics. This has the collective effect of rushing the eye through the page, accelerating the reading speed and the peceived sense of time.  The page ends with a BLAM in the terminating corner of the page, pushing the eye onto the next page.

And what a next page it is.  Marv is practically frozen in midair – it contrasts with all the things that made the previous page seem so fast.

First of all, there’s only one panel, as opposed to 5 small ones.  We’re invited to pause before turning the page and take in the image in all it’s detail (like in The Ultimates).  Now contrast the words – this page has a single sound effect, and it’s a letter longer than any sound effect on the previous page.  The typography is huge, taking up more of the page and by extension, more time.

Now my favorite part.  Look at the direction the eye is drawn.  The eye starts at the sound effect, and then moves down to Marv.  And what direction is Marv travelling?  Up and Left – directly opposite the flow of time!  The bottom-right side of the page is intentionally boring.  Frank doesn’t want our eye anywhere near that corner, because that means we’ll turn the page.

So we linger on these images.  Longer than natural time.  These techniques are the comic equivalent of slow motion – and to me, they’re a lot more interesting than film, because there are so many ways to mix and match techniques to achieve the effect.