Sometimes it's the small stuff -- the real small stuff, the tiny little grit inside the medium, that gets to you. Reading a book and savoring a simile, watching a movie again for that one facial expression the female lead makes an hour into it, sitting through a mediocre record for the giddy moment when the solo kicks in on track ten. Coming to the medium you come to not for something vague and boundless like "diversion" or "entertainment" or "education", but for something pure and rarefied, something... I'll cut to the chase, something like this. Sequence from Guido Crepax's Valentina Reflection, Heavy Metal, December 1980.
Those arrows pop up in film now and again, but not often enough to mark them as a "movie trope" or anything. They're native to comics, homegrown and perfectly organic, while on the silver screen they typically appear in an artificial, overly self-conscious way, animated camp jumping into real life to mark out something that the audience has already seen. More to the point, film, with its constant motion and single-image presentation, has no need to use arrows the way comics do: as straight up diagrammatic checkpoints that direct the reader through unconventional, potentially confusing layouts. They've been around forever, a more elegant, immediate reading aid than the number sequences newspaper cartoonists like George Herriman and Winsor McCay guided their pages' followers with. They started out simple enough -- crude, energetic, immediately apprehensible signposts to the next panel on (as in Dick Sprang)...
and nowadays they're formal trump cards, employed in every capacity from full-on pyrotechnics (JH Williams)...
to in-story motion helpers (Dash Shaw).
But Crepax is little concerned with such specialization. His use of arrows is pared down, almost stentorian: thick black pointers that match his ink line for weight and graphic strength. When they're used, it's swift and definite, either popping up in-panel to focus the reader with a minimum of fuss...
or as curt reminders not to linger in any one frame too long.
Take another look at those two examples, though. Crepax certainly enjoys playing with the arrows -- his books are full of them -- but they're never strictly necessary. Nothing gets ambiguous enough for us to really need them: we can see Neutron's microcamera just fine without any help, and the layout in the second sequence leaves little room for question. These arrows are amplifiers, drawing extra attention to the elements they point out rather than playing the role of the tour guide. The second example works especially well: we move through the smaller panels quickly, following the lockstep rhythm of their layout, then get blasted into the longer, suspenseful moment of the big panel by that final exclamation mark, no time for savoring the stolen kiss. Crepax saw the distinct storytelling possibilities in his arrows, and sprinkled them onto his pages not as cover-ups for poor construction, but as extras to be used whenever they make the stuff sing a little louder. Tools to go past the baseline on, rather than get to the baseline with.
Anyway, back to the sequence I started with; here it is again.
At first the arrow at the center of the image seems like total nonsense. What's it pointing at, which direction is it leading us in? An arrow with two heads facing in opposite directions comes close to paradoxical. Which way? we ask. Both ways. Back and forth, not moving but floating. And suddenly Crepax is doing something very much worth talking about. That image-toggle, one to the other and again and again, between the facial close-up and the single mystified eye, is something most comics don't even consider. That arrow doesn't pick us up and move us on; it traps us. It forces us to stop "going through" the comic for a second and collaborate with Crepax on creating our own reading experience. Only we can determine how intensely the arrow moves us between the frames. Crepax gives us the direction, but we control the speed the panels flicker back and forth at. We control the number of times we go through it, the length of time it takes to extricate ourselves from the formal trap and follow the word balloon back into the narrative. We see the agonized face, then feel what's in the depth of that eye. We get subsumed for a moment, forget the presentational story-mode of comics to become an actor with a role in creating the drama, the interpretation of the moment left to us and how deeply we can feel it. Back and forth, back and forth, something we basically never see in comics.
Now pick up a book, any one will do, and flip to a random page. What the hell, check out a bunch of pages. It can get overwhelming how they all rush you so headlong into themselves, panels designed to get you to the next panel, then the last panel, then to the next page, then to the last page ad nauseam. The prevailing wisdom holds that the artist's job is to push the reader forward, forward, keep them moving fast and steady enough so that even if they want to stop reading they won't be able to until they're done. And what really gets them going quicker? Look at that Williams picture again: arrows. It takes supreme confidence in one's material to encourage the in-story contemplation that Crepax does, to tell us to stop moving, go backward, and then just oscillate for a second. Crepax turns the arrow's purpose around on itself as he puts his story on pause between two images: forget what's happening, it says, and go inside to meditate. Consider the two images, not as a strict sequence of first to second, but simply as connected. In the context of one another. And of course, it serves the story perfectly as Valentina's paralyzed alarm finds a mirror not just in the word balloons but in the rhythm of the page itself.
This isn't just a one-off thing Crepax tried out here, though. In fact, it's best described as a double-arrow-shaped skeleton key to understanding the man's whole approach to the comics form. Crepax, especially once his art reached full maturity, rarely if ever encouraged the reader toward the frenetic pace most comics take as a given. Offhand, I'd guess this is due in part to the fact that the Italian comics tradition has much less of a distinguished past in the fast-lane action style of the American, French or Japanese masters. There's also Crepax's admiration for and influence from Alex Raymond, certainly the least kinetic of the great American genre cartoonists.
But most of all, Crepax understood that he was working on a very different type of stories than the action-derived material in the vast majority of great comics from around the world. Crepax drew sex comics, no doubt or pause about it, and as such he emphasized the slow languors and physical impressions of his moments, trapping his readers in the sensations, the feelings of every panel, rather than concerning himself with the brusque linearity of forward motion. There's an enraptured standing still at the heart of Crepax's best work, more than any kind of movement through physical conflict or time or life. The glassy, sub-sonic bliss of physical ecstasy, of gathering up beautiful pen and brush marks with your eyes. In Crepax they're one and the same, and you don't want to move on until you're sated.
It's a joy to watch him work this approach out in the debut Valentina story (1965). From page one forward he's got a brush line that stops time, but it's yet to really flower, often disguised under the plot and layout mechanisms of action comics.
Still interesting stuff, to be sure; a heist scene in a skinny-black-tie variation on the mod, contemporary Carmine Infantino style. But though the layout, the staging, the pace are all fairly close to your average '60s Spider-Man adventure, there's already something more peeking through. The second panel steps out of the flow for a second to focus everything around the shrill blast of the cop's whistle (perfectly evoked by the masses of bludgeoning inkwork clustered next to it), and the large frame in the middle of the page is more of a madcap scatter than a composed action shot -- massively expressive figures all over, everything overlapping, rough blacks sanded into the shadowed areas, depth and perspective all but removed from what becomes more of a tableau than a gun-battle sequence.
A few pages from the end of the debut album, Crepax lays his hands on that skeleton key, in a small but brilliant gesture that would give birth to an entire career. We get a typically long, low action panel before the kinesis of the moment sags and softens at the sight of a gorgeous girl, and then it gives itself up completely, all urgency lost in the sweetness of the kiss and the inked shapes that build it. Then it's the beginning of something amazing; Crepax's first sex scene, flinging moment-to-moment storytelling out the window in favor of a warmly jumbled, impressionistic tangle of close-ups, touch, desire, spotted blacks. There's no apparent "right" way to read this sequence, and that's the point. The panel borders almost cling to one another. Crepax steps outside of comics' strict linear flow and into an utter sensual freedom: feeling, drawing, image on image with no explanation made so much more powerful and important than a story.
Within a year we get panels like this, which expands the overlapped mania of that cops 'n' robbers shootout into a completely vertiginous, Gary Panter-style ink-warp that goes far indeed from the immediate iconography of most cartooning. We aren't meant to understand this picture right away, quite the opposite. To get anything out of it we have to step through the door into the party, catch the light flashing off the musician's saxophone, look the pretty people up and down, admire the abstract shapes that add up to the African mask. It's something miles away from what most comics ask of their readers: admiration not apprehension, suspension not motion.
In 1972 Crepax has left his spy-action stories completely behind for the recesses of Valentina's psychological history. The realm of dreams, memories, and fantasies are to be the book's arena for its duration, allowing Crepax the freedom to dispense with A-B-C storytelling entirely and bring his comics into a symphonic realm, a painterly realm, a place where the feelings, physical or otherwise, are all that remain. And the drawing only gets lovelier...
In 1976 he shows us what it's all about, by putting Valentina (who at this point the reader has long since fallen in love with, has felt with, has become) into our own position, that of the voyeur. On her knees, she watches two sailors fuck through a keyhole; passive, devouring, enraptured. Her eye is our eye, the eye of the beholder, and it carries as much behind it as we do behind ours.
Then in 1980 he shows us that eye again, in murmuring gray and wistful blue. And then he gives us this.