Sans Genre IV
I'm stating the obvious, but oh well. It's all about sequence in comics. Though with the good stuff the reading experience is fluid and seamless, this medium more than any other is a sum of constituent parts. Movies, drama, music, they all flow by you whether you want them to or not. Unceasing, continuous, and even when the film goes to a still frame or the play switches sets between acts or the song hits a moment of silence, there's still progression because those media are pinned to a time limit, a moment to begin and another to end, and time is always passing within them. There's less of that flow to prose writing, but text invites perpetual motion, the paragraph or stanza breaks more often than not just places to catch your breath before you keep on reading about the same thing. The uniformity of type on the page is also lulling, hypnotic, a reason not to stop. (A literary friend of mine recently asked why I like reading comics more than prose and I said it's because all prose looks the same. Game set and match, thank you.) Comics, though: there is a space between every two pictures, every bit-by-bit of story, and no time passes, and you are no further from the beginning or closer to the end until you move past that space and into the next one. Comics ask that you stop and drink the single moments, freeze the story stock still with every panel and take in something that has no time to it, not even a millisecond of progression, a single suspended instance.
Somehow it works, and works well. Comics speak to the way our brains work enough so that we never have much problem making stories out of the tiny snatches we're given from whatever full process is occuring. But looking at it objectively, this is a Frankenstein monster medium, isn't it? Pieced together rather than solid. How many times does a page show two completely different pictures one after the other, no shared characters or setting or even color scheme, and expect us to make it flow? That's why sequence is so very important. Pick the wrong pieces of your story's moments to isolate and stitch up, and it becomes impossible to tell what's going on. This element of choice probably makes comics less immediately accessible than other visual media -- I'd guess a lot of us have known people who say they just "can't read" the stuff, and there's something to that protestation of illiteracy. No matter how bad the editing on a film is, there's always something to understand, because from moment to moment you can see things moving, you can parse them as you parse reality, even if the cutting is completely incomprehensible. In film sequence is constant, unceasing. If cuts in that medium are comparable to panel borders in this one, in film there is still motion and progression inside every panel. But in comics there is only the flash, the bang, one stillness and then the next. And that's really different from anything else.
In fact, it gives the comics maker something untouched by any other medium.
Let's consider time for a second. Experiential time, the passage of moments in reality as we perceive them, is one single flow, neverending from birth to death. Though we forget things or misremember them or even, in serious cases like amnesia or senility, find them completely erased from our brains, we know there was always something happening, that the progression of time is and has always been extant. (If you wanna argue with that feel free, but go find yourself some postmodern literature to read because it's not what this is about.) Film, animation, and video games are all able to replicate this constant flow with a rapid pulse of tightly linked images. Anything higher than 16 frames projected per second and the human eye can't tell the difference between flicker and perpetual motion. The usual speed these days is between 24 and 30, though it can go up to 300. It's important to remember, though, that at their most basic all these media are comics: sequential progressions of single images. They just move faster on the screen than the page.
Now watch this, and see where it starts getting interesting.
Finished? That's a little excerpt from 3D Monster Maze, the first 3D video game created for home computer systems. Six frames per second. Your eye can do comics that fast if, they're drawn simple and intuitive enough. The difference is that in Monster Maze the speed is unwavering, a constant march forward with no possibility of variation in the time taken on each individual frame. And here's where comics jump into the fray.
The comics artist, like I said, can create something pretty close to Monster Maze if necessary. Our minds can stitch up a slick tracking shot or figure animation into a similar approximate, herky-jerky stab at real life. In fact, we do it all the time. See:
Both six frames you can easily do in a second, basically film on paper. I chose to show these particular two because one is from comics' earliest history (Winsor McCay, 1905) and the other is about as contemporary as it gets (Matt Furie, 2010). But though comics can do this, they usually don't. Because comics offers something that continuous media can't, not even at one frame per second. Comics have stillness, and that means that whenever they go from one place to another there's going to be a gap. A gap in time, a gap in motion, a gap in the illusion of life as it's given to the reader. No matter how slowly frames run onscreen, they can't separate themselves out from one another the way the panels of a comic do, can't dialogue on the page and explain to you exactly how much time is elapsing. Comics are planed open in their progression, laid out bare. They tell you what they're doing.
The panelled page allows for a much deeper, more engaging experience than the single-camera, animated Monster Maze approach. Here's the form in the hands of two artists who helped shape the way it's most often practiced in America:
This is the baseline speed for comics, a second or two passing in-panel before the gutterspace eats another couple. Then repeat. The gaps and the time in the panels working in tandem, about equal with each other. We don't need to see the minute progressions McCay and Furie give us, all we need is the suggestion of something going on in between the pictures. The camera unmoors, and we're given no explanation for the different perspective each panel gives into its subject, but we still understand. We track Will Eisner's Spirit as he limps down the halls of police headquarters even though the long walk itself is pared down to a few still, uninhabited frames. We ride through chaos with Jack Kirby's Steppenwolf even though we don't see him going through anything at all, only fixed at different moments in time. It's the sequencing that gives us what semblance of life exists, the way the compositions speak to what isn't actually on the page.
And this is the big paradox of comics: something from nothing, motion from stillness. We look at individual panels one by one, but that's not how we take them: they are subsumed, surrounded by story (or at least context). We move from one to the next. And once the composition is in place, once a comprehensible sequence is arrived at, once the disconnected images are linked up, there is no one speed for comics. The McCay and Furie move differently than the Eisner and Kirby. Readability holds all four together, but beyond making it readable there's a million ways to do this. The comics medium's utilization of the unmoving, visibly still frame as its base unit allows it to go much further into time and its distortion than any of the continuous media can. The four examples above share more than just readability. They've all got a steady pace to them, a rhythm to read the panels in that isn't too far a leap from the rhythm film strips flicker at. It's the way comics suck us in, that rhythm -- but once we're in, the artist can begin to manipulate us. Back to the gaps between panels, the moments where everything stops before beginning again, where we have to infer and can't actually see. They're all regularized slivers in between the drawn moments on the pages above. But they can be whatever the artist wants. Any length, any space in time. The simple fact is laid bare above: there are at least two speeds that comics can work at. What if someone were to combine them? What if others were tested?
One of the first artists to really engage with that question was Bernard Krigstein, whose craft found its pinnacle in the 1955 shock-horror short "Master Race". The sequence above is comics doing something it had never done before; not animation or Eisner progression or Kirby point-of-impact, but something that goes further. Krigstein begins with a fairly typical two-panel tracking shot, a second or two in the panels and then a second or two in between, but then (in what, by the way, was scripted as a single panel) he suddenly speeds up his sequencing, capturing four stages of one moment, slowing down our perception of the it. There's a sixteenth of a second at most elapsing in panels three through six, and less than that in the gutters. But it's draaaawn out, made to last almost forever, warped in a way that goes further than a simple frames-per-second variation and into the way we're reading the story, shocking us into actually experiencing it more slowly rather than just showing us a slow-motion sequence. There's still a steady rhythm going with the pictures and the gaps between, but it suddenly quadruples its time signature, slicing one stage of time as it's been drawn in the first two panels down into four.
The next four frames -- train, man, train, man -- are an object lesson in how comics create story from thin air. This is still superfast animation-speed sequencing along the McCay/Furie lines, but it's applied to two separated parts rather than one single flow. We can understand that the train is bearing down on the man despite the facts that there is no actual motion in the panels and that the two aren't seen together until the fourth shot. The gaps here work to separate physical space as well as time, but because it uses the same speed as the four smooth, continuous "falling" panels that precede it, the sequence reads perfectly, an obvious progression from the top tier. Then in the final panel of the sequence, Krigstein gets as close to true in-panel motion as possible, casting off the look of the still image for a blur of faces as the train passes by. This is another one-second panel, we're back to the typical amount of new information in the box, but that information is shown rather than implied, the time it takes the train to move those few feet past the platform actually drawn onto the page. Krigstein is scratching deep at the limitations of the unmoving image, digging for what forward thrust he can get from it, while still using the concrete progression it allows masterfully.
Half a century later, here's JH Williams getting around the panel borders. It's still a sequence of frozen images, but Williams takes their subdivision further than Krigstein by splitting up the individual frames. We read these single panels as two-step actions (the crowbar hits the arm in white, then teeth bare and fists clench in red -- three panels on, the body crumples to the floor in red a millisecond before head hits stone in white). The effect of these boxes within boxes is to turn single frames into self-contained mini-sequences. By putting gaps into single panels rather than between multiple ones, Williams forces us to take the still images as progressions, to see movement within them. We get the points of impact, instantaneous, in blinding hits that recall the speed of camera flashes or lightning strikes, at the center of the slower, darker one-or-two-second physical reactions. It gets close indeed to film's in-frame movement, two different things superimposed into the same picture, bringing the sequentiality of multiple panels into single ones and making the whole thing move that much smoother. Williams uses more traditional action-action cutting in the first two panels before a blindingly quick transition between the third and fourth, recalling Krigstein's epic fall off the subway platform. It's a smoother, more elegant employment of the raw ideas of the "Master Race" sequence, the artist speeding time up and slowing it down, pulling multiple chunks of information from single pictures with the way they're bordered and made to dialogue with one another.
And here Frank Quitely explodes the multiple-views concept into full, vigorous life. The big background image of the, uh, robot dog jumping through the tank, isn't even subdivided -- like in the final panel of the Krigstein sequence, it's a few different instants that make up a single motion laid down together on the page. We watch maybe one second pass in this whole panel, but it's split up into five different sections, five tracked movements across the frame, the stitching-up done for us and all in the same box. There's no gutterspace at all here, only a perception of sequence that comes close to the experiential. The idea of frames per second no longer applies, but we can still see the movement, still watch something go from beginning to end in front of us. The gaps are gone now, and we are seeing something that mimics the way we see actual motion in life -- not a captured moment, but a string of them forced into one picture.
Quitely also goes deep into subdivision in this panel, and in doing so he brings us beyond the range of normal perception. Each moment in the background image gets its constituent parts extended across the frame in a row of tiny impacts, small parts of the one whole brought into focus. These rows aren't progressions, they're different aspects of the single moments occurring, and by presenting so many at once, Quitely gives us a totality of image, a full view into things, that our real-life eyes could never show us. It's a different thing than Krigstein or Williams are up to -- while they strive for movement, Quitely is locked on to the panel as frozen, immobile thing here, his rows capturing the same exact point in time across multiple frames, his in-panel tracking shot denying the need for transitions. Again, there may be space between the little boxes, but there are no "gaps", everything along each row is happening at the exact same instant. The spaces being stitched together are only physical now. We have arrived inside a moment in time, the sheer amount of it being presented forcing us to experience it as lived rather than looked down on -- as swimming around us all at once rather than passing us by in frozen increments.
Single pictures: they are incapable of true movement, even when they're projected at a thousand frames per second or drawn twenty-nine to a panel at the size of postage stamps. It's in making them try to move, in exploring the ways the spaces between them hit our minds, that comics go further. The comics artist can stop us on a single panel for minutes on end or push us through a hundred in a few seconds with the way it's all put together. Nothing is proscribed, anything possible in the way pictures and gaps between interact. But even in the most perfect sequences, there's always another factor that I haven't mentioned: collaboration. We the readers make the comic happen. It does not play on regardless, like things do on a stage or a screen. The artists can influence us and push us toward seeing, but in the end comics happen in our minds and nowhere else. From stillness to motion inside ourselves; it's a wonderful thing, that.
Appendix; ask me about it in comments if you want