Friday, August 7, 2009

Function follows form(at)

Before continuing with the series of outcomes assessments, I wanted to take a break to address a topic related to the last post, that of comics format and how it relates to narrative.

The last exercise concerned a rather outré format for comics narrative, that of slotted cards which could be connected in different ways. While it proved to be a useful heuristic for developing character and story, the format didn't reveal itself as especially useful for constructing narrative in a deliberate way.

It happened that at the same time I was considering that format, mainstream comics were presenting themselves in a new format as well: DC Comics began publishing a weekly, near-broadsheet-sized periodical called Wednesday Comics. Looking like nothing more than an old-school newspaper Sunday funnies section, the comic provides fifteen separate one-page stories in a 12" by 18" page format - roughly twice the dimensions of a standard comic.

The most obvious effect of this format is its nostalgic value. The very physicality of the item resonates with indolence and innocence and echoes of time past. A few of the creators play with this, calling out to comic strip conventions. Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred run messages directed at the reader in a slot underneath the main Metamorpho story, and Adam and Joe Kubert use a slightly smaller space for portraits of the cast at the bottom the Easy Co. strip; both of these approaches evoke similar practices that were common in the heyday of the the newspaper strip.

What is significant is that these practices are only possible because of the characteristics of the printed artifact itself. If we reduced these strips to standard comic book size, even though the aspect ratio would be nearly perfect, the absolute (not relative) size of the ancillary material would be reduced beyond usefulness, or even in some cases legibility, coming to resemble something more like Sergio Aragones's marginals in Mad magazine than an integral part of the main strip. This explains why these features have all but disappeared from traditional comic strips; the very structural possibilities of the narrative are determined by its ultimate format. The large-scale page format of Wednesday Comics offers up additional possibilities, which different contributors take advantage of in different ways.

Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook, with Kamandi, and Paul Pope, with Strange Adventures, use this oversize canvas to present artwork that, because of the strength of its composition or the intricacy of its detail, probably wouldn't work nearly as well on a smaller scale.

Two consecutive Allred strips comprised a single panel; the size of the panel was large enough that repeated figures were clearly read as existing in different moments as well as at a different points, moving through both time and space in an expansive landscape. This effect would be much more difficult to carry off on a standard-sized splash page.

Karl Kerschl et al present a multi-layered narrative. Under the banner of The Flash, one sequence showcases the Flash himself, and the other belongs to Iris West, the woman in his life; each is separately sub-titled. You might be able to have this effect in a standard comic by separating each thread on its own facing page, but the horizontal orientation of the strips and their proximity on the same leaf creates a much more intimate connection between the two strands.

The rest of the strips seem to have taken standard comic book technique and simply enlarged the page. While the bigger size gives us a better look at the linework and adds some power to the figures, in these cases it seems like an utilization of the potential of the format. The strips are perceived differently, but are not, it seems, intentionally different.

The oversize format has the ability to affect not just the presentation, but the very structural possibilities of the comic narrative. To draw this conclusion into sharp relief, let's take a look at a completely different format. Here's a short video illustrating how the comic Atomic Robo appears on a GooglePhone:

On a screen that is somewhere around 3" x 2", the narrative possibilities are limited, to say the least. One panel at a time is the norm: off the table are expansive page layouts, dual story threads, broad landscapes presented in single panel, and all that. The comic in the video was originally presented in a standard comic book; it was edited to fit the phone format, and its narrative flow was greatly changed in the process. I can't even begin to imagine attempting to present something like Paul Pope's intricate page layouts on the phone; Kamandi's panels would be so small as to be unreadable; and the Flash series would have to offer up one narrative at a time. Comics over the phone may be a viable option in the future, but they will likely contain stories written especially for the format, whose narrative structures play to the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the format.

This awareness of form is just another layer of complexity in understanding how we apprehend comics narrative; we have ongoing discussions on the difference between reading a serialized narrative published periodically and reading the same narrative collected in one volume ("waiting for the trade"); the questions of format lay themselves over that, to wit: What would a collected album of Wednesday Comics look like -- all the Kamandi, all the Flash, all the Metamorpho, and so on? Wouldn't it be a huge book, however it were edited? Would the physicality of holding such a tome change your interaction with the stories? And from a different take: can you imagine reading a graphic novel on a phone?

And all of this highlights once again the difference between prose literature and graphic literature. With any form of prose, whether short story, novel, memoir, or whatever, the ultimate format - hardback, paperback, e-book - matters little. In effective pose, the little marks on the page disappear from our conscious ken and we live the story in our imaginations. Not so with comics; we don't want the marks on the page or the screen to ever disappear; we want to linger over them and savor them and appreciate them and their details, the physical traces of the artist, what French analyst Phillipe Marion called graphiation. And so, questions of format, trivial to the prose writer, become critical considerations for the comics creator.

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