Sunday, January 15, 2006

Managing Time in Comics

Okay, I've got a question. When you look at this comic, do you skip to the punchline?

(Image is 9 Chickweed Lane, which is probably in the top five syndicated comic strips if you ignore the bizarre Sunday strips, like this one. I'm reprinting it here for educational purposes.)

You see, the way I read that image, I read the upper cells from left to right, but then - bam - I zzzzzip past the left cells on the bottom, drawn straight to the final frame's vibrant colors. This happens a lot, and I think it's largely because the perspective of these sorts of things usually urges you to shoot through them. To a lesser extent, maybe it's because there's no natural flow from one row to the next, so your eye just falls down the page, rather than skipping back to the left.

I find this is a common problem - not just in Chickweed Lane. There's something about a cell or page layout which can cause me to pause, to process it as a chronological moment. Other cells, like those above, just slip through.

So, any of you that know the magical art of cell framing can chime in on this. My feeling is as follows, as someone with marginal "armchair" knowledge of the subject:

All the images I look at which cause me to pause are "bumpy". They do one of three things, all of which are "bumpy":

1) They are shaped funny. Crooked, or single-cell-two-vertical-cells-single-cell, or shattered into pieces, or something else which makes the actual cell itself look funny. This can also be as simple as wide-cell-skinny-cell, although you obviously get lesser results with lesser attempts.

2) The content is ragged between it and the next cell. Most people tell you to guide the audience's eye through the page. This is the exact opposite. This is having the "momentum" point smack into something which gets in your way. For example, a white cell leading to a black cell. Or the line of action leading square into a dialogue box.

3) There's a large amount of white space. I used to think this was the most important, but I've seen examples with very little white space that were still clearly pauses.

All three of these are actually, I think, type 2. They are attempts to control the flow of the eye across the page. Unfortunately, Chickweed's attempts always encourage rapid flow, rather than breaking it up.

Interesting, I think.

What do you think? Do you see it the way I see it?


Textual Harassment said...

I'm pretty much armchair everything, so don't think I'm some sort of an expert.

This comic seems to be representing one instant in time, which always tends to make me skim or skip panels. If the picture weren't split up so much, I think it would work better. I would have spent more time looking at each image.

However, there's one very important thing to know about Sunday comics: the panels have to be split in certain places, so that the papers can shift them around to fit their format. They even have the option of removing the first two(three in this example) panels(see how the last panel in row 2 could match up with the first panel in row 3?). Bill Watterson broke with that format late in Calvin and Hobbes, which managed to really piss off some newspaper editors. If you look at some C&H collections, the difference in has layouts before and after is striking.

The artist is trying to work within these contraints, and tries to mitigate it by cutting the comic into equal-sized panels. I think this just makes things worse, though, as the white intersecting panel borders have the effect of guiding your eye up and down the page.

The eye is attracted to color and white space, and avoids solid black, so when I look at that comic, I skip right past the first image and look at the light on the bottom of the second row. After that, I go directly to the bright color of the window in the last panel.

I think just putting a little more color and light into the earlier panels would help the pacing. Sure, it would diminish the contrast of the final panel, but the current poor composition ruins the effect just as well.

Textual Harassment said...

Correction: Just the first two panels here (first row) might be removed.
Or it could be printed
Like this, taking up just a quarter of a newspaper page. I actually think this layout works better. The light beam makes a nice guiding line up to the final panel. Also the person's shadow doesn't get split up, which is nice.

Craig Perko said...

I didn't realize they did that. I'm not up to snuff on this syndication business.

Your rearranged panels are striking, actually. I didn't realize at all that the second row lined up with the third row. However, that just makes the arrangement she chose (or was forced to choose) that much worse in comparison.

It sounds like we have the same eye movements on this piece, which is reassuring.

Being a huge fan of white space, I would have probably done it something like this:

Re-rearranged Chickweed

Which, in my opinion, solves the problem of diving down to the window immediately. White space is uncrossable space. White space is also unsyndicatable space, I suppose.

Still, though, the window punches too hard. You can see it as soon as you look at the comic. It's hardly a hidden punchline.