Permanent Damage: Issue #265

Wed, October 11th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Went to lunch with some comics writers a couple weeks ago. We do this every so often to swap notes, talk shop, and get out of the house. For some reason this time we got onto a brief jag about the relative strategic difficulties of storytelling and how obvious it is when a writer or artist didn't think their storytelling choices through. (Which largely goes for all of us working in a medium where a lot of output is usually the only way to make a living.)

What came up was timing.

Comics stories (like all forms of fiction, in different ways) are tricky. To be a complete story (to some extent even the separate chapters of a story spread over several issues of a comic have to function as a complete story to retain reader interest in the long haul) a certain number of things have to occur: an introduction, a complication, some sort of resolution even if it's just the fly caught, despite all efforts, in the spider's web as the spider bears down on him. (Yes, a cliffhanger is a type of resolution; it "resolves," at least momentarily, the micro-issue at hand, though obviously it creates another micro-issue that calls for another resolution - and a cliffhanger is effective only if it creates a desire to discover that resolution.) Most comics are, unfortunately, victims of space, and using the space effectively is a matter of proper timing.

While I'm not their biggest fan, Scott McCloud wrote the best primer on timing in comics in his books UNDERSTANDING COMICS, REINVENTING COMICS and MAKING COMICS, which arguably remain the best overall introductions to the medium you can find. Early on in UNDERSTANDING COMICS, Scott drives home a basic principle of comics: every panel represents a crystallized moment of time.

Every panel in comics is a single moment in time.

So we all cheat. A lot.

If we accurately reflected the concept that each panel is a single moment - in essence a movie where only the master shots remain - every page would have hundreds of panels, and likely be unreadable (I mean, even more than many are now) if not uncreateable. Fortunately, time can be as plastic in comics as in novels, so there are ways to cheat on it. The most obvious are also the most laughable; everyone's familiar with the panel where two guys are punching at each other while spouting a couple hundred words each. The sheer ridiculousness, and the resulting creative embarrassment over it as more and more people became consciously aware of it, fueled much of the rush to "decompressed" comics (which have themselves become largely ridiculous), though there's still no shortage of writers overloading fight scenes with dialogue. (When I first worked with Marvel, a page without dialogue was usually viewed as the writer attempting to cheat the company, so the bias was towards more words rather than fewer, even if the art carried all the necessary information for the moment.)

Such scenes depend on the willing complicity of the reader to go along with the cheat and "fill in" the missing visualization of passing time with time inferred by "sound." In comics, every word of dialogue also suggests a single moment, and sentences the passage of time. It's that willing complicity that most of us prey on, and often abuse. It's one thing to have the Red Skull prattle on about decadent democracy while punching Captain America in the jaw, and in the same panel have Cap spew a dissertation about how it's democracy that makes us strong and not understanding that is why the Skull will always lose, because even if Cap falls dozens of Americans will rise up to take his place, etc. etc. You can get away with that kind of thing if you play it right, and that's by inviting the reader to play along, not by demanding it. The way to do that is by giving the reader as few obstacles as possible, which means minimizing the perception of compressed time.

Which is a lot simpler than most people would think. And it goes something like this -

- and it's going to sound really stupid, but it's all about perception -

The moment, visually, is the Red Skull punching Captain America on the chin. (Presuming that we're operating from a Western perspective, with the Red Skull to the left side of the panel, Cap to the right.) Anything the Red Skull (or whoever is on the left side of any given panel) says will be perceived as being spoken before that moment. Anything Cap (or whoever's on the right) says will be perceived as happening after that moment. Additionally, whatever happens or is said at the top of a panel is perceived to occur before what happens at the bottom of a panel. Because those are the often unarticulated conventions we grow up with in Western Civilization. Like all social conventions these aren't hard and fast and there are ways to beat them, but it helps to be aware of them, and I'm always surprised as the number of people, especially comics writers and artists, who aren't.

As long as those perceptions are fed, the reader will be less inclined to question the amount of dialogue in any given "moment." As long as you don't push it and don't do anything to push the reader out of the moment.

Which means (again, it baffles me how many writers don't get this) if Captain America reacts to the punch - say with an "Ooof!" - the "Ooof!" has to come before anything else Cap says and after anything the Skull says. Because that reaction is the moment.

You can cheat on the moment - you have to cheat on the moment, or you'll never be able to fill a comic with enough information to build a story - but everything must coordinate with the moment.

In timing comics, the moment is paramount. One of the things I really like to put in comics, which artists (for good reason) tend to resist, is the concept of simultaneous action. You can always spot beginning comics writers by the way they describe "He walks into the room, throws down the grocery bag and turns on the TV" as happening all in one panel. That's not simultaneous action. That's consecutive action the writer doesn't understand how to handle. An artist might conceivably be able to get away with splitting it into two panels - since a character has two arms, he could set down a grocery bag and turn on a TV at the same moment - but not in one. Actions that can only take place in consecutive moments are consecutive actions. Actions that take place in the same moment in separate scenes are parallel actions. Actions that take place in the same moment in the same scene are simultaneous actions. Only the latter can take place in the same panel.

Some simultaneous actions can be divided into two panels without "information loss." Some can't. "Information loss" erodes the moment, and eroding the moment erodes the reader's willing participation. (Like stage magicians, our tricks only work when the audience isn't looking at what we're actually doing.) Each panel represents, in addition to a moment of time, a compressed amount of information, carried by the visuals, the words and the connections between them. The trick is in finding the balance that will carry the most amount of information in the shortest moment, or set of moments, of time, for maximum impact.

Take a gunshot. There are a couple ways to handle it. A man fires a gun at another man and hits him square in the chest. These are, of course, two distinct actions. The gun goes off. The bullet hits the man. So the moment can be split into two moments: the bullet is fired, the bullet strikes, cause and effect. But while each panel represents a separate moment, the space between panels represents the passage of time. Splitting the gunshot into two panels introduces an element of time extension that diminishes the impact of the moment. Unless the characters are at some distance, our perception of a gunshot, from movies, TV or life, is that it happens very, very quickly; cause and effect are as nearly simultaneous. In this instance, the simultaneous action - cause and effect, action and reaction, in a single panel - is what we presume to be the "reality" of the situation: a man shoots and another man falls in the same moment. Anything that disrupts that presumption of "reality" weakens the impact of the moment - and takes the reader out of the moment.

General rule of thumb: in a comics story (any type of story, really) anything that lessens impact is bad.

The type of simultaneous action I like that I have a hard time getting from artists is where two (or more) people are doing two different things in the same place at the same time. It's usually entirely possible to break that panel into two separate panels, one highlighting each of the parties performing their action. It's not always preferable. As with the gunshot, adding that panel gutter, whether it's just a line or a full break, adds an element of time that runs counter to perception, especially in a scene where a number of actions must occur in fairly rapid succession: the more time invested into the scene, the more the pace of events slows down.

To continue using the simplest examples: two men being held in a room turn on their guards and try to overpower them. You can do a page where one man jumps the guard nearest him in one panel, another guard reacts in the second, the second man jumps the second guard in the third, etc. But this fragments the action - and disrupts the sense of spatial relationships between the various players in the scene while taking up a lot of room, both on the page and in the reader's attention span. Depending on what the writer is specifically trying to get across, it's potentially an information sieve, forcing the reader to reconstruct the overall scene and flow of action.

A single panel where both men jump their guards simultaneously avoids all that. Action is more direct and explosive, spatial relationships are immediate. But it's a much harder shot to set up - in those relationships, in perspective, in overall page design. Writers who want such things have to allot the space to accommodate them; it's very difficult, and probably confusing to the reader, to call for nine such shots on a nine panel grid page. In theory, the more you want happening in a single panel, the more space that panel should have. In my experience, panel size doesn't influence a reader's sense of the story's timing much, but panel density does. You can place the same action and dialogue in stories with a five panel grid and a nine panel grid, and the nine panel grid story will seem denser because the perception of the story's timeframe will be different. What panel size affects most is how much story can be contained within the allotted page span, which also affects a reader's time sense: the fewer panels in a comic (unless the reader's attention is slowed down by things like heavy dialogue volume, resonant emotional content, artwork that forces the eye to linger, or any other technique that forces a slowdown of the reading experience) the quicker the reader will finish the book. The perception of real time also affects the perception of story time.

This is something not many comics creators or fans seem to take into account. But the ability to manipulate perception of time in a story is a valuable tool, though one that often flies in the face of the "art-first" style of storytelling still somewhat prevalent after its '90s heyday. But smartly written stories can incorporate all kinds of things.

General rule of thumb: in the absence of a desired effect - there are always allowances for imagination - the fewer number of panels a specific action can be expressed in, the better.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface. But there has been much talk lately, and not just here, of creating a "denser reading experience," so these are the sorts of things we have to seriously start taking into consideration when creating comics. We can't afford to approach these things unconsciously anymore; we have to deconstruct our common language to figure out how it ticks and imagine real improvements to it, and by improvements I mean changes that would allow us to pack more content, as fuzzy a word as that is, into less space and if that means consciously manipulating reader perceptions, the only thing different would be doing it consciously. The real trick will be resisting the temptation to wave it in the readers' faces while we do it; there's a reason magicians don't reveal the secrets of their tricks.

A couple letters re: last week:

"It's interesting that you spent a portion of this week's column discussing Steranko, as I managed to find in my local comic shop over the summer the three collections of his work Marvel put out when Quesada first became EiC and an old copy of his Chandler book. It's interesting stuff, and changed my view of Frank Miller quite a lot, as I now see where he developed many of his early techniques. Steranko's work is, as you said, quite explosive in its storytelling, and only improves in its inventiveness and draftsmanship the further into his career at Marvel he went. I was disappointed by the fact that, just as his drafting style appeared to leave Kirby behind he quit comics, as I would have loved to have seen where he would have gone. I would imagine that part of the reason Steranko is so unknown at this point is down to two factors: The brevity of his career and how dated his stories seem now to modern audiences. While his art is still revolutionary, his dialogue is creaky, which would scare off readers who've grown used to the Mark Millar shock tactic style of writing. It also helps that Marvel apparently hasn't kept the books in print, and there isn't much work to find in any case. Unfortunately I haven't been exposed to Krigstein yet, so thanks for providing a few examples of what I have been missing."

Like I said, Steranko's style partly incorporated Walter Gibson's, and Gibson's writing in his multitude of SHADOW novels was alternately intensely punchy and cringingly creaky, and that's part of Steranko too; for all that he was the progenitor of "tough" material for the generation that followed him (as Gibson's work became a model for hero pulp writers of the '30s), there's also a sentimental streak in his comics work that occasionally almost derails it. Frank's early work did nick quite a bit from Steranko, as well as Ditko, Eisner and Gil Kane, but Frank, like Steranko, is another synthesist by nature who increasingly mutated the influences he picked up and merged them into an increasingly original style. Krigstein's career as an innovator, on the other hand, seems to stand beyond influences; he generated his storytelling solutions not by incorporating what others had done but by rethinking the material according to his own tastes, and his work seems alien to many today, as if it were done by something not of our world. Which, depending on how you define "our world," may have been the case.

"Your recent column comparing Krigstein and Steranko brought to mind a discussion currently occurring at the Marvel Masterworks fansite. The main question is whether black and white reprints like Marvel Essentials line or DC's Showcase violate the artistic integrity of the original comics? The thrust of the argument is that color plays a role in these comics and that reducing the story to b&w removes an integral part of the story, as well as dismissing the colorist as a valued contributor. But, if these comics began as b&w pencils and inks, then is that stage of development not also valid?

The Krigstein panel depicting the artist working seems to me a perfect example of comic work that works better with the color. The deepening red bolsters the sentiment that manic, creative energy is being unleashed. If reduced to b&w, the reader could still understand the image but the overall vigor is reduced. You always have cogent thoughts about comic book theory and construction and I thought (and hoped) that perhaps you might consider commenting on this discussion. I also happened to mention this to Erik Larsen since his most recent column happened to discuss the merits of the various reprints available both Essential and Masterwork. He contributed some comments on Page 10 of the thread."

It depends on the project. Reprinting, say, Howard Chaykin's original run on AMERICAN FLAGG! in black and white would violate the artist's intent, as Howard always maintained strict control over the coloring on those stories and clearly viewed it as an integral element. On the other hand, I'd think that it's better for people to see the material in black and white than not to see it at all. But in most instances in the vast history of comics, the black and white art is the clearest indicator we have of the artist's intent, since in most instances the artist had no say in the selection of colorist and little contact with the colorist while a story was being colored. So while I don't discount the value of the colorist in the process, in most cases the colorist can't be credited with reflecting the artist's intent, even when the colorist was someone as good as Marie Severin or Tatjana Wood. Matter of fact, often the coloring didn't even reflect the colorist's intent, as the process was so technologically barbaric that coloring guides were frequently only used as loose guides by color separation companies (another step in the road to print for most comics published prior to around 1990) which usually hired day laborers - bored housewives, etc. - to generate the actual separations used in printing, and, especially given the social status of comics, most of them couldn't be depended on to maintain the integrity of the color guides. On top of that, even the black and white art can't really be said to represent the penciler's intent in most cases, and we tend to think of the penciler as the "real" artist in comics; it represents the inker's intent. And most usually the penciler didn't have much say over inking assignments either. Once the inking in completely, the pencils are gone, and with them any sure indicator of original intent. I'm pretty sure Krigstein had little control over the coloring of most of his work, and I'm not sure how much Steranko had, as I vaguely recall before those S.H.I.E.L.D. editions you've got were published he offered to recolor all the material.

So it's hard to get too worked up about older work being published in black and white, especially since the other option most often isn't to publish in color but not to publish at all. These days computers have streamlined the coloring process dramatically, and coloring is often more directly and intensely absorbed into the art.

"So what do you think of THE WIRE [HBO, Sundays 9P] so far this season?"

In the immortal words of Jim Morrison: I think I like it fine, so far.

Saw THE DEPARTED over the weekend, since I couldn't do much else, and I still don't know what the title has to do with anything. Adapted from the Hong Kong flick INTERNAL AFFAIRS, the film hangs together on a clever hook - a crime boss' mole inside a police department races a police chief's mole inside the crime boss' gang to find out the other's identity and bury him first - and terrific acting from almost everyone involved, especially Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio (who's better here than he has ever been), Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, amid the typical Martin Scorcese flourishes like cutting away from a bit of dialogue to the scene being described in the dialogue, then cutting back to finish the story. Bafflingly, he adds a new trick to his repertoire, which I'm not sure has been seen since, oh, the 1920s, looking through a hole in an otherwise black screen then widening out to a full screen shot. The first time just makes you scratch your head, but by the third or fourth time (I lost track) it becomes really irritating. Also irritating is the female romantic lead, a woman both men, unknown to each other, get involved with, and she's so lacking in any kind of appeal that the only apparent reason for either's interest in her is that, if the film is an indicator, every other woman under the age of 40 in Boston is dead. But the film hangs together pretty well until the last twenty completely unnecessary minutes following what should have been a climactic collision in a scrapyard. Yes, I know what happens (at least until the final scene when all sins are repaid) is exactly what happened in the Chinese original, but that still doesn't make it right. What could have been a one-two-three punch knockout ending makes way for a limp to the final bell instead.

Over in TV, the first fatality of the new season is CBS' star-studded heist drama SMITH, which I liked but don't miss now that it's gone, while NBC's KIDNAPPED has been gulaged to Saturday night to run out its remaining string. But the stunner of the week was the two hour season opener of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (SciFi, Fridays 9P) which, as the surviving humans on New Caprica resort to increasingly violent and bloody terrorism while living under the self-reputed benevolent heel of their Cylon saviors, was a disorienting examination of how a people can come to believe terrorism is justifiable behavior. Not exactly what you'd expect to see on American TV these days. Most startling, perhaps, was a shot where one of the aging human commanders, just released from imprisonment and torture that cost him an eye, grizzled and head bandaged, takes on the bearing of Osama bin Laden as he notes how suicide bombing has been the one tactic that has made the Cylons take notice. And it's not hard to understand why the Cylons view themselves as the good guys either. The show ain't perfect, but it's far more daring that anything else on the tube (they'll be getting into other thorny material in subsequent episodes) and if you're not watching it you should be.

Woke up last Wednesday to a major computer crash, the sort of total system wipeout that I was always told wasn't supposed to happen in Windows XP. No idea why. Spent a couple days commiserating with pals at Microsoft as we circumvented traditional customer support and dug into the real manuals for something to do about it. Finally came up with a partial reinstall that should have solved all the problems. It didn't. Windows worked but little else did, particularly anything to do with the Internet. No email, limited access to websites. (I could log on to website front pages but linking to any other pages, onsite or off, ended in hung loads.) By Friday morning, I realized my only option was to wipe my C: drive, run all the necessary diagnostics, and, all other things being even, do a fresh install. The computer's been working fine so far - curiously, it crashed a year to the day from when I finished building it and brought it online, but I doubt that means anything - but the last few days have been a blur of reinstalling one application after another. Weirdly, it now works much better than it ever did, finally able to achieve my monitor's top resolution, load programs I was never able to successfully load before, etc. So I'm guessing there was something inherently wrong in my original installation, but, man, I can really live without doing that again for a long, long time... (To those who may be concerned: I only keep my system files on my C: drive, and my documents etc. on other drives, so aside from a couple e-mails I didn't lose anything. If you sent me an email between the end of June and last week, however, odds are pretty good I no longer have it so if it was something important send it again, and if anyone has an e-mail address or phone number for Michael Alroy, please drop me a line. Thanks.)

Fun site of the week: Iran's supreme spiritual leader's Ramadan etiquette column. I still haven't decided if it's someone's joke or for real, but it's a stitch either way.

Not much in the line of politics this week. The Foley scandal gets funnier and funnier as his lawyer and various Republican groups spew out various preemptory defenses. A Republican claim that Foley was innocent and pranks by those scamps in the Congressional page's office almost won the best excuse of the week award, but Foley's lawyer trumped them by first announcing, apparently as an excuse, that Foley is gay - something he never previously admitted to despite frequently being questioned about it, and I have my doubts anyway; chasing men is gay behavior, but chasing boys is just pedophilia, and while on the surface the two things might seem to be related and many people continue to view them that way, they're not - and then revealing that he was molested as a child by a clergyman. Which may be true, I wouldn't know, but at this point it sounds more like desperation strategizing, trotting out every "liberal" rationale they could come up with (though none actually qualify as justifying Foley's behavior) and I start to imagine think sessions where Foley's lawyers snarl angrily at him, "goddammit, if only you had been raised Catholic...!" Whether there will be any real blowback from this onto anyone but Dennis Hastert remains to be seen but, notably, a recent poll showed, for the first time in a long time, a majority of respondents stating they felt the Democrats now represented their moral values more than the Republicans (which is a horribly sad statement in so many ways) and, curiously, that they now believe the Administration knew far more about 9/11 in advance of the event than they're admitting...

The Grand Comicbook Database, up five minutes ago, is suddenly down again, so for the second week I can't get to any covers for the Comics Cover Challenge. Sorry about that, but here's a Basil Woolverton rarity to spice up the column this week. Fingers crossed for next week.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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