Friday, September 5, 2008

The Power of the Individual Panel

Cubofuturist interpretation of Durer's "Ascent of Venus" from Damn Weird #23, 2006.
Border & lettering is by Maximum Traffic.

Before we had the terms "Sequential Art" and "Graphic Storytelling," the pretentious name for comics was the advertising term, "Continuity Illustration." It's a horrible phrase, really, because it completely ignores the role of writing in comics. It diminishes the drawing too, since illustration is always subordinate to whatever it's supposed to illustrate. That said, I think this term needs to be brought back to our attention. "Sequential Art" emphasizes the sequence of images and leads us to think about the cinematic quality of comics. "Graphic Storytelling" stresses the rhythm and timing involved in the successful telling of a story. "Continuity Illustration" reminds us that a comic is also a linked series of individual pictures.

A germ carnival from "God Bless You," 1995

Since the underground comics faded in the late 70s, there's been a trend in the comics intelligentsia, such as it is, to view comic panels as visual syntagms or ciphers. It doesn't matter how they look. It only matters how they function. This view is supported by the fact that the good drawing found in commercial comics too often serves hackneyed stories. And it 's considered good drawing mostly because it's correct, not because it's creative, much less visionary. Although brilliant visual art has always thrived among indie comics, I see it consistently marginalized in the critical conversation. Maybe that's because writers find it easier to write about writing.

Universal language wars from "Volapuk," 1990

Personally, I love it when a carefully crafted comic panel makes me want to stop and study its effects. As a seasoned comic reader, I can hold the pacing in my head and read at any tempo I please. In my own work, I've sometimes spent up to two weeks working on a single panel-- designing it, revising it, packing it with ideas. You may think I'm wasting time but I believe I'm saving paper.

Pro Wrestlers on a scaffold from "Steel Pulse" #4, 1989.

So I'm launching this here thread where I'll occasionally post comic panels I'm particularly proud of to see if they can stand alone.


Isaac said...

I really, really like that rasslin' panel.

This is a good idea, Tom -- and I think you're right that strongly composed individual panels sometimes get overlooked in comics criticism. Maybe we should foment some kind of "Single-Panel Week" on a few of the brainier blogs, to try to rectify this. I bet the guys over at Thought Baloonists would go for it. said...

Thanks, Isaac. I'll try to post more of the wrestlers as I go along.

What is Thought Balloonists?

Isaac said...

Thought Balloonists is Craig Fischer and Charles Hatfield, a couple of comics scholars who mostly post reviews and the occasional chunk of theory. It's just a blog, really.


Marek Bennett said...

I've noticed, too, how fun it is to suspend the rat-tat-tat of my comic strip panels and just hold a single, sustained BIG panel... somehow it feels like you're releasing the readers from a guided tour, and telling them to just wander off into a wing of the museum on their own to see what they can find...

lllisa said...

I got stuck on "syntagm", hadda look it up. said...

So did I. I almost said "phoneme." But a syntagm is what I was talking bout, nutty as that sounds.