Nov 7, 2010

Comic Book Glossary: Gutter

Welcome to a new installment of Comic Book Glossary! One of the aims of the Comics Cube! has always been to help out the newer readers who may be interested in, but aren't all that knowledgeable in comics, and one thing everyone needs to know if they're interested are the terms. Click here for the index!

Last time, we discussed what a panel is. All right, you know that space in between two panels? That's called a gutter, because, well, it looks like a gutter.

From NEW TEEN TITANS #38, by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, and Romeo Tanghal

There's the easy part. The more complicated part is what I'm going to say next, and that's the fact that gutters are the foundation of comics.

See, one drawing, that's a drawing. An editorial cartoon? That's a cartoon. FAMILY CIRCUS? That's also a cartoon. Those aren't comics - at least not the way that "comics" are defined, which is a sequential combination of words and pictures, or, as Scott McCloud put it in UNDERSTANDING COMICS, "juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

The word "sequential" is key here, and it means that one picture has to follow another and tell the story. Okay, so Roy Lichtenstein's stuff, even though they were copied from comics? They're not comics.

Well, except for this one. See, this one involves a gutter.

Granted, Lichtenstein didn't seem to understand that for a foot to press down on the pedal to open the garbage can, you actually have to, you know, press down on the pedal. But hey, hacks will be hacks.

Okay, so, anything that delineates the separation of one moment from the other is a gutter, whether you're as straightforward as Ty Templeton:

Or as fancy as this scene by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez (the purpose of this scene being to be disorienting anyway):

Essentially, just because you can't see the gutters doesn't mean there aren't any there - they're just tiny and you can't see them, but if you can delineate one moment from the other, they're there.

Gutters can also be used to split a panel with just one background, to imply the passage of time between both panels, as demonstrated here by Craig Thompson and GOOD-BYE CHUNKY RICE:

Okay, now, some comics scholars believe that the power of comics is all contained within the gutter, as it's what makes comics interactive. Comics are a big "fill in the blanks" medium, where the gutters are the blanks. For example, take this sequence from TOM STRONG #13, by Alan Moore and Pete Poplaski:

See, it's up to you to decide how hard Tom hit Paul, just how far Paul fell and how on fire he is. It's this kind of interaction between the story and the reader that sets comics apart - after all, even novels don't force you to interact in the same way. (Not that I'm saying one is better than the other.)

Obviously though, some gutters offer less interpretation than others. It all depends on the type of panel-to-panel transition, and we'll look at some of those next time!

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