Mar 6, 2013

Pop Medicine: Nine Little Things

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Nine Little Things
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

It’s easy to point to the big things that make a comic memorable or enjoyable, which is why there will always be countdown lists of Liefeld art climaxing with Captain Chesty America or mention of Watchmen’s success as a constrained comic. A “Perez shot” isn’t a shot of careful interpersonal dynamics or condensed emotion in a simple and direct representational style, or even a Pieta allusion; a “Perez shot” is a thousand little figures all active around a central occurrence. "Morrison-like" has come to be shorthand for any comic that throws the ball early and anticipates the audience to still be there when it comes down to be caught ten or fifteen issues later. You don’t talk about pacing in Peanuts, though there’s a great deal that could be discussed beneficially, so much as how to draw those big round heads and not lose the balance.

So, I thought, why not take a look at some of the littler things that can have great effect on a comic, on the audience? This is me, sorting out these ideas, my feelings on these techniques, as much as sharing them with you, so feel free to disagree or differently-agree. Feel free with the feedback.

Frame or Window

Every comic you have ever read had to make this decision, even the ones where the page is the frame. No exceptions. But, how often do we, as audience, take note of it? How frequently do artists pause to think it through on that level? Not often, on both counts. But it does have profound effects.

Imagery that is isolated by the frame can give us a sense of controlled environment that leads us to perceive an artist as more deliberate and artsy, to perceive the panels and their contents as more classical and direct. Imagery that is interrupted by panel borders or cropped by them, even when elegantly balanced and deliberately structured, implies a haphazardness or freedom from control that the framed and totally enclosed lacks. The cropping, thus, can add a sense of motion or chance, while the isolation of framing can imply class and permanence.

Style Shift

As someone who has lightboxed and will lightbox again, here is a simple way to tell who’s only good at slavishly copying and who has some trained sense and technical capacity of their own: can they merge disparate referenced objects into a single image in a sensible way? Can they redraw the same basic elements from a different perspective? And, can they make basic exaggerations that would save a straight copy job from a sense of stillness or posing?

Style is not simply found, appreciably, in the set of standard elements an artist reuses, but in the range they can show in those elements. Distorting image or biology to imply speed or motion, juxtaposing simplified cartoons with hyperdetailed elements in a single image or narrative, bright open imagery giving way to darker, heavy material, tight pencils to sketchy, thin lines to thick, these alterations can immediately push an audience into new territory without any objective narrative shift (yet) accompanying.

These can occur in the writing, as well, to great benefit. One character deep in depression and fear, surrounded by characters and setting of a considerably happier, carefree nature is not distracting to the reader, if executed efficaciously, but enhances the distress or happiness depending on which side is given prominence in the scene. If either is treated weakly, however, the whole scene comes apart, the same way a comedy character must continue to be funny even while a serious, and deadly gunfight is occurring around them, that gunplay, as well, treated straight and with integrity, for maximum frisson.

Constant Interrelations

To bring this back to George Perez, all characters in a modern, mature story are foils for all other characters. How individual characters relate to events or interrelate with each other reflects on all other characters in similar circumstances. A conversation that supports the dynamic of only one side is a weak conversation. A scene where everyone but one character is blindly staring off into space vacuously, is a squandered scene, unless somehow therein lies the point that is being made, but that’s such a lampoonish point I can’t imagine it would be frequently worthwhile. And, the reason I say this brings us back to Perez, is that he is a master at visualizing an array of interpersonal relations. The Morgan Conquest is brilliant for this, so that every gathering in that comic, Perez has each individual doing something idiosyncratic, often in relation to other people or objects in the scene, so that we can tell by shared reactions or shared recognitions all manner of personality traits that need not be confirmed in dialogue or indulged with full scenes.

First-Person Veracity

Studies have shown that we accept on faith first-person narratives, even those we know to be explicitly fictional, more readily than we do third person. (But we believe even fictional material framed as a sign or academic treatise more readily than anything.) Whether using narration (directly to us), external first-person narration (directly to another character), or thought balloons and internal narration (character think to themselves), we, the audience, now share something perceivably intimate with the character drives us to be more empathetic to them. More to the point, audiences rarely differentiate between thoughts we are given and narration they relay to us or to other characters.

Some people will tell you that a lying narrator is a cheat. Those people probably dislike the big shaggy dog story of The Usual Suspects and the diary excerpts that narrate “Of Living and Dying”, the New X-Men story by Grant Morrison, John Paul Leon, and Bill Sienkiewicz. But, I’d say it’s fairer to say that it’s a Use Only Once technique. You can get away with forged documents or lying narration once in a story or once as a writer, and that’s your limit before it fails for the majority of an audience and not just a few sticks in the mud.


Right now there are people around the world going a bit mad because a writer on a Batman comic won’t give them an inch to keep forgiving an elitist, mass-murdering, slave-trading terrorist and think sexy thoughts about her. You know why they want to forgive her? So she can maybe someday date Batman (this is important!) and because she’s a girl. She’s not, actually; she’s a grown woman who, since she was introduced forty-two years ago, has consistently benefited from a global crime empire built on assassination, terrorism, human trafficking, and other fun, laughable activities, and the best reason we have ever been given to be lenient with her, or that Batman should be in-story, is that she’s pretty hot, and she’s someone’s daughter.

That, ladies and gents, is the power of moe. Moe is a relationship between audience and character that is dependent on the audience wanting to protect or encourage a less-than-dependent and budding character. Which, for decades, was how we were encouraged to understand Talia al Ghul, and how many choose to continue to perceive her even as she heads many legitimate global businesses and a world-spanning criminal empire indulging in the most horrific practices. The strength of moe is such that some of the audience will still desire to perceive her as naïve or adolescent in the face of all facts, to preserve a mythic past purity and romanticized stasis of dependency.

Repeated Images

Repeated images can achieve two different, very potent effects.

When an earlier image is repeated entirely or in part, there is an immediate déjà vu or nostalgic cognitive impulse in the audience, either consciously or subconsciously. This is the echo that homage covers or appropriated scenes give us, and the strength of the learning curve of repetitious imagery of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. A purer remembered image is strengthened by the dissonance between the actual original and variations and even a relatively weak image or arrangement can be made iconic, imbued with the strength of familiarity, the frisson of corroborating memories.

An image, repeated with little to no variation or interpolated material, can dilate our sense of time passing more intensely than any other technique in comics. We lose the ability to distinguish how much objective time has passed between panels, and even the time on-panel will become subjectively stretched, in the same fashion as counting out seconds or minutes appears to extend their breadth.

Repeating Information

There is a rule of thumb in commercial screenwriting, that plot-significant information should be repeated three times relatively quickly, so that the audience is sure to catch it, regardless of how little they are paying attention. As much as comics can be guilty of dumbing down the delivery of information to readers, including show and tell of the exact same information (duospecific) in visual and text, comics rarely deliberately relate information more than twice per issue, especially short comics. However, serialization means that information is often related repeatedly in a succession of parts to a greater whole, so as to catch up readers who are coming in fresh with any one segment of that greater comic. If not handled in a novel fashion each successive time, this can become irritating to consistent readers, particularly once a storyline is collected to be read continually in a short period of time.

This repetition need not always be a detriment, however. If given enough novelty or subtlety to not stand out as repetition during a collective read, it can serve simply as a reminder to keep information freshly in mind until it becomes significantly pertinent to the plot. Similarly, catchphrases or catchy descriptions can be repeated as guideposts for readers, something Chris Claremont excelled at, no matter how he may be mocked for it now, a technique he used to generate a sense of familiarity and “everyone knows” regarding sometimes difficult to fully explain super powers or personalities. “The focused totality of my telepathic abilities,” “no quarter asked, none given,” “body and soul” and “nigh-invulnerable” can wave on through almost anything you need them to.

“The focused totality…” line helps us ignore that it’s a physical manifestation we’re seeing, that its effects require physical contact, and that it has a physiological effect, while nominally being a psychic attack. How? It’s the focused totality of her telepathic abilities. “Nigh-invulnerable” almost seems to cancel itself out, but keep using it, it feels sensible. It’s invulnerable (except when not). Over dozens of issues Claremont trained an audience to attend these phrases, even if that audience, today, mostly comprises people who have never read a Chris Claremont comic.

Breaking Format

We grow accustomed to format, especially enforced formats as in constrained comics. As an audience, we find strength and reassurance in systemization. Constrained comics, once we are trained to the constraints, can be easy to hold up as achievements, because they have structure, and can be rewarding to read because, again, that structure is comforting; we lock into it. To, then, break structure, enhances instantaneously whatever elements are involved in the disruption. A sudden burst of color in a black and white piece; a splash page or half-page panel after thirteen pages of six-panel grids. Unexpected disruption highlights the fist that breaks a panel when all else has been contained, or emphasizes the first and only person to speak in a so-far silent narrative.


From Peter Kuper's Metamorphosis
Inset panels correlate the imagery or artifacts inside the smaller panel with the matter of the surrounding panel in an immediate and intense manner. That inside the inset panel becomes tethered to what surrounds it (perhaps as setting or destination) and it simultaneously distinguishes the inset’s contents as outside and free from the surrounding. A person in an inset panel is understood to be mobile and independent from the static surrounding image, even if they are physically, in-world, within the parameters of that space, or even if the larger image is actually the body or form of the same character as the inset.

I have seen accusations that these were panels someone couldn’t fit separately in a layout, or criticizing them for blocking off part of the surrounding imagery, and if those are the case, yes, that’s a loss. But, I cannot offhand think of any examples of either of those. Usually, inset panels aren’t even attempted unless the artist can handle them sufficiently, as they’re virtually counterintuitive and a fairly mature form of comics-making. Layer of comics panels, however, may be more prevalent, and in any case, the nature of the overlapping and the différance of the insets and wraparound panels encourage us to pay more attention to both. We peer in at these tiny panels that perhaps have no more detail than a relative square of space in the larger image, and we do, on a variety of levels, try to understand what is behind them, where they do obscure the wraparound.

Color Communication

Colors by Tatjana Wood
Colorists are the unsung heroes of comics construction. When they fail badly, we write it off as technological or what can you expect in a cheap field. When they excel or do all the heavy lifting in a comic, we tend to champion the penciler anyway, even in the cases of the raw pencils or inked art being empty or emotionless. And, to be fair, there’s been a lot of halfassed or barely competent coloring that has occurred in comics. Not everyone is a Christie Scheele, Laura Martin, or Tatjana Wood. And, oftentimes the technologies did create the flaws, with accidentally skewed colors, poor reproductions, mismatched blacks.

Color has exceptional significance, though, and power. There are reasons some film theorists were intensely protesting color in film, because it would overpower or mute the things like motion and mise en scene. Even today, many use black and white art as some benchmark of artistic integrity as if color were solely a crutch to support commercial pap.

If an artist has control, technically and technologically, and refined sensibilities, they can use color to communicate immediately and strongly everything from physical depth to heroes and villains, danger, motion, weather, time, health, embarrassment, cold, activity, isolation… the range of what color can imply and implicate is exceptional. And, that the average reader will subconsciously ignore what is being communicated as being artificial means that communicating through color, versus representational line art or narrative text, can reach deeper and quicker into the reader and affect them without the resistance to belief that is the typical counterweight of the suspension of disbelief.

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