Feb 18, 2019

Techniques and Tricks: Depicting Time with R. Crumb and Ramon Perez

In a static medium, one of the challenges is depicting the passage of time. A part of this is because unless you're a manga and you're setting up an establishing scene (which is bits and pieces that would make up a whole establishing shot), each panel is a movement in time. But how much time? There's as much space between any hypothetical two panels as any other hypothetical two panels. A tried and true method of depicting how much time has passed is to have captions that say things like "Later!" or "Meanwhile!", but that can be seen as clumsy or cliche.

Let's look at two alternatives from one silent and one mostly silent comic.

Depicting Time, with Robert Crumb and Ramon Perez
by Duy

Legendary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb has a minicomic called A Short History of America, and it's literally just this:

Simple enough, right? Each panel shows years, decades passing, but it doesn't need to tell us that time has passed. We see it for ourselves because we aren't changing locations. The key here is repeating visual cues. In panels 1 to 7, such a cue is the tree. It doesn't matter that the tree had changed, just that there were trees there. That's then replaced by the electrical post. By the time we get to the second-to-last panel, when virtually none of the previous visual clues have disappeared, we already very much know that this is the same spot we've seen all throughout, just through sheer repetition.

So that's one way. Just stick to a specific location, via a specific angle, and change most of it if you want, but just have a visual signifier to clue readers into the sameness of location.

Now let's look at Tale of Sand, a surrealist comic drawn by Ramon Perez off of an unmade Jim Henson screenplay. Let's look at this two-page sequence:

There's a lot here we can actually talk about, but let's just focus on the turtle. We know that Mac is trying to hitch a ride. How long has Mac been waiting to get a ride before he decides to walk? Well, we know that right before he crossed the street, he passed a turtle.

And when he decided to walk, the turtle had just crossed the street.

So he waited as long as it would take a turtle to cross a busy street.

So that's another way. Plant a small detail in your panels depicting time, and then just draw the readers' attention to it.

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