duminică, 28 septembrie 2014

Alexandru Oprescu: "The Graphic Novel" (6)

4. The Spatio-Topical Realm
4.1 The panel and its elements
The fundamental part of any comic is the panel. It is the atom, in the Greek sense of the word a-tomos­, the smallest and indivisible part of a comic book that any research should start at. The panel has, indeed, its more minute details and characteristics such as composition, color or placement, but analyzing these parts alone, devoid of the larger context the panel offers, has proven to be an infructuous endeavor.
A comprehensive definition of a panel and its major importance in the economy of a comic book can be found in the System of Comics:
In its habitual configuration, the panel is presented as a portion of space isolated by blank spaces and enclosed by a frame that insures its integrity. Thus, whatever its contents (iconic, plastic, verbal) and the complexity that it eventually shows, the panel is an entity that leads to general manipulations. (Groensteen, 2007)

Stripping the frame of all its contents, we realize that it is the frame that holds the panel inside it. In the economy of the page, the multitude of frames that would later become panels are, as Groensteen calls them, multiframes. The multiframe is the skeleton of the page, the casement that will be eventually fleshed by the artist, but which gives a lot of insight in the process of creation, being among the first things the artist does. One can see in any unfinished comic page that the multiframe is the result of a schematization, having almost no iconic elements but a bare minimum of the distinctive traits. This “theoretical model” can be considered the framework of thought upon which the artist creates the language, a mental form of how it should look, everything else being yet in the imagination of the artist.
Even having a panel stripped to a frame, there are three parameters that must be taken into account: the first two, geometrical, are form (square, rectangular, round etc.) and its area. The third one is the site, which means the location of the panel inside the page. Although the form and area have their own values that can be put to work, the site of a panel is rather very important in the economy of a narrative. There are places on a page that have a natural privilege in the viewer’s scrutiny of the space. Places like the geometric center, the upper left hand corner and the lower hand corner are natural points where the eye involuntarily drops. This is common knowledge for any respectable artist and many comic book pencillers have exploited this to the narration’s advantage, by placing key panels in those areas. It can be empirically observed, in
many comics issues, that the most important of the events are usually placed at the initial, central and last positions of the space in question. Cliffhanger panels can be drawn on a terminal position, only to follow on the next page with the upshot. It is a rhyming process that must happen between the first and last panel of a page.
The positioning of a panel inside a site is not done only to divide this space into smaller parts, but has the all important aspect of partitioning time, in regards to the dimensions of the panel. Each panel, with its size, corresponds to a particular moment in the development of the narrative, and seldom there are comic books that have uniform panel dimensions throughout, an eloquent example being Wathcmen, which even if a ‘classic’ layout of the panels have been chosen, their dimensions vary, one panel doubling or tripling in width and length.
The space of a page is also rather relative if let at this stage. The place where the panels, with their multiframes and the whole interdependency of the images are encapsulated can be defined as a hyperframe, a usually rectangular outline that encloses the ‘language’ inside:a “visual-textual box.” Just like the space between the picture and the frame, a hyperframe has the simplest role of delineation, it is a boundary between the usable space and the margin.
The margin on the other hand, is the object of enclosure, the way in which the object or material that must be contemplated is delimited from reality. Regarding comics in particular, the margin holds the object of reading. But a margin can gain an extensive role, participating in a story or in other artistic endeavors. Renouncing its virginal nature, a margin can contain a page number, a title or a signature; it can contain embellishments that add value to the panels. Also, a margin is not bound to being white. There are many artists that chose different colors which complemented the composition, like Dave McKean. By manipulating diverse parameters, the margin can influence the perception of a page and inform the contents.
4.2 Composing the double-page
“Pages situated opposite each other are dependent on a natural solidarity, and predisposed to speak to each other.” (Groensteen) There are numerous ways in which an artist can take advantage of this natural solidarity, creating an interweaving between the contents on the two pages. A certain balance between them is a pleasurable experience for the reader and many honed artists aim to do that in their comic books, and in all books, for a matter of fact.
An excellent example of the co-dependence of the double page and the artistic achievements that can be gained is Watchmen #5, with page 15 being the culmination of an interesting experimentation by Gibbons, with double pages and symmetry, throughout the issue.

Watchmen #5, Fearful Symmetry—the center spread
Issue’s title inspired by William Blake’s poem, The Tyger

Below there are more interesting effects of panel symmetry achieved through color (fig. 1), inversion (fig. 2) and contrast (fig. 3).
Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

4.3 The speech balloon
 Just like the frame and the panel, the speech balloon is yet another space in the hyperframe of a comic book. It is a direct contributor on the centers of attention of the reader, making it, in itself, as important as the text it houses.
What is interesting about the speech balloon, and the caption in some sense, is that in this world of co-dependencies, the speech balloon doesn’t quite fit the general rule. To exemplify, the lack of speech balloons in ‘mute’ pages outlines this special statute. In essence, the panel doesn’t necessarily need a speech balloon to exist as a valid narration frame; the speech balloon, on the other hand, is never present on its own. The balloon needs an origin, being a result of the icons and action of a certain panel. It is an emission that cannot exist without its origin present.
Even in extreme cases, when a balloon appears to have no panel as an origin, thingsaren’t really what they seem:
The balloon cannot be postulated without, correlatively, postulating the panel. This affirmation signifies precisely this: a balloon that occupies, in the hyper-frame, an unframed and empty position, a balloon that is detached, isolated, within an empty space, suffices to attest that there is well and truly a panel there, and that despite appearances the discourse of the page is not interrupted. Why? Because the balloon itself is at the same time information (an outline invested with a known symbolic function) and a carrier of information (the words or the graphic elements that it contains) and since, from this fact, it is identified, in this particular case, with the panel itself. (Groensteen)
This panel – balloon subordination shows how the latter is but a subgroup, the rest of the iconic heritage being undergone by the drawing inside he frame—the panel.
The speech balloon, like the panels and grid layouts, inherited a classic white background, elliptical form with a tail pointing to the speaker. Further experimentation has been made to change the balloon, which was a break in the art of the panel itself, a break of the immersiveness. Different types of lettering inside the speech balloons have been used, or they have been replaced by something else completely, like in Walt Kelly’s Pogo, where some characters ‘spoke’ in blackletter, another in circus posters and a character called Sarcophagus MacAbre spoke in condolence cards.
The classic balloon is mostly present in the comic books even nowadays, but some artists still choose to play with them sometimes, creating interesting and new ways in which the speech balloon can be integrated in the layout and give a plus to the overall art of the comic.

4.4 Writing the narrative
Although this process is not part of the spatio-topical realm of the comic book, it is an important cog in the body of the whole comic book story, since every narrative starts at the writing desk and only after the idea and the script have matured it moves to the drawing desk. So, in some sense, the spatio-topical realm, which is in most part defined by the artist, is the direct result of the writing process of … the writer, who sometimes plays his significant part in constructing the sequences of narration. It is not uncommon that the artist and the writer is one and the same person, but nevertheless, the two processes are different and are employed at different times in the construction of a comic book.
Considering that the writing stage is the conception part of the comic, an order of progression can be depicted:
The idea and the effective writing of the story takes the form of a script. A comic script is the closest form to what a play script is in theatre, containing dialogue and stage suggestions, which help the artist re-create on paper what the writer has initially imagined.
The importance of the writing has been significantly increasing in a medium that was, is and will be dominated by the imagistic aspect of the narration. In 1985, two years before the emergence of some great graphic novels like Watchmen and The Return of the Dark Knight, followed by Spiegelman’sMaus and many other high quality narratives, Eisner was observing in his Theory of Comics…that, because of the space constrains of the medium, “the stories and plots of simple, obvious action have long dominated comic book literature.” But, at the same time, he recognized the great potential that comics have in developing complex stories of great artistic significance: “Actually, from the viewpoint of art or literature, this medium can deal with subject matter and theme of great sophistication.” (Eisner 127)
Although the process of transferring a script to image is much easier when there is the same person that does both jobs, which was the norm in the old days of comics, the new, more time effective process of splitting the writing and drawing to two different persons has made it a little bit more complex when the story has to be broken down in the script in order to give the penciller a complete and complex idea about how the story should look and feel. In order for this breakdown to be done correctly, a lot of experience is needed, especially when putting it in drawing. It is hard, indeed, to let some text just be erased in favor of a mute image with the same effect, and this is where the close collaboration between the writer and the artist is needed to achieve page balance between text and image. Even if the writer and the artist are one and the same person, the process is not shortened in steps, since all of it will take place in the mind of the creator.

From script the comic page (script, dummy, final page)

Between the script and the final page is the dummy, a mockup page that the artist creates in the development stage. Without putting all the detail in, the dummy page allows observing how the panels look put together and what can be changed in the scenery without too much work. Rearrangements in layout are frequent at this stage, and this is why discarding or heavily modifying a dummy page is much more time effective than throwing out a beautifully crafted scene that took triple the time.
An important and final aspect of the script to comic page process is that imagery always has the upper hand. The omission of text is preferable where the same effect can be achieved visually.
Text can seem to make the story clearer, but the stylistic refinement of the second mute image in contrast with the first is obvious. (see image below)

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