In my Literature and Composition Graphic Memoirs’ class, I am having students read various chapters from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. During the first week, they read “The Vocabulary of Comics” and “Blood in the Gutter.” At the end of the week, I brought in about 6-7 comics and graphic novels, gave them each specific pages, and had them use McCloud to analyze the pages, specifically the gutters between the panels. Initially, they merely summarized the pages, but as we started to talk, they discovered began to dissect them in more detail. Today, I want to share a few of the pages I had them look at and discuss them here.
While I want students to think about every aspect of the two chapters I assigned, I wanted them, for this exercise, to focus on closure and the movement between panels. To do this, I had them focus on McCloud’s six categorizations of transitions: moment to moment; action to action; subject to subject; scene to scene; aspect to aspect; and non-sequitur. For the most part, the texts I showed students have distinguishable panels. However, I also provided them with texts that did not have distinguishable panels.
One of the pages I had students examine comes from Kelly Sue Deconnick and Valentine de Landro’s Bitch Planet #7. I’ve written about this page before, but as I looked at it with students, I noticed more that I had missed upon my first analysis. The role of surveillance and corporate rights plays into this page, obviously, and the references to Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and countless others appears as well. Narratively, these are all there, but the images, and what occurs between the images is just as important.
The page is pretty straight-forward with twelve panels, made up on three rows of four. With the kids, four of the panels are split in two, showing the same image, just with the gutter in between. I’m not totally sure what to make of this, and I didn’t have an answer when talking with the students. Now that I’m writing, though, I kind of see it as the severing of the body. At the top. we see one of the boys crawling over the gate. His legs are in the left panel and his arm and head are in the right. He has been severed in two. He has been cut apart. In row two, we see the girl in the left panel and the boys in the right panel, all behind the gate taking the short cut. While their bodies are not severed, they are separated from one another.
The most powerful aspect, though, has to be the security guard. He appears in half of the panels, just as the kids appear in the other half. In the top row, he has one panel on the far right. In the middle row, he has two panels and the kids have two panels. In the last row, his panels encroach onto the left of the row, and he has three panels to the kids’ one. This encroachment, across the page, is powerful. It highlights the power, as a white man sitting behind a computer monitor, he has over the lives of the kids who are just seeking a short cut home from school. As well, in four of the six panels, his pose is the same, lounged back in the chair, appearing as if his job has no consequences on the lives of others.
Students picked up on the fact that the page oscillates between the kids and the security guard, thus adhering to McCloud’s subject to subject transitions. This type of transition, as McCloud notes, “takes us from subject-to-subject while staying within a scene or idea.” While the setting of the characters may be different here, the scene remains the same. They are interacting with another, but the purpose of the disconnect between them is to highlight the disconnect between the corporation and the kids. The disconnect between individuals and the repercussions of actions when disconnected in such a manner.
Another page that I had students analyze comes from Rob Guillory’s Farmhand. I had students look at the first page on issue #2, a page with eleven panels. The page consists of four rows. Three of the rows have four panels each and the bottom row has three, one larger panel in between two panels that are the size of the other nine. On this page, Guillory uses two types of transitions: scene to scene and subject to subject.
The majority of page contains scene to scene transitions; in fact, these occur between all of the panels on the first three rows. We see Ezekiel growing up, leaving home, and getting a call from his father to return home. We do not know how much time passes between each panel, but we do know that the transitions, as McCloud puts it, “transport us across significant distances of time and space.”
As we read the page, we can see the major events that occur in Ezekiel’s life from the birth of his sister to him drawing to him leaving home and to him getting the call to return home. We see, as the scenes progress, the relationship he has with his father, Jedidiah. This relationship is distant because Jedidiah wants his son to work on the farm, not pursue his own passions.
While the progression is evident in the images and words, Guillory’s use of color adds to the page. In the panel that shows the death of Ezekiel’s mother, Guillory uses three distinct colors: black, gray, and white. No words appear in the panel, but we get the emotion and meaning from the image and the colors. Ezekiel kneels over his mother’s coffin as Jedidiah’s hand rests on his shoulder. Both wear black suits with black ties. His mother rests in the casket, dressed in white at the bottom of the panel. The pain of the moment comes across in the framing and the color, and the connection that Ezekiel had with his mother shows in his emotion and the color of his mother’s dress.
Along with panels such as this, we see five panels with Jedidiah physically in the panel with Ezekiel. In only one of the panels, the last where he physically appears, do we see him fully. In the other panels, we see parts of him. We see a finger in one panel, half of his body with his mouth in another, his arm in the funeral panel, and his shadow at the door in a panel where he tells Ezekiel to milk the cows instead of drawing. In the final panel, we see Ezekiel, against a purple backdrop, getting into the car, leaving home, as his father stands sternly in the background. We do not see his entire face, because it is in shadow, but we do see most of his body.
When Ezekiel interacts with Jedidiah we only see parts, but when he leaves, we see him in whole. This movement serves, along with the words and other factors, to highlight the distance between Ezekiel and Jedidiah and the ways that the distance grows over time.
The last three panel son the page are subject to subject because we see Ezekiel in the present, back at home with his father in Freetown. We see a closeup of Ezekiel drinking coffee as he stares, shocked, at something out of the panel. The next panel, the larger one in the row, zooms out to show Ezekiel standing in front of the house with a sign that reads “Thorne for Mayor” in his yard, and the last panel moves back to Ezekiel’s face as he says, “Sonuvabitch.” Here, we move within the same scene from subject to subject, just as we did in the page from Bitch Planet.
In the next post, I will write about a few more of the pages I passed around to students. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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