It’s been a few years since I’ve read Al Feldstien and Wallace Wood’s “The Guilty!” in EC Comics’ Shock SuspenStories #3 from 1952. I reread the story in preparation for an upcoming class, and as I reread it, I thought, again, about the positioning of the reader throughout “The Guilty!” Today, I want to look at this story again, expanding some on what I wrote about a little over three years ago. One thing I always think about when reading stories such as “The Guilty!” is the way that the creators position the characters and the reader. I talked about this in the last post, in regard to narrative, with “The Slave Ship.” In my first discussion of “The Guilty!” I wrote about the panel where we see a closeup of Lowell Anderson’s face and a reflection of Sheriff Dawson staring back at us from Anderson’s glasses. These types of moments occur multiple times within in the narrative, and I want to look at a couple of more in this post.
“The Guilty!” is a story in the vein of Charles Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children” or William Faulkner’s “Dry September.” It details the arrest of a Black man, Aubrey Collins, who is accused of murdering a white woman. A mob gathers outside the jail and wants lunch Collins, enacting their form of justice for the crime. The district attorney tells the sheriff to transfer Collins to another jail because he fears the mob will end up lynching the man. The day of the trial, the sheriff drives Collins back to town, but on the way he stops and tells Collins to run away from the car because he if free. Collins runs, and the sheriff shoots him in the head. At the end of the story, we learn that Collins did not commit the murder. Rather, Hank Barber, a white man, murdered the woman. I’m not going to focus on the narrative in this post. As I said, I did that in detail three years ago. Rather, I want to zero in on three panels, looking at positioning and reflections.
The first panel is actually two panels, joined together where the gutter should occur. We do not see a gutter here, instead, the outside wall of the jail joins together in the middle and the line down the middle serves as what would be the gutter. Here, we see the sheriff, a deputy Jed, and Phil. We look through the window as we stare into the jail. The bars on the window mirror, in ways the bars we see in the panel where we look out of the jail cell from Collin’s perspective. In this manner, the panel(s) highlights the fact that the three white men, even though they are the ones in power and keeping Collins in jail are in fact imprisoned within their own hate.
What initially drew me to these panels was the movement within them. First, we see the sheriff on the left side, back turned, as he tells the deputy to put Collins in the cell. We see Jed in the background leading Collins to the cell, and Phil stands on the right side of the panel, looking out of the window as he tells the sheriff that the crowd looks “mighty riled up.” Phil’s speech bleeds over into the next panel, and his position changed to the left side of that panel. The sheriff appears on the right side, looking out of the window at the crowd. The sheriff tells Phil that it’d be cheaper on the state if the mob got to Collins. Here, we see two panels, joined by a line, where characters switch positions. It’s a very interesting move, and the positioning of them, standing within the jail. behind the bars of the window, adds to the panels. They exist within a prison of their own making.
The next panel shows the sheriff and some of his men driving Collins to the new location for protection. As the car leaves town, we see inside the vehicle. We are in the backseat, looking over the driver’s shoulder. We also see the driver’s eyes and Collins’ and sheriff Dawson’s reflections in the rearview mirror. The reader is Collins, staring at the driver, the road ahead, and at his own reflection in the mirror as the men tell Collins how luck he is to have gotten out of the situation alive. The panel positions the reader as Collins, not through the narrative but through the illustration. In this manner, as Feldstein and Wood do elsewhere in “The Guilty!” the reader sees through Collins’ eyes, viscerally experiencing, in a small way, what he experiences.
Later, when the sheriff and his men drive Collins back to town for the trial we see another panel with a reflection in the car. This time, though, we only see the driver and the sheriff. We do not get a head on view; instead, we look at the driver from the side, seeing him in profile. In the window, we see the driver’s face as he questions the sheriff’s direction to stop the car, and we see the sheriff’s reflection, positioned behind the driver. The sheriff has a cigar in his mouth, and he looks directly at the driver as he commands that the driver stop. Here, we do not see Collins. We have been removed from that position and we look at the scene from a more detached angle. This, in some ways, takes away from the impact on the moment. While we’re still in the backseat with Collins and the sheriff, the placement and lack of Collins’ reflection takes us out of Collins’ direct perception of the scene. If we had his direct perspective, it would reinforce the previous panel I discuss and panels such as the one where we look through the bars of the jail cell as we see Collin’s hands wrapped around the steel bars.
The use of reflections in “The Guilty!” and other comics adds layers to the text, causing us to think about more than what appears directly in front of our faces. We must think about the panel as we would real life, looking at surfaces that contain more information to fill in the gaps. Reflections occur everyday, on various surfaces, and when we see these depicted in a panel we see the full picture as if we are standing there in person. This also adds to our positionality within comics as we think about how the artist places the reader within the narrative and whose perspective the artist wants us to connect with.
There is more to say, but I’ll leave it here for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.