Recently, a colleague asked me to participate in a reading with him. He read selection from his latest poetry collection, and during the Q&A following our readings, he spoke about the ways that he constructed some of the poems he read. During his response, he began to speak about a poem he didn’t read, “Nocturne,” a poem which deals with death, intimacy, and loss. It focuses on a man who is knows that his wife of forty-two years is in the process of dying in the next room. At the end of the poem, the man sits on the bed, and the final line reads that there is “no rising with- out holding her.”
My colleague spoke about looking at that line and the form of the poem, and he decided to separate, with spaces, the word without, severing it in two. That severing causes us to read the final line in a couple of ways because the man struggles to get off the bed because he knows he will not hold his wife again, physically. Along with this, we can also read it as the man knowing that he will always hold her emotionally within his heart. While these are two ways to read the final line, the thing that stood out was the separation of the word, a visual representation of the loss the man feels, a visual physical end of the relationship between the man and the woman. This visual depiction of the emotional feeling made me recall similar moments in graphic novels, specifically March and They Called Us Enemy.
I started rereading these two texts in preparation for teaching them, and as I read, I noticed the numerous separation of images into two panels, the white gutter cutting the images in twain, distinctly acting like a knife splitting the scene down the middle. Today, I want to look at a couple of those moments and the ways that this separation of panels adds to the emotional impact of the text through the added visual impact.
The first time I really began to think about the separation of images into two or more panels was when I read Nate Powell’s Save It For Later and notices the ways that he cut images of his daughter meeting John Lewis in two, a separation that, for me, represents the severing of history that Powell confronts in that collection. When I started rereading March: Volume 1, I noticed that Powell separates images into multiple panels throughout that book. One instance occurs when John Lewis goes to a a market in Ohio with his aunt. Down in Alabama, Lewis would preach to the chickens on the farm and become connected with them, as such, when his family killed a chicken for a meal, he didn’t eat it because of his emotional attachment to the animal.
When his aunt takes him to the market in Ohio, she points out a chicken that she wants. Here, Powell has four panel sequence. The first panel on the top left shows the chickens at the market and Lewis comments that they aren’t raised like the chickens on his farm in Alabama. The panel at the top right shows Lewis’ aunt pointing to a chicken that she wants. Immediately below that panel, and almost aligned with the panel on the top left, we see the top of Lewis’ head and the back of the butcher’s head as Lewis narrates about the differences, “That amazed me. It was so different from back home.”
The fourth panel is a horizontal panel, a panel depicting the butcher’s counter. On the left, we see Lewis’s aunt, without her head, reaching into her purse for money. We see, near the middle, the lower part of Lewis’s head, his mouth and chin, then his chest as he stands at the counter, and on the far right we see the butcher’s back as he hands the wrapped chicken to Lewis’s aunt. Lewis narrates, “I wasn’t even bothered by the fate of these chickens.” The gutter typically serves as the space where the reader fills in the gaps of the narrative, providing the missing action within her mind. Here, though, it serves as a severing of the scene, a severing that represents a change within Lewis.
The gutter visually works with the narration and illustrations to show that Lewis thinks about the differences between his experiences in Ohio from those in Alabama. It shows that there is a difference and the Lewis recognizes it. As well, it indicates Lewis’s thoughts about those differences, He realizes them, and they impact him. It’s not that Lewis is rejecting his Alabama roots. It’s that Lewis knows that his experiences are different in the North compared to the South, and this is what the entire sequence of his travels to Ohio and his time in Ohio shows. The gutter serves, in some ways, as a demarcation of the North and South, the chicken, such a prominent aspect of the first part of the volume, on the counter linking the two regions.
In They Called Us Enemy, Harmony Becker does a similar thing through the use of gutters cleaving images in two. The one that I constantly think about occurs as Takei and his family travel on the train to Arkansas. Takei points out that he thought about this trip as a happy experience, not realizing the pain and anguish his parents felt about the trip to the incarceration camp. Two panels drive this home. The entire image shows George on the left side of a train seat while his mother looks out of the window on the right side as she holds George’s sister in her arms. The image is separated down the middle with a large white gutter splitting it into two separate panels.
George smiles in the left panel as he digs into a box of treats. He narrates that he saw the trip as “an adventure of discovery,” one of excitement and joy. This excitement and joy, though, goes away as we move to the panel on the right. Here, George’s mother appears more in shadow, not as bright as George, as she has her hand to her chin and stares out of the window longingly. George narrates that for her and his father the trip was “an anxiety-ridden voyage into a fearful unknown.” The gutter shifts the feeling of this image from joy to sorrow. Paired with the entirety of this sequence, it also drives home the disparate ways that George and his parents view the trip.
For me, these moments add to the reading of comics and graphic novels. They cause us to stop and think about the emotional connections that become severed in the gutter. Instead of focusing on filling in the narrative action, we fill in the emotional feelings and separation that occurs between characters. This, of course, isn’t all that I can say about these types of moments, but I’m still working through my thoughts. Be on the look out for more posts on this topic. Until then, what are some similar moments that stand out to you in some comics or graphic novels? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.