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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Abnormal Panels

So, friend of the blog and guest writer Jon Grasseschi is off at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend promoting his own webcomic, Everday Abnormal. I've actually been meaning to dig into some of the moving parts of the comic, so this seemed like a good time to do it.

Why this comic, though, besides the fact that Jon's a good friend of mine and I want to promote his work?

Well, the thing about webcomics is this: a lot of people can draw, and can write (in the sense that they can string a narrative together), and can put the plot and pictures together in relatively pleasing ways. Comics consists of those two elements, ultimately, so relying on just those elements alone works fine for plenty of comickers.

What sets Jon apart, then, is an eye to the medium itself and its particular structural peculiarities--the abnormal effects that you can only get when you've got a whole bunch of images side by side, when the spacial relationships and dimensions of things enter into the equation. Few webcomickers pay attention to these structures--or at least, their fail to pay close enough attention--and their work ends up reaching a certain plateau of expertise. It's worth taking note, therefore, when someone at the beginning of their career as a producer of comics is already playing with these tools.

Let me lay some groundwork first, though. I started paying attention to EA as a scholar, not just as a reader and fan, when I embarked on my occasionally-alluded-to quest to understand rhythm and patterning in comics. Now, that project slated to become my graduate thesis, so I've kept the contents fairly close to my chest (although several of the core ideas are already presented in the unfinished draft of Understanding Hypercomics). While looking through the big draft document of what I had written thus far, though, I came to the conclusion that not only do I have enough material here for at least a whole book, I have some bits that probably work best as stand-alone works.

One of these bits is the notion that some of the enjoyment of a daily gag strip comic comes from the variation of its writing within certain parameters. The best gag strip artists are adept at using three or four panels in a repeated pattern to create fresh and surprising gags--they excel at humor (or emotion) that strives against limits and works with economy. Think of how Doonsbury periodically goes into silhouette mode, or how Calvin and Hobbes sometimes drops the borders on the comic, or how the last panel in a 3eanuts comic becomes the new punchline after the original punchline has been removed. All of these things, one way or another, are designed to achieve a level of complexity and variation within a highly restricted medium.

But what does this have to do with EA? That comic has much more similarity to a traditional Western comic book than to a gag strip.

Well, one of the weird notions I hit upon while working on the larger project was that little clusters of comics can approximate the kind of structural techniques of a smaller overall work like a gag strip. Once we start to analyze panels in terms of small groupings, rather than just individually or as whole pages, we can start to see these techniques emerge.

Check out this relatively spoiler-free page early in the first volume of EA, in which one of the protagonists attempts to get more information from a family who's son has recently been ritualistically murdered:

Click through to see it larger, or check it out in context.
I absolutely loved this page from the moment I saw it, and it was a love that had nothing to do with all this highbrow intellectual stuff I'm yammering on about. That last panel, that last speech bubble, is like a bucket of ice cold water. You go through the tension of Lilith's story there, and the family's response where it seems like they're going to keep pushing back, and then suddenly this previously silent and unassuming character blurts something out that the reader had no way to expect.

When Lilith, on the next page, describes the family as "implod[ing] from the news" you believe it, because you've just been hit in the face yourself, totally out of left field. It's good writing.

But let's dig into why it works, and how those last three panels function. Now, Jon's made an interesting choice here. The action takes place in the same shot, so to speak--you could take out the panel borders and gutters and get a single, unbroken image that would work pretty much the same way. Since we read right to left, I think the temporal functioning would be largely the same. So what do the gutters do for the comic?

Well, it turns these three panels at the end of a page into a cluster that approximates the functioning of a gag strip. It is a limited set of information containers that build up to what is effectively a punchline. Not that we're consciously or necessarily unconsciously thinking in terms of gag strips when we read it, of course, but it's a way of parceling off elements of time so that they are emphasized as discrete units. By turning a whole panorama into three discrete moments, each one is given equal weight, and the last one gets emphasized as significant.

But what's most important to my mind is the fact that it happens with an economy of space. A bombshell like this would normally drop with a closeup and a larger panel--something that broadcast's the moment's intent. Now, this is something a gag strip can't do. And it's not just because a gag strip has limited space, it's because a joke is only funny--a punchline only packs a punch--if you don't see it coming. If you broadcast the intentions of the joke with a big dramatic closeup you spoil the joke. So, even though a closeup here would emphasize the emotional intensity of the moment in a film, here the fact that the panels are all immediately visible takes that tool out of our chest, yeah?

So, if Jon wants this to be a punchline--if he wants it to be, in particular, a sucker punch--he's got to give it a kick without broadcasting what's coming. If the scene was drawn without the panels, he wouldn't be able to get the kick because the moment would seem to smoothly flow together; there would be nothing to tell the audience to focus on each set of speech bubbles as discrete units.

With that panel drawn around the older sister, though, we're nudged to pause and take in what she's saying. And what's more, the fact that the other panels are crowded with irate, highly fraught text makes her simple three word statement intense purely by contrast. It's like how greyscale is normally low intensity--that's kinda the definition of desaturation, right?--but if you suddenly suck all the color out of normally bright and saturated characters, it comes off as a very intense choice. Why do you think that trick is used multiple times in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? It's intense by contrast to the norm, even though in the abstract it would be low-intensity.

And it also means that the character is boxed in spacially. Instead of being in a big wide panel--in a big wide room--she's cramped in this tiny vertical space, and within that space she seems almost frozen. Unlike the other characters, who fill their panels in dynamic, leaning poses, she's surrounded by white space, and her pose is totally vertical. You don't have to hear that she's gasping out those words, on the verge of tears, barely able to choke it out. You don't have to hear it because you feel it in your gut, because you see how small and helpless she seems, how tense she seems, in that narrow little box.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is good. fucking. comics.

So, to sum up, this little cluster works because Jon is telling us what we need to know with an economy of space, and using the same techniques that gag comics use to hide the punchline while still achieving intensity through contrast and through the composition of forms within their panels. He's telling a story not just with images and words but with the design of panels.

And you know what? This isn't the end of it, either.

Check out this similarly low-spoiler page from the third story arc:

Again, click through to see it larger, or view it in context.
I think by now you should have a good idea of what we could do with the three clusters of the man being interrogated by Lilith. Each one of them serves, to some extent, the way our earlier three-panel pseudo gag strip did. But I'll leave that to you folks to sort out. I want to talk about something different here.

Let's talk about Hieratic Scales.

See, there's this big concept in art of the Hieratic Scale, where figures are depicted according to how badass they are, rather than how strictly large they actually are. The Ur-example (ahahahahahaha sorry.) is probably the Code of Hammurabi:

Yeah, I'm pulling the "Associate Comics With Ancient Art" trick McCloud loves so much.
Hammurabi is standing to the left here, and it's pretty clear that even though he might be a badass king, he doesn't come close to a God like Shamash, the figure on the right there. If Shamash stood up, Hammurabi would be at eye level with Shamash's undoubtedly huge, rippling abs. That's what Hieratic Scales are all about: we show the character that's most important in a way that gives physical weight and presence to that importance. It's another way of showing intensity, too, if you're taking notes.

In this page from EA we see that Lilith is hieratically important compared to the officious little man (see how we even use terms like "little" to insult people? Size does matter, at least when it comes to art and semiotics). Jon's able to get away with that without introducing distortions because he can make her larger within her panel (which just so coincidentally happens to be the whole damn page). The juxtaposition of panels allows him to make her hieratically large without shifting space itself--although it's worth noting that hieratic distortions aren't off the table for single panels. After all, Manga indulges in those sort of distortions all the time. Reality is a lot more plastic in Eastern comics than in Western ones, and in some ways that's an advantage. But I digress.

There's another thing the panels allow him to do, though. Remember my babbling about how the older sister sits within her panel, and how the space the panel creates affects the narrative? Well, the same thing is going on here. By necessity, if Jon wants to show enough of Lilith's face, he has to reduce the size of the director's panels down quite a bit and throw a number of them in a row. But look what he has the director do within those panels: he doesn't just sit there, he writhes around, he rants, he stands up at one point even, and finally he slumps in defeat, leaving most of the panel empty and unoccupied.

But he never breaks the panel. The panel's view never changes. He's trapped in his little box, and when he stands up to rant, the panel just cuts off part of his head.

Lilith, on the other hand, transcends the panels. She goes right to the edge of the page. She's not boxed in--or at least, she wants to make it seem like she has all the cards. We experience her power and dominance in this situation not just hieratically, but through her ability to ignore the panel boundaries that lock the director in.

And this is all stuff that is unique to comics as a medium. These are effects you just can't get from another kind of storytelling.

So my thought is this: if you're going to be writing a webcomic, if you're going to get into this medium, you should go beyond that plateau of pretty images and pretty plots. Start studying structure if you want to write good comics.

And pay attention to where Jon is going. I certainly will. In fact, one of these days when I manage to scrounge some spare cash (I got them College Loan Blues!) I'm going to pick up a print version of EA, and I recommend you do the same. I suspect that when you see this stuff in print it'll be both a whole lot more apparent and a whole lot more impactful.

Oh, and of course, if you're at ECCC, check out Jon's booth! He'll be selling copies of the first and I believe the second volume, and I'm sure he'd love some attention. Tell him Sam Keeper sent you, and ask him about his panel designs.

Check me out on Google+ at or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below. And remember to check out Everyday Abnormal!


  1. I'm so glad I just finished reading the comic and that I have read "Understanding Comics". You do a good job explaining, but the extra theoretical baggage is always nice to have.

  2. broken image, see


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