Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The One-Panel Critics: Lots Going On in Mister Miracle

So a week or so ago, Ed Piskor put together an interesting collection of comics panels in which "cause" and "effect" both appear in the same image. (I first heard about Piskor's collection a few days back from noted trendspotter Mike Sterling. By now, though, even that old fogey Scott McCloud has jumped on the bandwagon, so I'm probably about two days from being tragically unhip here.)

I think what Piskor has in mind is that the originator of an action and its results seem to exist in slightly different time-frames in the same panel: for example, Andy is at the end of the follow-through of a throw, and the thing he's thrown is already shattering a faraway window.

To be precise, this isn't just a matter of causes being visible alongside their effects, but being visible in different temporal frames of reference within the same panel. It's as if the motion line were a sort of time-distortion device, guiding the reader from a slightly-past "present" to a somewhat-more-present "present," all within the panel.

In order to add my own two cents to the discussion, here's my favorite example of this weird feature of the way comics represent time:

Go on and click to enlarge it. Take the time to read it. That's a splash panel from Mister Miracle #15 (Sept. 1973), written and drawn by Jack Kirby.

What's going on in that panel? I detect at least three, and maybe four, temporal frames of reference swirling around each other there.

Okay, some stuff happens before the panel actually begins. This includes everything leading up to ...

(A.) the tossing of a grenade.

Shilo (B1.) sees the grenade, (B2.) calls out a warning, and (maybe not simultaneously—so B3? or C?) trips Mr. Miracle.

(C? D?) Mr. Miracle falls to the ground.

Of course it's weird that all these different causes and effects are visible simultaneously. I think it's extra-weird that they don't simply "read" from right to left, but follow the actions around the page counter-clockwise from twelve o'clock, like so.

I can't tell whether this panel is a muddled mess or a masterpiece of compression and efficiency. I've looked at this comic so many times since I was a tot that I can't imagine what it would be like to read it without already having read it.

What do you think? Does this panel work to convey its complicated chain of cause-and-effect clearly, or is it confusing?


Mike said...

I haven't followed the Piskor links yet, but since you invoke Scott McCloud I will see you and invoke his nemesis R. C. Harvey, because his book on _The Art of the Comic Book_ (or whatever it's called) from U of Mississippi P has a discussion of precisely a long panel by Jack Kirby demonstrating several different temporal moments, even at weird positions relative to the reading eye. The only difference, near as I can tell, is that his example was (IIRC) from a Western comic.

I mean, the points still stand, but they're years old in print already...

Ed Piskor said...

This is a great example, Isaac! I love that you broke the elements down via diagram in such a clean way.

It doesn't seem unclear to read for me at all. Your diagrams illustrate the intuitive reading flow behind the composition.

Tom K said...

I second Ed's comment. I don't think it's 'weird' or confusing, it's a great composition and it reads very clearly. It really shows off Kirby's sense of design. He's got flow!

John said...

My two cents:

I think it's not weird to us because we've read enough comics to be able to "read" the panel quickly and without trouble. But really, why is there so much going on in this panel? If I were new to comics I'd have a hard time figuring it all out. So yeah, my vote is for unnecessarily complicated.

Mike said...

I agree with John that it's probably more complicated at a novice's first glance than it appears to those of us who have (alas) read & seen a slew of such panels...but I demur from the opinion that it's "unnecessarily" complicated. If it were a run-of-the-mill panel of middling size in the middle of a page, I'd probably be quicker to agree. But this is a splash panel at the start of a chapter, designed to overwhelm the reader with an exciting plunge in medias res, so I think the complication serves the storytelling and creates a desirable effect.

In terms of legibility, I also think that it's a pretty masterful page in terms of directing the eye with bold lines that guide you from the top of the page all around the twists and swerves that Isaac has diagrammed, there. Those long limbs of persons, action lines, and even the tails of word balloons offer some very clear cues of where to head next.