Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Panelists Archive: Comments on "The Playwright: the Page and the Stanza"

Imagine my surprise when, after I'd written about the latest Eddie Campbell collaboration, the authors of The Playwright stopped in to set the facts straight.

First off, my Panelists colleague Derik Badman said:
Great analysis, Isaac. I like the concept of enjambment applied to comics.

I wonder if we could say the same thing happens where someone like Hergé use the turn of the page to break the suspense/release of some action or event. The final panel of one page leaves the narrative flow up in the air, leading to the conclusion of the beat for the beginning of the next page.

To which I replied:
Oh, sure. That’s not just Hergé; I’d say it’s a sort of fundamental principle, especially for a story that’s serialized: the last panel offers at once a conclusion of what has come before and a promise of what’s yet to come. In an action story, that could be a cliffhanger; in different sorts of stories, different sorts of resolution and tension are important.

And another Panelist, Jared Gardner, said:

Great stuff, Isaac. I will never regret Campbell’s beautiful color work in this edition (indeed, his use of color has been the biggest revelation in his work in the last few years, after decades of admiring him as one of the great practitioners of b&w comics), but I would so love to see this in its original 9 panel form. I’ve bugged everyone I know to see if they have a copy, but no luck. Anyone out there in TV land have some pages to share?

And then Daren White, Campbell's coauthor, said:

There were only three chapters published in the 9 panel grid format (actually, most were 7 panels) and a further single chapter written before the change in format. Top Shelf still have DeeVee 2007 in stock, which contains one such chapter.

To which I could only reply:

I stand corrected!

I wonder — would it be unseemly for me to edit my essay (or whatever that was) in light of this new knowledge?

And are you saying that some of the chapters in the current edition were set up in a regular seven-panel grid? (If so, what was the layout of that grid? It’s hard to guess. And how were those chapters transformed for the current edition? I’m genuinely curious.)

White answered,
Oh no, definitely not. I’m enjoying these and hesitated about posting because I wouldn’t want to influence anyone.

There wasn’t a strict template, rather what seemed to fit the scene. In the earlier chapters we simply cut the pages into tiers. I don’t recall any panels moving between ties, hence the two and three panel pages in the final book. I think there is only a single splash (the Playwright looking at the movie poster on page 81) where the image was edited, marginally, to make it better fit the new format.

I did go into a bit of detail about the re-formatting in this interview at Comics Reporter.

And then Eddie Campbell added:

Isaac. I enjoyed your piece. I don’t want to get mixed up commenting on critical writings here, but I see where some clarification might be helpful. Daren’s ‘seven panels’ might be confusing. The seven were still on a ‘nine panel grid’ (as they say) with a couple of pairs joined, is what he was saying. With the later chapters I just drew them as single tiers but otherwise to the same size specs, which means if you see nine-panel divisions in the actor chapter, that’s a) coincidence b) me doing it subconsciously, or c) Daren still thinking that way in his script. All of those are possibilities, but the tiers were never arranged that way at any time even accidentally as far as i can recall. The artwork is in two piles in different formats. Half of the book as it currently stands was done in 9-panel format. The colouring was done on xeroxes soaked and stretched.
A little photoshopping was done at the 12th hour, but that was negligible to the overall finished thing, being confined to dropping in a few wallpaper effects, and one photographic face. I was trying out a few tricks for my next book, which is entirely done on the computer. as you were. :)

one other thing. I seem to recall that the actor chapter might have been the very last thing done and therefore the number of pages we had left to fill would have had a bearing on the final shape of that chapter. Coincidentally, at six pages, or tiers, it does fit the nine-panel set-up, but if you look at the final chapter, ten, you’ll see it comes to 16 tiers and doesn’t fit the ‘nine’. Similarly, chapter 8 comes in at 17 tiers. All of this sounds a bit statistical, but you know what I mean.
You were on the right track.

I replied:
I had noticed while I was re-reading the book for this piece that I had a hard time “figuring out” the original pages for a couple of the chapters — though even chapters eight and ten have a few three-page “beats” that I was able to imagine as three-tier pages. (I’m thinking p. 126-128, p. 153-155, p. 156-158.) Even if those never existed as three-tier pages, they seem to be working with that nine-panel rhythm. I’d be surprised if the nine-panel rhythm hadn’t become nearly an instinct for you by now; as I said, I consider you a real master of this form, so I mean that in a complimentary way. Maybe these “beats” are residual echoes of that familiar rhythm.

As for the actor chapter, I think you missed an opportunity if you never placed Bonaparte squarely in the center of a nine-panel grid. But there is always the next book …

Another Panelist, Charles Hatfield, added:

All of this has me thinking about Groensteen’s comments on the page as a hyperframe, and it occurs to me that that notional hyperframe may be something that comics artists carry around in their heads at all times: an internalized awareness of the book or page as an object, as literally the medium of delivery.

Often I see poems, short lyrics typically, printed on a page and then capped by an enormous amount of white space—the blankness that delimits the poem and establishes it as something complete and done. In contrast, I seldom see gridded comics in which the grid ends in mid-page and is capped by white space. Occasionally, yes, but not often. Of course I remember plenty of instances (usually in old comic books) where the grid is finished by some non-diegetic material, usually some kind of publisher hype, but even that becomes a way of filling out the hyperframe.

Maybe it’s just a commercial consideration: get some ads into those empty spaces! (Sometimes aesthetic preferences start as economic matters: dig the use of alternating color and B&W in some of the great Modernist picture books, for example.) But, for whatever reason, comics drawn in grids typically fill every page, top to bottom. The rare exception often comes on the last page, a kind of Finis gesture.

This is one of the reasons I found Chester Brown’s autobiographical books so interesting: they had no discernible grid. Rather, they insisted on isolating individual panels against lots of blank space, black or white. Of course, when Brown got to Louis Riel, he returned to the six-panel grid with a vengeance, but then there are a couple of highly fraught instances where that grid is left incomplete, or unfilled—which becomes so powerful when most of the work is relentlessly gridded.

The notional “page” that ends up being printed on real pages is a powerful idea in the minds of many comics artists, I’m guessing. Even an ideological thing.

Derik Badman pointed out:
“I seldom see gridded comics in which the grid ends in mid-page and is capped by white space.”

Dash Shaw does that in some of his books, he talks a bit about it in an interview he did on Ink Studs.

Brown’s idiosyncratic approach in some of his books came, I believe, from the way he was drawing the panels and then laying them out on the page as kind of a collage process. I suspect most cartoonists don’t work that way (though it would be easier now, if one worked digitally), so following the grid, or filling up the page becomes a kind of mathematical limitation… not mention economic, since all that empty space with no content starts ballooning the size of your comic and the cost of making it.

(Maybe that is all obvious.)

Charles replied,
Yeah, Brown shows himself (in the autobio metacomic “Showing Helder”) pasting or taping down individual panels. He would draw them one by one, cut them out, and lay them down on the board.

And I chimed in,
There’s an early Spiegelman strip (“As the Mind Reels”) that leaves its last tier blank, as a sort of indication that things have broken down and the transmission has stopped.

But I think in most cases the motive to fill the page has something to do with economics, as Derik hints. More blank space means more pages, which means a more expensive print run.

Finally, Sean Michael Robinson said:

Totally agree with this reading. I think that economics, and economic’s first cousin, expediency, are invoked much less often than they could be in critical discussions, so cheers to you and Derik for doing so. I was thinking about this just today reflecting on the density of some of the “Alec” comics- some discussion of that at HU in the comments section.

Oh, and enjoyed this whole post- and completely agree with you re: that page from King Canute Club- especially love the attitude in the middle tier far right panel. Some really muscular inking as well.

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