Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Silence and Pantomime, plus Quiet Spidey

Well, Mike seems to be having a pretty good time re-reading Lone Wolf and Cub, and his ruminations about silence and pacing earlier today got me thinking about wordless sequences in comics, and the way they work, and in particular the difference between silence and pantomime.

So, in the spirit of the Scottish Agamemnon, I'm going to interrupt the close reading of Koike & Kojima...

I understand the difference between silence and pantomime like this: in a silent sequence, no sound is being made. Ninjas sneak up on someone, or the sun rises, or a cat climbs over an empty flowerpot. In the first four panels (at least) of "Because of This, I Cannot Love," the comic is silent: unless our little Dorito guy is audibly yawning in the first panel, the reader isn't "missing" anything because of the absence of speech balloons.

But by the time we get to panel seventeen or nineteen—and certainly by the end of the page—we're in the realm of pantomime, not silence: now, the characters are making noises (or speaking), but those sounds or words aren't being represented for the reader.

I find that I can really enjoy the judicious use of pantomime in a comic. It's a strange convention in some ways: think of how odd it would be if, in the middle of a play, the actors just stopped speaking but kept moving their mouths and interacting with each other. It's almost like those moments in a movie where the soundtrack swells up to cover the actors' voices, except that there's no music in the comics—just the quiet of the reader's imagination, filling in the conversation.

Here's one of my favorite examples of pantomime, which comes from Eisner's To the Heart of the Storm:

Would that sequence gain very much by giving Buck's bathing aunt some dialogue, or having Willie cry out audibly when he's abandoned hanging from the transom?

Or, to shift from a universally acknowledged master storyteller to our own clumsy scribbles, here's a pantomime sequence from the third issue of Satisfactory Comics:

We had originally written dialogue for this page, but once Mike had pencilled it and I was getting ready to put in the lettering, we realized that the joke read just fine without any text. Why create extra dialogue at that moment, when we were already digressing away from the fate of the main characters? (They're stuck in the Kraken's belly while this page happens.)

So I guess what I'm saying is: there's silence and then there's pantomime. The interesting power of pantomime is that it asks the reader to invent dialogue, putting the scene at a bit more distance, or reminding us of the fact that the comics page is a medium—something interposed between the reader and the imagined events that the page depicts.

On another note: I've often wondered what that Spider-Man / Scorpion Ditko / Lee page would look like with no text. So, since Mike was good enough to post it, I've applied a little Photoshoppery so I can see what it's like.

It goes without saying, I hope, that the wordless version reads more quickly. And I think the action of the fight itself becomes a lot less muddy. But there are some odd enjambments off the right-hand edge of the grid. What if we lined up the panels like this, instead?

That's a fight scene you can read without words, isn't it?


Mike said...

What an elegant illustration of the difference between silence and pantomime. And your reformatting of the Spidey fight scene? Just brilliant.

Take a bow!

DerikB said...

I agree. The reformatted Spiderman page is great. Rather poetic.

Isaac said...

My thought on the reformatted Spidey page: it's basically just letting Ditko's drawing breathe a little bit. I'm not sure that undoing the "enjambments" at the end of each tier is an improvement, though it does make for a much more fluid reading experience.

wonderful said...

Hey I think the spiderman job-o you did was amazing...its often too bad comics get cluttered up by excess sort of turns me off of them much of the time. Two pantomime comis I really enjoy are FRANK and The Little King. ACtually, Ron Rege's Skipper bye bee is great too. ANyways I think there is something great about good visual storying that doesn't rely on text. Cheers, Jeff (first time reader)

Isaac said...

Hey, Jeff -- thanks for dropping by. Those are all good recommendations. To your list, I'd add Brian Ralph's Cave-In, if you can find it, and Lewis Trondheim's awesome Mr. O. Also, there's the work of Milt Gross, some of which you can see here.

I'm also interested in pantomime sequences in comics that otherwise "speak" ... which is, in a way, different from having a whole book be wordless.