mapping comics 004
sailor twain; page unknown

So I'm reading the Comics Reporter's Year-End Interviews when this sucker pops out at me. I'd not really seen any art from Mark Siegel's Sailor Twain yet, having only heard his Inkstuds interview, but I'd no idea it was this good.  I could stare at this page forever, it is so fucking well done. I want a mural of this page, I swear. So yeah, I'll follow the usual Mapping Comics structure, here: ratios, visceral reactions, then billyin' on in close. Sailor Twain the book is at 6" x 8½" which makes its operating ratio 1.42, just off the vesica picis, with a slightly enlarged middle-iris shape from the 1.5 ratio. I've not read the book, but Siegel doesn't seem to have a hard and fast grid approach, allowing the layout to move around however it will. The basic grid of the page is as below: 

Five basic beats, two above, three below. It is a simple and effective layout, not about action or movement, but about mood and feel. And all you need for that is just some space and the barest bit of tension to release into the space, not grand panel experiments.

To properly divine the tension in the layout here, we'll have to return to the ol' swing-note and the idea of patterned reactions to established dynamics. If there is no hard and fast grid to be the back-beat of the comic (3-Panel, 4-Panel, 6-Panel, 8-Panel, etc) the it's up to the artist to establish a rhythm on each page. Each approach has its pros and cons of course and there's a hell of a lot of grey area, with folks using a grid as a back-beat and then swinging the gutters and panel sizes a little here or there to create variety.

(Dig out your old THB issues, boys and girls, Pope mostly uses a heavily swung 8-Panel grid there. We will return to this in future.)

So, what does Siegel establish here? And how?

Well, the top tier is where the tension begins. And I don't mean tension like anxiety, I mean like a physical object under pressure. The page as a whole has the standard vesica picis powered circles-in-tension, with the top tier riding along the square made by the bottom three panels, and wider-than average gutters. The top tier of the page also divides with a noticeable lack of alignment or resonance with any other element. It's not on the thirds line or the middle line or the quarter line; it doesn't make the far-right panel a square. It's nothing but swing-note. The same goes for the bottom three panels, all of which are slightly different widths, none of which are wider than the top tier is tall.

All these things: the square made by all three tall panels together, the wider than average gutters, the lack of alignment or resonance in the panel widths, and even the height of the panels in the top tier in comparison to the width of those in the bottom tier, combine together to almost make the layout shake.

And that's before the compositional elements are even introduced. 

There just so many ways that the page can be visually interpreted. The image hardpoints are intertwined so deeply that you can latch on to any of the icon-structures and network your eyes across the image in an infinite variety of harmonious ways.

So many inversions, so many dynamic relationships; yet such simplicity. 

You could stand here and visually network the image over and over again, each time getting a different reading experience of the fictional super-position of the space and emotion circumscribed by the page.

Alright, I'm gonna run through the rest of this quick here.

The first panel has considerable depth, suggesting even mountain ranges and a second ship in the background, but the use of heavy values removes a range of gradiating contrast and so suggests far less depth in the foreground. These heavy values with lack of smooth gradation also contribute to the creation of a heavy hinge and larger upper black shape to act as the visual anchor of the page. This first panel also introduces the first two of our only three trackable floating point icon structures: the steamboat and the rain.

The steam from the steamboat also noticeably "cuts-in" the corner, aligning with the curve of the circles-in-tension; and the shape of the steamboat itself even aligns wavily with the mountains in the background and wavy lines of the water in panel two.

As always, there's more to be said about that first panel, but that's most of it.

Second panel.

The beginning of the chorus of the piece. And also introducing our last trackable icon (the water) which itself actually continues the wavy line describing the boat and the mountains from the first panel. But the wavy line describing the boat and the mountains is not the only bridging element between panels one and two, there's actually the rain as well, which falls across the two panels (and the fourth as well) as though the gutters aren't even there. The rain appears in panels three and five as well, but swung in panel three and altered into a wholly different icon in panel five.

The chorus of the rain only beats out consistently across the first, the fourth, and here, the second, panels.

There's even a subtle depth to panel two here, with the both the closeness of the wave crests and the darkness of the panel itself increasing the closer your eye gets to its top. 

Alright, third panel. 

Contrast. All contrast. Two of our icons return to contribute to the beat, with a white, light, emptiness to the middle of the panel and the heavy blacks at the top and the bottom. In effect, this pulls both the top and bottom of the panel toward our eyes, with the clouds managing somehow to actually loom over us, despite being way off in the distance.

That's contrast at work.

The rain inverts its angle so as not to slide the eye out of the page with a too-dominant angle. The "water" is left light and empty to not pull it too close to the eye, out of the heavy contrast dynamic, past the figure in the foreground. This same lightness contributes to a sense of shifting time and place and weather when the boat icon is read in the panel, since the last time we saw the boat, it was surrounded by darkness, not lightness.

Then there are the strange little raindrops-hitting-the-water marks that only appear to the right of the dock. Why make the marks only there, when the whole scene is rainy?

Well, I will tell you why: Composition.

If those marks weren't there or were everywhere, or even slowly faded out or appeared to the left of the dock or whatever, the eye would then be pulled into all the wrong places. If that space was empty, there'd be a huge hole where there shouldn't be. Your eye would get stuck right there in that trapped little corner. There had to be, at the very least, textural busy-ness to fill that compositional space. Oh, and the angle of the dock and the woman on it are echoed with the column and railing in the last panel, both of which are part of larger alignments within the page.

But you knew that one.

Fourth panel.

This is where the chorus comes back and where the page is completed. This is the panel that everything rests on. It has the most depth by a considerable margin, with the "camera" right down close-in on the water and the mountains looming over us in off in the misty distance. 

Heavy with the weight of accumulated association and existing within a non-linear, mood-oriented page, this panel is our true reading experience. It's the middle unit, literally. With no progression of actions or even (since it's on a blog) placement within a sequence of pages, the context shifts. Out of a Western-trained upper-left to lower-right reading experience and into single-unit art. This page, while quite clearly comics, demands to be read more like an etching or a block print or a silkscreen. I know I've digressed horribly, but that middle panel, like the same chorus panel I pointed out in Mapping Comics 003, is very important. 

Panel 4 here echoes other panels in the dictionary of the page with the rain, with the water, with the mountains, with the wide range of values, and with the very placement and alignment of the panel within the middle of the larger piece, the top of the mountain and the circle of the raindrop hitting the water acting as the top and bottom of two shallow pyramids.  

Not coincidentally, Panel 4 is also the widest of the panels in the bottom tier.

Now, fifth panel. 

We go from a panel of deep depth of field and detailed close-up, immediately to a stark middle-ground silhouette. We go from space and expanse and a sort of hazy warmth to an elimination of space and expanse and a cold barrier.  And our larger alignments and shapes are respected, of course. At the bottom, the railing fits the line of the water down to the impact of the raindrop and above the roof continues the line of the clouds towards the mountaintop and the other tip of the imaginary pyramid. The background is also heavily ambiguous and patterned to so as not to echo with the lightness in the panel on the far left of the tier.

The value structures across the whole bottom tier and kept carefully separate and differently structured so as not to accidentally provide resonances or associations. We wouldn't want to be reading the fifth panel and suddenly have our eye bridge the value structure in the background of the column with the value structure of the water in the third panel. That'd be bad.

As always, I missed rather a lot in the image. 

Thanks for reading!

mapping comics 003
copra issue 2; pgs 4 & 5

Copra #2, Pages 4 & 5; buy it here

I just couldn't ignore this spread. Like a moth to the flame or Icarus to the sun with this shit, seriously. This particular Copra #2 spread isn't the most flashy or exciting of the comic, but it has a wide range of visual progressions and shape echoes and choreographic tricks, and so is perfect to explore through the lens of pictorial mapping and analysis. As always with these posts I'll throw some quick notes and visceral reactions in here at the top and then move in closer for further examination. First, Fiffe has shifted away from the euro/manga ratio of 1.3-ish back to the american mainstream ratio of 1.5-ish, presumably because Copra is an american action comic, not a personal anthology comic, and because that format and ratio slot into existing direct-market tastes with much less friction.

I'll bet if you could visit the production area of the print shop where it's made, though, you'd find page-cut-offs from larger 8½x11 paper (11x17 paper, actually) that's been cut-down.

Just another quick note on ratio at large here, that actually I think Frank Santoro may have mentioned in his TCJ or ComicsComics posts at some point, regarding a weird maybe-coincidence in the relationship between 1.3 ratio pages and 1.5 ratio pages. That being that a double-page spread in a 1.5 ratio comic, if turned on its side, can actually be seen to be at more or less a ratio of 1.3 for the spread at large. 

The inverse is also true: take a 1.5 ratio comic, turn it on its side and open it wide, and you'll see that you've got about the 1.3 ratio page.

Click for larger view:

Strange stuff.

I'll try to come back to it in another post at some point, as I think there's something interesting in that relationship to be explored. And lastly, lest you think page ratios somehow do not matter, ruminate on some of the ways the widescreen 16:9 shift changed film-making, and then get back to me.

no rollover

So, the spread as a whole has the usual upper-left to lower-right motion, with the corners that are tangent to that motion isolated from it in order to preserve the upper-left to lower-right energy flow.

And in this case the upper-right happens to be more isolated than the lower-left, but both are considerably isolated from the standard upper-left to lower-right energy that powers the spread at large. There's a nice little visual eddy in the upper right-hand block, and the whole is broken into four note-swung, further-subdivided quarters. Our strong initial visual hinge is back, which is itself inverted in the opposite, lower-right corner, we also have the usual (in 1.5-ish ratio comics) vesica-piscis-powered circles-in-tension, and there are, of course, the usual line and shape structure echoes all over the place.

There are less color echoes than usual, compared to Zegas, probably due to decreased production time and increased page output. The color used in the spread here is quite sparse and mostly is there to contribute to the creation of general fractal shape-density and a grounding "X" across the spread.

Now, the basic quarto/octo-based panel structure:

Several patterns should be crystal-clear at this point.

The spread's top quarters are based around simple two-panel closure/progression, the bottom quarters double this and are based around four-panel closures/progressions.

All slightly swung so that everything feels loose but coherent; patterned but not coldly, mathematically perfect. I guess I'll just go a quarter at a time through the spread, considering they're mostly self contained, here. Though there are places where Fiffe's shape-words reference other shape-words in the visual dictionary of the spread, wherein the visual references move across the quarters, and there break with the self-containment.

Actually, there's really only one place where that specific cross-quarter, self-referential, visual-dictionary shape-communication occurs, but that one occurrence is actually what makes the whole spread work. Without it, even with all the other geometry and layout, the spread would still be a failure. We'll come back to what this magical element is and why and how it works a bit later.

For now: quarters!

And this is The West, so, of course, upper-left first.

no rollover

The hinge of the page: a nice little dry-brush pelican-smudge black-mark to anchor the eye.

From there the ley lines of the page direct the eye in two directions: either up along the lines of the of the docks and the ship or down along the bed and sleeping seaman. And if you do happen to take the higher road up towards the top of the page, Fiffe pulls your eye back down with the sleeping sound effect and, more subtely, the continous color hold of blue across the gutter. The bottom angle of the window (and thus the blue color-shape) evens conform to the same broken-perspective angle of the bed, continuing the eye-line and upper-left-to-lower-right energy.

That same left-to-right energy fits into the larger structure of the page itself, which, despite eddies and isolated corners, still has a very clear "X" composition undergirding it.

The upper-left to lower-right slant-shape is even echoed in the sitting pose of our green-clothed female black-ops recruiter; the shape and proportion of the pictorial triangle made by the pelican mimicking her in miniature. Also, do her clothes here remind anyone of The Long Tomorrow or other Moebius work? Maybe it's just the hat... Anyway, these similar shapes read similarly to the eye, providing a smooth, non-linear, compositionally-based image juxtaposition/transition for the reader.

Whether they mean pelican or woman, the shapes have a similar spelling.

A similar drawing.

The shapes rhyme.

Iterative shape echoes, branching outward from the hinge, in fractal fashion. But something has to be our swing-note, our exception that proves the rules. Our swing-note, moving almost-tangent to our dominant energy, is the boat-dock-sea combo.

And it's the most important element of the composition.

It's the magical element that I mentioned earlier.

Invert the energy of that boat-dock-sea combo to move with the larger page flow rather than against it and the eye would simply slide right out of the panel. The whole thing would tilt over one way, far, far out of compositional balance.  Some element of symmetry always oh-so-very-necessary. The swing note of the boat-dock-sea icon-combo will itself be swung later on in the spread, inverted onto itself and echoed back, repurposed as the chorus of the piece. It'll be echoing on again in this bit of writing as well, returning to provide, on a number of different levels, symmetry, grounding and perspective, once we've managed to make it all the way to the final portion of the spread.

Alright, so, that's the first quarter, the first movement, the first call and response, the first basic unit of the whole page's macrocomposition.

Let's review: we've got an immediate establishment of a left-to-right diagonal energy (which fits into a larger "X" across the whole spread), a strong contrasting icon to open the page, a color-shape that spans gutters and whose shape fits the larger diagonal energy, a set of pictorial triangles whose shapes rhyme for easier reading, and a tangent element to be our swing-note, and later, our chorus, and which is the magical element that the whole page rests on.

Oh, and if you look down toward the bottom-left of the quarter, the table with the peanuts is on the same inverted angle as the boat-dock, and is additionally at opposite angles with the table over on the opposing side of the panel.

Echoes, inversions and reflections everywhere.

Now, next movement.  

Even here in the one-quarter zoom-in we can see the geometry holographically scale-down to hold the quarter together. The eye has comfortable paths to travel across all the live areas of the page segment. All the layout rules adhered to even down to the small scale. 

The quarter is built of two basic beats, one of which is considerably more subdivided than the other. The undivided one on the right is also the only panel on the entire spread to span the whole of a vertical page quarter. That panel is the swing note of the layout, the thing that stands out in order to bring the rule-sets of everything else into sharper focus.

I'd like to further zoom in on the quarter-of-the-quarter here and examine the mechanics of that little three panel choke-and-cough motion, because there's another hinge hidden there, I think. It's one of the basic rhythms of storytelling (and kind of of the universe at large) to establish a dynamic and then invert it, and that's absolutely what seems to be going on in this little quarter-of-a-quarter portion of the larger spread.

Fiffe takes two panels to establish the one-two of the peanut-into-mouth and moment-of-realization head-icon views, then doubles the size of the icon and shifts the angle of the head by 90 degrees around an imaginary fulcrum within the page space, tangent to the angle it was previously at, and coinciding with the forward motion of the head within the scene.

Some of the most basic mechanics of comics storytelling, with the transitions here, and yet many comics don't even bother with techniques such as these across a whole page, let along a quarter-of-a-quarter of one. 

Skill and brio, yo.

Furthermore, that little quarter-of-a-quarter is actually, in layout terms anyway, a little holographic reflection of the whole bottom-left-corner of the spread at large: split panels on the left, tall panel on the right, which itself spans the whole length of the quarter.

Two small beats off to the left, one big beat off to the right.

Two half notes and a whole note.

Dun... dun... DUN!

It's just basic visual rhythms, holographically encoded. As above so below; fractals; visual self-reference; etc, etc.

Next movement.

The eddy. The infinite inward spiral of energy. Self-generating, self-referential and eternal. Everyone should be able to see what's happening here, with the composition leading the eye in an endless circle. That's easy. And it's not at all all that's happening 'twixt these two panels.

Because even though I've been selling it that way, it's not really a wholly divorced, isolated little entity on the page. It still fits with all the usually patterns.

It's got a hinge, it's got left-to-right energy, it's got eye-movement to in-panel-movement correlations. It's got the standard holographically compressed "X" across the main of the quarter-composition, and it's got at least three trackable floating-point-icons which allow for a very broad range of visual network interpretation (you'll have to wait for the next How to Read Comics post for a proper explanation of that one.)

It is a perfectly composed little visual symphony on the page, a miniature fortune of interpretive graphic information.

Next movement.

no rollover

This is simplest of the all the quarters, yet it's also where the chorus rises up again and where the symmetry of the larger composition is echoed and completed, and where the quality of the piece is ultimately tested, and found to be worthy.

We've got two panels of of the same held shot (get it? see, he's being hel- never mind...), with the echo/chorus/inversion/reflection of the page's larger earlier establishing shot between those two panels, and with a close-up eye-sliver to contrast the visual zoom-out of the chorus's return.

We've got two nigh-identical beats, a returning chorus and an inversion of the chorus's zoom-out idiom to end things.

And as I've been saying, without a reminder of where we are in the larger spatial sense, the page would fail. We'd have been in too close, the feeling too claustrophobic. After a bunch of action-to-action panel transitions, with only the slightest of pauses for the glasses-reflection panel, the page needed to breathe.

To decompress and step back a little. 

The inversion of the orientation of the boat-dock-sea icon to face leftward allows Fiffe to kill many birds with a single stone in that panel: The directional orientation, and the color and the structure of the boat-dock-sea icon itself all bring us back to the establishing shot of the whole page; the inversion of icon-orientation allows the first panel to be recalled without off-putting, cold, perfect, precision; the inversion provides the swing. The inversion also allows for the upper-left to lower-right energy to continue all the way across the tier and create further shape echoes across the tier as well.

So many birds.

Alright, as usual, and adhering to the rules of symmetry, back to the large scale at the end of things here, to draw the through-lines and make the final notes. First of the last things: the basic structural tension inherent in the spread's layout and how that tension contributes to the upper-left to lower-right energy of the piece.

Below is a diagrammed view of the page's basic quarter divisions.

As you can see, the left-quarters split just above the page's mid-line (the darker orange line), and the right-quarters split far below the page's mid-line. This shifts the orientation of the whole page into the upper-left to lower-right dynamic, along the line connecting the middle splits of the quarters (the blue line).

In effect, this slightly tilts the mid-line of the page, and the weight of the composition along with it. The eye and mind, natural comparison machines, compare left to right, with the visual "expansion" of the top-right quarter pushing down on the whole spread, further bolstering, via the tension of the layout itself, the dominant upper-left to lower-right energy.

Alright, I think that's it for me on this one. I missed quite a lot; the spread is deeply encoded. But I think I'm a bit better at this. The taxonomies, both visual and terminological, seem to be accreting and solidifying rather well. The efficient methods slowly making themselves clear.

Anyway, this post is really late, and really jumbled, so I might as well just cut the thing here.

My apologies.

Enjoy the leftover images!


written with many, many thanks to the amazing Michel Fiffe,
and of course with many, many thanks to the
incredibly patient reader, as well!

fiffe & the rule-set of the city
part two

projections of feelings

My apologies to the few of you who read this blog about this post going up as late as it is. Hectic week, last week. 2012 tryin' its best to kill us all, but we fightin' it back, stubborn, headstrong. So... cities, fractals, algorithmic, periodic rule-sets describing large-scale structures, consistent tool use, bridgings of meanings across shape structures, pictorial dictionaries wherein definitions are contained within references to other pictures, and of course, the interrelatedness of all this weirdness to itself and to the singular city-setting of Michel Fiffe.

Fiffe's consistent tool use allows his art itself to accrete meaning through patterned repetition, and this allows Fiffe's chaotic style to maintain a singular fractal feel even across very loose rendering systems. This comes out in the cities he draws as collections of jumbled angles and icons, held together with the tool-oriented nature of the marks with which they're built. He may draw no building remoetly the same way twice, but they'll all be drawn with the dry brush and the nib pen, and colored with watercolor and colored pencil.

Whereas some other cartoonists strive to create rhythms and patterns of interacting icons, Fiffe creates rhythms and patterns of interacting tool marks. He does not necessarily need to use his marks to iconographically code as most cartoonists do, but to emotionally code, as most artists at large do. This expands his visual grammar well outside the range most comics readers are used to processing.

Comics aren't generally as open to interpretation as static visual art at large, and relating back to the How to Read Comics post, most comics readers aren't really well practiced in stretching their senses of self enough to connect to more interpretive, more abstract, less directly representational art. Not only that, but comics share a very high level of reading approach with prose, in the minds of comics readers at large.

You're not supposed to stop and really contemplate the art in the dominant mode of comics reading. And even if folks do stop to contemplate, what they're contemplating is rarely worth contemplating, usually relying on the same old camera-based tv-evoking experience, or the icon-system-based more-traditional line-cartooning, rather than incorporating composition and storytelling and visual depiction lessons from worlds of fine art, engineering, information visualization, semiotics and more. 

I'm cross pollinating a little here, but seriously, ya'll don't know shit about reading images.

And Fiffe, he sits right in the middle of all these methods of visual communication. 

Or at least all the old-world ones.

As is obvious from one look at his comics and as I brought up in the first Fiffe & the Rule-Set of the City post, Fiffe is old-school in his tools. Analog-only mark-making. I'm cross pollinating again, but analog has its limits in being visually communicative. Thankfully, all the art limits are like asymptotes: we'll never really reach them.

But Fiffe reaches for them. Stretching. Grasping out.

His cities, like his comics at large, demand to be read in a mode other than the dominant. You cannot glance, read, and move on. As has been stated, he does not use only icon systems or hard-and-fast shape-structures, and the icon systems and shape structures he uses mutate and transform constantly. Most comics artist's draw things only one way, which can usually be seen most clearly in how they draw hands. You'd never mistake Ditko's hands for Kirby's or Cameron Stewart's for Mike Mignola's.

These things are the words of their visual dictionaries, and, to stretch the metaphor, they're always spelled the same (read: drawn the same). This "stamped out" quality to the art allows for a highly complex symphony of composition in which all the icons always read the same, code the same, mean the same, as they're always drawn the same. 

Fiffe's icons do not do this.

Fiffe's highly complex symphony of composition is built not just of icon-marks but of emotion-marks, which due to his previously mentioned skill and brio allows it to be much more richly rewarding listening experience to those who can hear the music. 

Imagine if you had to train you ears to hear pitches above and below the normal ranges of human hearing, and there were symphonies and concertos and even pop songs written for that wider range of hearing. So, if you really wanted to listen to the music the way it was meant to be, to take in all of the coded information, you'd have train yourself to properly hear. 

Range, remember?

All the metaphors coming together here to reveal the through-line 'tween them all, as the range of his mark-making and of his emotional evocation and of his story plotting and of his page composition and of the very structure of his cities come together to reveal themselves all as perspectives of the same obviously-multifaceted multitalented individual, full of broad life experience and understanding and empathy. Even the anthology itself, as stated back in Zegas Number One: Everything and More, is a symphony, a triumph of complex composition and wide-ranging emotional balance.

Fiffe's cities are whatever they need to be. No bias. Ultimate adaptation. Plucked from the quantum phase-space of neurons and chemical lightning, through a sea of variety and decohering possibility after possibility, until the little city-vision-snowflake emerges from the muscles and the pencil on the other end, an expression of Fiffe's nuanced, highly controlled, chaos.

I don't know enough about Fiffe's process to know how much conscious contemplation is put into the penciling of his city's angles and shapes and discordances, but if I had to guess, I'd say there's very little. They have the feeling of transmissions from the under-mind. Visions of how a city feels inside and taken and inverted, projected outwards. If I had to guess, I'd say we're getting Fiffe's emotional impression of the city on a panel-by-panel basis. There's a panel toward the end of Zegas 2 (below) that shows this most clearly, with Emily Zegas just having found out why she's been distanced from her boyfriend, while also putting up with her brother and going to start a new (possibly quite shit) job.

The city reflects the moods. Whatever it needs to be.

Later, when Boston and Gina are on the rooftop having one of those moments mentioned in an earlier post, shared only between a few, but which we all still intimately recognize, the city shifts again, now a collection of kaleidoscopic shape and color, dissolved away into ever-changing hues and shadow-shapes, barely recognizable in the background of our young lovers.

This is Fiffe's city: Emotional projection in the usual marks-and-colors mode of non-comics visual art, and ever-shifting geometrical icons systems that are built out of or dissolve into said emotional projections. Hard and fast icon-systems and shape-structures need not apply. Fluid, surreal, continuous visual adaptation desired, please apply within.

part three tomorrow, featuring some actual, proper, art criticism and more rambling!

thank you for reading!

how to read comics,
part zero point none:
insults & incoherent ramblings

this post a combination of linguistic affectation and automatic writing. go go go!!

Word balloons, color use, facial expressions, body language, page design, you know your shit don’t you? Yeah, yeah, you think you know all the fancy-pants rules to read comics, unlike those damn plebeians, always reading those books that look the same on every page, and most of whom couldn’t manage to fathom the reading of images even if you actually handed them a map (ba dum pssh). Yeah, you’re graphically literate, aren’t you? Pictorially intelligent? Sure! Artistically aware? But of course, right?

Yeah, no. You know nothing.

Actually, no, that’s just idiot hyperbole. You have to know quite a bit to even be a casual reader of comics. But well, sorry, you’re probably still a relative lightweight when it comes to image analysis if your knowledge of reading pictures originated with comics. Which, for many comics readers, it of course did. The problem with that is that comics uses a massive number of crutches just to visually get by. Chief among these crutches are the word balloon and the panel. Actually, maybe crutches isn't the right word. Wrong connotations. But the word balloon and the panel are the parts of the structure that everyone actually leans on. They’re the load-bearing walls of the medium, if you will.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a tradesman and grew up in a construction family, but the image of a strangely-built house comes to mind...

I grew up in Sonoma and Marin counties in northern California and my father was a general contractor. Since long before I can properly recall I’ve been visiting houses and learning of their essential structures and bodily make-ups. The comics medium occasionally reminds me of some of those houses I’ve worked on out in Marin: idiosyncratic and unique in so many ways, but highly, highly specific and very difficult to fathom from the outside. Coming in to do work on or in a house like that is always a strange experience; attempting to understand the mechanics that brought this fascinating monstrosity into existence, and what the (sometimes) absolutely insane rules holding it up actually are.

There’s a continuous feeling, exploring those jobs during the initial exploratory and demo stages, of: “What the hell happened here, and how are we going to figure it out and work around and fix things?!” Think like the Winchester Mystery House, but slightly more practical.

Really quite an apt metaphor for our strange and terrible little art form.

But the parsing of it, the throwing off of the crutches, the remodeling of the house, the building of a more rewarding reading experience. Just how do we go about this?

I’ve little idea as to the specifics of the evolution of the word balloon and the basic panel, but I’m sure the work has been done, and while I would quite love to know, we don’t really need to go all the way back down the genetic line just in order to learn how to our observe our creature’s behavior today (but if such scholarly work is easily linkable or searchable, please don’t hesitate to comment with the info!).

Most folks (probably not any of the seven or so people who read this blog) who read comics do so in a very casual way. Very quickly, pausing usually only to resolve a moment of confusion or to briefly appreciate an image, then hurrying on. This is how we’re taught to read prose. Move along, move along, sound out, clarify, double check, repeat if you like a turn of phrase, move along, move along. Very casual. Very linear. And not a thing wrong with it. A great many of the comics form’s subspecies and idiomatic approaches are designed mostly to be read this way. Gag strips, 1-4 panelers, a good deal of manga, most mainstream western-direct-market stuff, etc. This is not, however, the only way. You cannot read comics by Brecht Evens or Jim Woodring the way you can those. The lack of words has a lot to do with that, and we’ll return to words and language at large in the reading of comics soon enough, but it’s really more than just that. 

It’s more than just the lack of words, it’s the composition and the coding of the images. As quoted in the Fiffe & the Rule-Set of the City post from Clarke's Fractals - The Colors of Infinity, it’s the visual dictionary, the pictorial grammar, the depth and coherence of the complex fractal-self-similarity.

People compare comics to music and go on and on about the importance of composition and arrangement. Guys like Marcos Martin draw zoom-ins on ears, Matthew Southworth tilts a page 90 degrees, people go crazy for that shit. They need the pop songs, the simple jams. The same old tunes. 
Business as usual. The real music, the real compositional tricks and visual bridges and mood evocations are being done elsewhere, if only you’re willing to bend your brain to perceive them.

There is no right answer in the singular sense, though.

No one correct perspective.

You have to cycle through the permutations. Every perspective is the right perspective if you can only manage to stare through them all at once. Why do you think Morrison and Moore and others are fascinated by the simultaneity of time and by super-position and phase-space and by temporal-lobe warping experiences? That's where the truest sight supposedly resides. And it’s very difficult not to have yourself be dissolved by that endless abyss of perspectives. That’s why forging through it is the final task for the mature magician.

We’ve no need for the ancient out-of-date maps, though.

Come, take my hand, there’s an easier crossing through the acid...

It’s the rare person who feels confident in their relationship to art and to the perception of it. Such a subjective thing, you know? So wide-ranging, it’s difficult to speak to with any real sense of authority. Can there be said to be a universal user interface for the canvas? Just how do we learn to emote in response to imagery? Oh, it’s simple enough with representational imagery, like in most comics and in most art at large. In a comic if it’s a guy throwing a punch or shooting a gun: action, energy, power. If it’s a light-blue-violet-lavender-reddish-yellowish-orange sunset over a slowly darkening valley: nostalgia, warmth, wonder.

But we need to be trained to do this. I know guys to whom I could hand The Love Bunglers and who would feel nothing from the experience. Or I could hand them whatever painting you want, instead. They’ve less-than-zero experience with artistic emotional exploration or personal processing of art at all. The closest these sorts of guys get is … god, video games, I guess? Seriously, these are not art people at all, and folks with any sort of relationship to art at all (myself included; myself especially) often tend to forget just how trained an impulse the whole thing really is.

As with most things in life, it’s all about the practice and the training.

I know all this doesn’t sound very romantic, and that everyone experiences everything differently and everything’s subjective and all that bullshite. But I tend to think a good deal of that has to do with depth of perception and ability to explain personal emotional reactions. Zegas 2 for example can be read at a very surface level, with most of its informational content passing right through the perceptual bowels of the reader, little absorbed at all. Or it can be read deeply, all the informational content it possesses digested. All the nutrients absorbed in every way possible. Eaten with every emotion, perceived in every spatial way possible, seen ontologically, seen hauntologically, approached from every possible method of perception you comfortably possess. All the permutations cycled through.

Every view cataloged and contained, one at a time, faster and faster, until the comic echoes on in your head, a multi-faceted, super-positioned, little living memory.

There are the dominant modes of perception, of course. Those reading systems that have harmonically accreted. Evolved, essentially.

The simplest mode is the one most everyone uses, the one that everyone relies on and that most readers never lean off of. To be fair, most creators don’t really challenge them to do so. But we’re talking about the reading of images here, and the inverse, the creation of images, is a whole other ballgame. Related, sure, but related is the way American Football and Rugby are related: similar, but really completely different things. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a comic with a relatively low amount of very-traditional information per page. Or even a comic with a high amount of very-traditional information per page. It’s not just about the density to me, really, but about the quality and the novelty.

As in the case of reducing color images to value-structures, the reducing of all page-content to simple information changes our whole perspective on the issue by altering the terms by which we perceive it. We need to remove our preconceptions and biases to cross into new knowledge. Removing our attachment to style and to color and to all other attractions and bloodlessly examining everything from the perspective of patterns and information. Then, having boiled everything away, we move slowly back down, recondensing and reconsolidating and remodeling and rebuliding our understandings of things.

We’ll start with the load-bearing walls. With the panel and 
the balloon.

Most folks just jump from one to the next. Reading the balloons, glancing at the the icon system they’re pointing at, then moving on. Very casual, mostly dialogue driven. Is it any wonder Bendis is as popular as he is? Dialogue and language and words drive the dominant comics reading experience. That and the most basic and trite of panel progressions. Visual storytelling and form/content interaction largely take a backseat. Photo-reffed or shadow-shape-based illustrative "quality" moves to the forefront to dominate... 
In this way, the stacked-coffins, storyboard-based, tv pitch-comic comes about.

The dominant mode boiled out all the fun tricks and the inherent graphic (as in pictorial) nature, as creators powered by pan-media bullshit sought to make all their media move and feel the same. The dominant mode is now just like watching a shit tv show. Which of course many direct-market comics-readers do a great deal of, and which is the larger dominant mode of entertainment culture in general.

(Note: This is one of those moments when I want to go back to the bridging concept and Fiffe & the Rule-Set of the City and try to compare it something like horizontal gene transfer or something. Things shift sideways, associations bridging laterally and introducing new things or transforming old ones. It's just that in the case of the dominant mode of the direct market, the gene transfer from the larger media world has been detrimental to our genetic variety, thinning the gene pool. We have been largely homogenized by the bigger entertainment industries and are now being farmed for our variety-within-tight-bounds, super-market-safe (get it? get it?), product. The vast explosion of work in the last decade or so doing nothing so much as proving Sturgeon's Law to be absolutely correct.)

This is why any basic artistic or narrative tricks pulled in the direct market seem like goddamn magic to most readers therein: any deviation from the dominant mode will of course seem like boundless innovation if the dominant mode is all you know.

The dominant mode also fetishizes the surface quality of the art, as well.

Having no critical language or greater artistic experience to hang perceptions on and to there build a unique sense of taste from, the basic emotional reaction and language surrounding that builds up instead. Like a toenail ingrown or a plant shut in the dark, the focus grows toxic and turns inward, with the emotional reactions never incorporating other perspectives than the first, everything confirming the myopic bias of that singular focus, rather than expanding it outwards to ever grow and change and evolve. This is how we get airless statutory (to quote Wait What's Jeff Lester) like Jim Lee and Ivan Ries as the norm. The visceral, uncompromising superficiality of the art playing to the surface appeal, just like popular music.

“No need to overthink it, man. He (it’s always a he) just draws awesome, you know! I mean, that dude (again, always a dude) looks like he could just beat the shit out of you! The way it’s drawn, there’s just so much power, you know?!”

Never just describe your reaction. Invert. Describe the method by which the reaction was brought about. And describe it to the nth degree. Take that self-sense and inward emotional focus and invert. Apply it outward. Stretch yourself.

To expand reading experience beyond the dominant mode is difficult though. There’s a hell of a lot of things involved and teaching old dogs new tricks is always difficult. Especially if they’re happy with the tricks they’ve got, like most. But there is a small percentage of the readership who want to expand their reading experience. Who want to see in new ways, having perhaps had brief glimpses and glimmers without entirely knowing what it was they were really looking at.

For those, there’s this column.

Or future iterations of it, really, because it ain't like I really said anything useful in this one.

part two to feature image rollovers, jackson pollock and the secrets of the universe! 
and will arrive sometime at some future point! maybe!

thanks so much for reading!