Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Scott McCloud Must Be Turning in His Grave, Part 2: The Cat Race

Yesterday I bedeviled the peaceful eternal sleep of Mister Scott McCloud yes, I know he's not actually dead by showing stories that could shake a reader or a little stuffed bull out of the story by violating some fairly basic albeit unwritten rules of comics visual language! Whew! Which is a lot of rhetoric to point to a comic book with a bit of storytelling trouble and say hey, look at this!

So, hey, look at this!:

Panels from Catwoman (2011 series) #32 (August 2014), script by Ann Nocenti, pencils by Patrick Olliffe, inks by Tom Nguyen, colors by Sonia Oback, letters by Travis Lanham

Vice and Swindle! They're America's new sweetheart comedy sensations! He's an INTERPOL agent and she's got tin-foil on her face. Vice and Swindle! Their type of fast-talking Dorothy Parker-style tennis-ball dialogue hasn't been seen in comics since Image cancelled Rob Liefeld's Gilmore Girls comic book! Swice and Vindle! They're the hottest romantic couple since Dave and Maddie! Fold and Spindle!

Let's come back to them in a minute.

Scott McCloud has a lot to say about successive panel progression in his meisterverk Understanding Comics. Hey, Scott, can you guest-lecture my good readers about panels for a moment, please?

Panels from Understanding Comics (1993); script, pencils, and inks by Scott McCloud; letters by Bob Lappan

McCloud spends a lot of time in UC examining the concept, purpose, and rules of the comic book panel and the space between each panel (the gutter). Here he reminds us that not everything you see in a single comic book panel represents just One Moment in Time (™2010 Marvel Comics), which is how you can have Ben Grimm decking Doctor Doom while they each speechify for a couple word balloons each. McCloud provides an example of a single panel displaying progressive action and how the shorthand of that panel stretches the action out over a period of time that runs from left to right, the same direction we read the panel.

Of course the obvious conclusion you can draw from this example of a panel progressing through time is that Uncle Henry is a jerk. If'n you're reading my blog I'm guessing you're fairly familiar with the visual language of comics, so that time progression isn't baffling to you. Most folks, even if they only read comic strips with or without Garfield, can subconsciously pick up the visual shorthand of a panel's action even if they haven't studied comics or even read Armageddon 2001. Consider (won't you?) that if this panel were a photograph, it would capture only a single flashpoint (™2011 DC Comics) in time. Even if this series of events was filmed, each movie frame would still only capture one twenty-fourth of a second. Only comics can compress so much time and action into this merging of visual and textual information.

What's this all gotta do with that sequence from Catwoman up above, you might ask, aside from spotlighting the sheer star power that is the celebrity couple known collectively as Vicindle? Well, to quote the title of a 1960s TV series I really logically should have never heard of it's about time. More specifically: when are the pictured events in the series of panels happening? The Western mind reads a comic panel from right to left and/or top to bottom, and places those events in sequence. But! And this is a big butt here — I like those and I cannot lie — while the unwritten visual rules of comic tell us that events inside a panel happen in progression, it shouldn't show us that two contradictory things are happening at once.

What's contradictory about that first panel? The suggestion that Catwoman is driving her pink car towards the action and is still at a distance during the conversation, and yet the second panel suggests she already arrived during the first panel. (Or, how else would Catwoman overhear the mention of Roulette?)

Here, let me get out my projection screen and pointer and I'll demonstrate. (Click on the below image to embiggen!)

Even though panel one is taking place over a specific period of time, the presence of the cars in the background of panel one is a visual shortcut to tell us that they're driving towards the action, but there's zero clue that they have already arrived at the action. McCloud talks about the progression of time in a comics panel using a rope metaphor:

Slightly hampered by my ability to convincingly Photoshop in a piece of rope, here's how that works in the Catwoman panel:

So, even though we see the cars in the background, and we know by the clouds of dust and the action lines that they're moving towards the foreground, conventional comics wisdom doesn't support that Catwoman drove her car up to Vice and Swindle, shut off the engine, got out of the car and overheard that third speech balloon at the same time we're seeing her car still driving towards the foreground. In other words: there's a progression of time here, but the panel violates its own visual language. That's a minor but powerful sequence confusion that can draw me right out of the action and make me more concerned about how the story is being told.

Like I did yesterday, I've made a rough Photoshop attempt to mildly tweak the action. Does this work better with the sequence of events?

Because of the co-creative nature of creating a comic (first script, then art, balloon placement, and finally lettering), you can't point to any one specific person responsible for this hiccup in comics unwritten language. It, like the Wolverines panels I examined yesterday, is a product of the collaborative creative method, and when you consider how many people are involved in the creation of each comic made in this manner, it's actually impressive that this sort of hiccup is actually a rarity. But it's telling that when it's there, you do tend to notice it.

Besides, what really made me think about this story was: just how did Catwoman manage to get into the Wacky Races anyway? By the way, Ann Nocenti and Patrick Olliffe and Travis Lanham are all pretty keen, so no blame or malice is intended!


Unknown said...

That was actually pretty facinating... Thank you for massaging my grey cells!

Unknown said...

That was actually pretty facinating... Thank you for massaging my grey cells!

Blam said...

When you're right, you're right. And you're right, Bully. And Understanding Comics remains one of my favoritest books ever.