Silence and sound
A good of example of all this is Dark Rain (2010), a story set in New Orleans in 2005, during Hurricane Katrina and the terrible floods that followed when the levees burst. It was scripted by American author, Mat Johnson, and illustrated by the British artist Simon Gane.
Their two main protagonists Dabney and Emmit are sharing a room in a half-way house, having been released from prison after (uncharacteristically) straying from the straight and narrow. Resentful of his treatment by the legal system, Emmit draws Dabney into his plan to break into the New Orleans bank he formerly worked in, now abandoned as it’s in one of the areas worst affected by the flooding.
Johnson’s script and Gane’s treatment are cinematic in character. Beyond the occasional reference to date and location, the text is composed entirely of dialogue in speech balloons. Gane’s composition and use of viewpoint in the visual storytelling replicate feature film direction techniques. Without a commentary, the scale of the disaster is revealed through the words scripted by Johnson for the survivors which Dabney and Emmit encounter, as well as the devastation, chaotic relief attempts and the blocking of mainly African-American refugees trying to escape to largely untouched white neighbourhoods, all witnessed through Gane’s artwork.
Disaster or not, this is, at heart, a heist story and the pair eventually reach the semi-submerged bank. In one particular spread, on the verso page Dabney and Emmit discuss how they will get inside the bank, as this requires going under water. The page has five frames, four are close-ups from different viewpoints, while one gives us the characters’ viewpoint of the bank. The page takes a minute to read. In cinematic terms, it’s all one scene and is effectively in real time. Across four panels on the recto page we now see Dabney, kitted out in scuba diving gear, make his way underwater to the bank and begin to cut a grill with welding equipment. There is no dialogue, or any sound effects represented, though in a film you would probably hear the burble of his oxygen tanks and then the roar of the oxyacetylene gun. This page represents a longer passage of time, a couple of minutes, but how long does the reader take to digest the four panels? You would hope they would spend at least five seconds per panel, but it could be as little as five seconds in total. How can the artist slow the reader down?
Short of putting a caption in, say, 'Please take a good minute to look over this page’, the most obvious answer, in this case, would have been for Johnson and Gane to extend the recto page across a further spread, but this would have meant extending the book by a further two pages or cropping elsewhere, which might not have been viable.
To some extent then, the artist is hoping the reader buys into the ‘cinematic’ experience, self-regulating the pace at which they ‘read’ wordless pages. Without a few or no words to intervene, the reader can allow their imagination to ‘sync’ with the images, conjuring up other sensual possibilities. The success of graphic novels suggests this is happening and that a different way for reading a graphic novel - distinct to a conventional novel - is evolving. I recently did some off-the-cuff research at Newfield Secondary School in Sheffield where children maintained a strong interest for reading graphic novels and, surprisingly, stated an overwhelming preference for them in actual book form rather than a digital format. (This was confirmed by the school library, who said demand for graphic novels was rapacious.) Whether reading graphic novels was at the expense of text novels I didn’t establish, but clearly this was a popular way of engaging with storytelling.
And beyond superheroes, graphic novels are increasingly becoming the source material for feature films and animations, acting as an intermediary storyboard. A recent example is the fantasy film I Kill Giants (directed by A. Walter 2018), based on the graphic novel by Joe Kelly and
Ken Niimura (2014), a story with a strong visual clout even before the CGI guys get to work.
In my own work I have to constantly consider how a reader moves through both page and spread, from left to right and top to bottom. The crucial panel in a spread is the last one on the right-hand side, before the page is turned. Does this dictate where the action culminates, or a moment of suspense occurs? This break of the page becomes a tool for storytelling and is the equivalent of a film-maker’s camera-cut.
Within any frame, what goes on the left-hand side can show part of an action which is carried through to the right, a sequence of cause and effect as a plot device. This would be particularly the case with a panel that extends across the whole page. For instance, character A might shoot character B. As we scan the panel, is it important to see the perpetrator first or the victim? It’s a significant, if momentary, part of the storytelling. (The pattern of reading which is cultural will be reversed for instance in Japanese Manga tradition, which reads right to left, but observes the same key points of the page.) As well as across a page, a panel might also run from the top to the bottom of a page. This provides other dynamic possibilities: great height; descent, falling or dropping. And then there is that most vital element of any form of visual narrative, and especially a graphic novel with ‘cinematic’ pretensions: viewpoint. Viewpoint/eye-level/ perspective allows the artist to place the viewer/reader in relation to any scene or action. It is the most powerful tool the artist has to create empathy, drama, suspense, even relationships between characters. Just as a film maker will first consider where do I place my camera?, so the graphic novelist will think what is my viewpoint?
Working with writers who have had no prior experience of scripting for graphic novels can all too often highlight, by their absence, the essential elements crucial to plot and rhythm in storytelling as well as the design process. For example, recently I was sent a script comprising 450 panels. The writer had dutifully broken down their story into what they considered suitable for each frame or image box. What they hadn’t done was given any thought to how this panned out in terms of pages and spreads, which provide the visual punctuation in a graphic novel and are crucial to the design and the storytelling. When I write and illustrate my own projects the areas of word and image, page and spread design are worked simultaneously. My first task on this occasion was to craft the 450 frames into pages and spreads, from which it became apparent we had - at least - a 64-page book. This process initially worked by reckoning on an average of seven panels per page. Then it was a juggling act: finding the natural breaks; identifying which frames needed to be big - an establishing view of a location, for instance - and which could be small - a close up of two people talking, say - as well the frames trying to do too much and making them into two, sometimes three, frames. I see each frame as a nugget of action - a single moment of movement or action - even a pause in action - or an exchange of dialogue. This ‘juggling’ or ‘trade-off’ continues into the design stage as text, in the form of captions and speech balloon, vie for space with the visual story elements, and good comic strip drawing always tries to push any balloons or text information into corners where it will not cut across images.
And, of course, the story might be working on different levels, which have to be integrated in the artwork, but distinctly separate from one another. Maus, which tells the story of Art Spiegelman’s father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz, for instance is told on different levels - the use of speech balloons inside the frame is contrasted with Vladek’s commentary or Spiegelman’s own comments which run underneath, outside the frame of the main story (Spiegelman 1986). Peterloo, which retells the events of the historic massacre, also uses levels of dialogue and text. Written as live action events, these are captured through eye-witness testimonies recorded at the time, and formal historic documents, which appear in box form alongside the speech of characters who appear on the page (Polyp, Schlunke and Poole 2019).
Another important element is the rhythm of the story and how that might change, which - similar to cinema - is tied up with the passage of time. What is the interval of time between one frame and the next? It might be minutes; it might be months. Where you have extended dialogue, it will naturally come down to seconds, but for climactic moments in a story, I might try to compress time, so the interval is down to split seconds. Character A shoots character B, who, across a whole page, we see crumple to the ground.
For the time being, at least, the graphic novel has found a place in the crowded mass media market: a place for artists and writers to play around with words and images; sound and silence; and for the reader to explore ways to interact with words and a bunch of pictures.
Blackbeard, B. and M. Williams (eds.) (1977). The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press.
Dirks, R. (1911, September 3). ‘Katzenjammer Kids’, Los Angeles Examiner.
Feaver, W. (1981). Masters of Caricature. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Ltd.
Friedrich, C.D. (1818) The Wanderer above the Sea of Mist. Kunsthalle: Hamburg. Johnson, M. and S. Gane (2010). Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story. New York: DC
Kelly, J. and J..VI. Ken Niimura (2014). I Kill Giants. Berkeley: Image Comic, Inc. McCay, W. (1905). ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’, New York Herald.
Polyp, S. (2019). Peterloo: Witness to a Massacre. Manchester: New Internationalist, van Rijn, R. (1640) Self-Portrait at the Age of 34. London: National Gallery.
Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus. London: Penguin Group.
Talbot, B. (2007). Alice in Sunderland. London: Jonathan Cape. Tan, S. (2007). The Arrival. London: Hodder Children’s Books. Walter, A. (dir.) (2018) I Kill Giants. 1492 Pictures.
von Werner, A. (1894) A Billet Outside Paris. Berlin: Nationalgallerie.
de Witte, E. (1662) Adriana de Heusden and Daughter at the Fish Market. London: National Gallery.