by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. My commentary is in brackets, and boldface is my own.]
Comics & Sequential Art
The events of a comics story take place within the story’s own fictional temporality. Reading the comics takes place within the reader’s actual conscious temporality. Comics present their events in small time-blocks with temporal gaps left out between the panels. These temporal jumps produce a pattern to the story time’s exposition, and as well they generate a rhythm to the reader’s experience of that story temporality. The flow of time in the story can be modulated so that it seems to accelerate or decelerate, pause, become choppy or smooth, become dense and frantic or rarefied and calm, and so on. These effects are accomplished in part by visual modifications to the panel frame itself. For example, a series of square frames sets a metered pace, and when followed by a long panel, creates the feeling of a pause in that flow. Or, by inserting a series of tall narrow panels, the pace of the story’s time will seem to accelerate and condense. The comics artist makes these choices to modulate not only the temporal experience in the reader but also to bring about the desired emotional responses to the story events.
[The diagram below was found in the prior section, but it seems to refer to a point made now in this section too.]
[Eisner’s first point is a bit hard to decipher, because it draws an analogy between Einstein’s Special Relativity theory and the temporality involved in comics stories and our experiences of them. (By the way, my best simplified explanation and understanding of the theory is found at this post, which contains animated diagrams). His point will be that somehow on account of the comics panel, time (in the story) is relative to the position of the reader. I will only be able to give wrong guesses as to what he means. Judging from the rest of the paragraph, he might be saying that were we to live inside the comic story world, we could only live within each panel. We would not be able to see the page layout of many panels and their respective sizes and shapes. And since each panel is a still image, were we a character in one such image, we would not experience or be able to measure the passage of time between panels. The reader, however, takes up a spatial position outside all the panels, and can judge one panel being beside another. So relative to the viewer’s spatial location, the panels’ spatial features and organization serve as temporal indicators in the story development. But hopefully the analogy with relativity is not essential to the main ideas here. The other points are also a little hard for me to grasp. He seems to be saying that we judge the time in a panel not merely from the frame itself. For, if we look at a blank enframed panel, we cannot judge the temporality inside it just from its size and shape. Instead, there is a cooperation of the visual contents, the dialogue, and the panel frame to indicate to us the duration of the panel. And although the images are frozen, we perceive them as expressing a block of continuous duration, which is the illusion of time in comics. The frame serves to punctuate the temporality, as it separates the panels temporally. Thus we obtain the illusion of time by making judgements regarding the duration implied by the boxes in their sequence. I probably have this wrong, so let me quote.]
Albert Einstein in his Special Theory (Relativity) states that time is not absolute but relative to the position of the observer. In essence the panel (or box) makes that postulate a reality for the comic book reader. The act of paneling or boxing the action not only defines its perimeters but establishes the position of the reader in relation to the scene and indicates the duration of the event. Indeed, it ‘tells’ time. The magnitude of time elapsed is not expressed by the panel per se, as an examination of blank boxes in a series quickly reveals. The imposition of the imagery within the frame of the panels acts as the catalyst. The fusing of symbols, images and balloons makes the statement. Indeed, in some applications of the frame, the outline of the box is eliminated entirely with equal effect. The act of framing separates the scenes and acts as a punctuator. Once established and set in sequence the box or panel becomes the criterion by which to judge the illusion of time.
[I also am not sure I completely understand the analogy laid out in the figure illustrations that follow. But it seems he is saying that Morse code requires a passage of time, and certain durational properties of the code sounds are inherent to their meaning. Also, music is something whose parts can vary temporally, and they require the continuous passage of time to unfold. Likewise, comics, although entirely occupying space, carry with them a temporal passage through which their development unfolds.]
[Recall from section 3.1 that timing is the manipulation of the visual imagery and of its panelization so to alter the temporal features of the story and of the reader’s emotional experience of the story. He now says that the main feature of the modern comic for transmitting its timing is the frame or box. Presumably this is because it creates segments of duration blocks that imply durations transpiring between them. Here we note Eisner’s emphasis on the separative function in creating temporality. He includes speech balloons, which further section-off the panel’s imagery into other internal duration blocks. (Normally one speech balloon ((or balloon subsection)) is experienced as occurring not during but after another one beside it.) Other visual clues which indicate movement or other temporally-extended occurrences serve as “symbols” for the passage of time in the panel.]
In the modern comic strip or comic book, the device most fundamental to the transmission of timing is the panel or frame or box. These lines drawn around the depiction of a scene, which act as a containment of the action of segment of action, have as one of their functions the task of separating or parsing the total statement. Balloons, another containment device used for the entrapment of the representation of speech and sound, are also useful in the delineation of time. The other natural phenomena, movement or transitory occurences [sic] deployed within the perimeter of these borders and depicted by recognizable symbols, become part of the vocabulary used in the expression of time. They are indispensable to the story teller, particularly when he is seeking to involve the reader. Where narrative art seeks to go beyond simple decoration, where it presumes to imitate reality in a meaningful chain of events and consequences and thereby evoke empathy, the dimension of time is an inescapable ingredient.
Eisner then illustrates how these variables work in practice to produce the comic’s timing. Along the right side he shows a clock, which measures the time that we ascribe to the series of events. The contents include the image (or idea) of papers burning. Our knowledge of how long it takes for papers to burn informs us of how the time is progressing in and between the panels. [Using Eisner’s terminology, the burning paper might then become a “symbol” for time, but I am not sure. He also says that the shape of the panels contributes to the rhythm. He does not say more here about that. But perhaps we might make some guesses. The first panel when he crashes through the window is a narrow panel. As well, the time seems sudden and brief there, even though the word balloon takes a little time to read. The next longer and squatter panels seem to involve a little more time passing within each of them. In the next row, again, a crashing through the window moment occupies a narrow panel and does seem to have a briefer duration than the surrounding panels. In the third row there are no frames around the panels. They also seem like a rapid succession of instants. Then, the final row of panels has more space between them. That perhaps lends to a sense of a dramatic pause and suspense as we are made to wait anxiously to see what the result of the situation is.]
Both of these critical devices, panel and balloon, when enclosing natural phenomena, support the recognition of time. J. B. Priestley, writing in Man and Time, summed it up most succinctly: “. . . it is from the sequence of events that we derive our idea of time.”
[Eisner then shows an illustration where we gauge the pacing by the dripping of a faucet. We know already how fast faucets drip, so we know it is a matter of a few seconds before the bomb explodes. Thus we do not even need to see the fuse burn, although it confirms our temporal assumptions. This is an especially good illustration for the “illusion” of time in comics, since we can feel the thickness of time, which is enriched and phenomenalized by the suspense of the situation.]
Eisner finishes this chapter by analyzing the timing and pacing of one of his complete Spirit stories, “Foul Play,” from 27-March-1949. He selected it because “time is critical to the emotional elements in the plot.” For the story to work as he intended, he needed to “frame a period of time that would encompass the plot” (30). [I am not entirely sure what that means, but I think he is saying that the story has a certain duration that he wants the reader to feel.] But if he merely just tells the reader the duration by having a narrator make statements about the time, then it would be too formal and specific, which would “mitigate the reader’s involvement. A ‘time rhythm’ that is very believable had to be employed” (30).
In order to get the reader be aware of how the time is passing, he depicts certain actions that the reader is familiar with, so they can measure the depicted time on the basis of their own past experiences of these activities. In this case, Eisner will depict faucet drips, a match strike, teeth brushing, and the usage of a staircase to create the impressions of duration (30).
Eisner will also comment on how his changes to the frequency, shape, and size of the panels “contribute to the story rhythm and passage of time” (30). So in some cases, he will need to “compress” time [that is, fill the duration with more event-content], and to do so, he will increase the number of panels used to depict the segments of the event. Were he instead to put a lot of event material into one panel, that would make the time seem like it is stretching out. But, by increasing the proximity of the panels [and by increasing their frequency], he increases the speed of time’s pace.
The number and size of the panels also contribute to the story rhythm and passage of time. For example, when there is a need to compress time, a greater number of panels are used. The action then becomes more segmented, unlike the action that occurs in the larger, more conventional panels. By placing the panels closer together, we deal with the 'rate' of elapsed time in its narrowest sense.
Eisner then comments on how the panel sizes influence the pacing. When he wants an even or “metered” pace of the action, to make the events seem deliberate and mechanical, he uses perfectly square panel frames. Then, to create a suspenseful and more elongated moment, he will suddenly use a longer panel coming after many smaller ones [as if hitting the brakes on the movement of time].
The shapes of the panels are also a factor. On a page where the need is to display a 'deliberate' meter of action, the boxes are shaped as perfect squares. Where the ringing of the telephone needs time (as well as space) to evoke a sense of suspense and threat, the entire tier is given over to the action of the ringing preceded by a compression of smaller (narrower) panels.
In comics, timing and rhythm are interlocked.
[Eisner’s part-by-part analysis of his own entire story gives us a privileged glimpse into not only his own thinking as a visual still-image story teller, but as well it will equip us with analytical tools for studying other comics. For that reason, forgive me for walking through his entire, wonderful analysis.]
We begin with the first page of the story. The plot revolves around what seems like a man falling to his death upon the sidewalk, having fallen from somewhere out of the building above. Eisner’s first observation is that he wanted that central plot element to be presented as a surprise. So he begins with two expository panels that contain little event material and thus have a calm pace. This makes the sudden arrival of the fallen body come as a shock. It as well has a comic effect [perhaps because it is such a terrible thing that happens just as a matter of course in the life of the main character who seemingly gives the shocking event no significance.]
At the top of the next page, the faucet dripping serves to set the pace and length of the duration. Two rows down we get an illustration of what he meant before by “In comics, timing and rhythm are interlocked.” He writes, “the sudden introduction of a large number of small panels brings into play a new ‘beat’” (32). [I am not exactly sure yet how the rhythm and the time are interlocked. It could be that the accelerated rhythm tells us that less or maybe more time is passing, but I am not sure.]
The character then begins to worry that the fallen figure’s death might be blamed on him. [When something makes us panic, it is as if time is speeding up, since we become frantic.] To create the “rising tempo of panic,” he used tall, narrower panels. [This makes the time itself seem crowded and dense].
At the top of the next page, Eisner creates a “staccato” rhythm by placing a series of narrow panels that for some reason read like a series of small sudden jumps. Then, we have the long panel he mentioned before, which extends the duration.
Eisner then increases the pace, since the man is panicking again, and Eisner does so by creating a series of narrow panels. At the bottom panels, it seems as if the “camera” angle changes to low and high angle “shots”. Eisner says that the changes in perspective “add time lapse without altering rhythm”. [I do not understand this point. Perhaps the idea is that the pace retains a hastened rhythm on account of the panel shapes. But since the perspectives change, that might give us the impression that it is like us being viewers who must move great distances to attain those different angles, and thus to consume more time in making the movements. I am just guessing. My impression while reading those parts is that it is a little disorienting, and so that confusion might add the impression of more time is passing.]
At the top of the next page, he uses again a series of narrow tall panels to maintain the quickened rhythm. In the middle of the series is a wider panel which causes the sequence of beats to pause briefly.
After the man jumps out the window, there is no longer the need for suspense and excitement. So Eisner slows the pace down by using larger panels.
Will Eisner. Comics & Sequential Art. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse Press, 1985.
Will Eisner. Comics & Sequential Art. Copyright Will Eisner. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse Press, 1985.