by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are my own.]
Comics and Narration
The Rhythm of Comics
The Cadence of the Waffle-Iron Grid
[We previously discussed the “beat” of comics’ rhythm, deriving from the pattern of its panels.] Comics’ rhythmic beat comes largely from the layout. One standard pattern Groensteen identifies is the “waffle-iron” grid, where there is a fixed pattern of similar shaped panels arranged evenly on the page. He does not think this limits the comics artist’s creativity, because by means of it the artist might establish a certain rhythm, then break from that feeling to great effect.
The beat emitted by the multiframe is closely dependent on page layout, that is to say the arrangement of the panel frames. In The System of Comics, I devoted three pages to a “defense and illustration of regular layout,” the pattern that has become known as the “waffle-iron,” in which all the panels are identical in size and shape. I argued the opposing case to theoreticians who have criticized its “mechanical aspect” or who consider it a constraint on creativity.23 I could see several advantages in it (the slightest variation from one image to the next becomes significant, any braiding effects can more easily be positioned on the page ...) and most notably “the potential for setting up spectacular and violent breaks with the norm initially established.” This particular quality is highly important in relation to rhythm.
[Footnote 23 on p.192: Système 1, pp. 112–14, System 1, pp. 96–97.]
When the layout is regular, so is the beat. The progression from one panel to the next is smoothed out in compliance with an immutable cadence. The “waffle-iron” is remarkably well suited to any narrative (or section of a narrative) that itself relies on the stability of some element, or in which a phased process unfolds. It is also ideal for materializing the inexorable flow of time. More generally, and with reference to the work of Fraisse, Isabelle Guaïtella argues that a | regular page layout and, hence, a regular rhythm, have the effect of “inducing a state of receptiveness in the reader” and so promote “a more immediate integration of meaning.”
Groensteen illustrates the rhythm created by the waffle-iron grid by analyzing Robert Crumb’s Mr Natural’s 719th Meditation.
As we can see, except for the opening panel, all the frames are nearly identical rectangles.
Groensteen notes that not only is the panel structure regular, but so too are the contents to a large degree. Nearly every panel has Mr Natural seen from the same perspective, sitting in the same pose.
The cadence is all the more strongly marked by the correspondence between the repetition of the frame and the reiteration of the motif (a point to which I shall return). The combination of these two factors confers a very expressive ostinato rhythm on the reading process.
Groensteen’s next observation is that the rhythm of the comics bears no temporal relation to the time that passes in the story: “two images juxtaposed in space, even with more or less identical content, correspond not to immediately consecutive moments, but to moments that are chronologically spaced out” (139).
Even though we see a sun moving through the sky and also a moon in one panel, we know that it is more than one day’s time (143).
In fact, we know that the duration of the story events is quite long. But Crumb chose a panel pattern that makes the rhythm very quick.
We are, then, faced with an extended diegetic time frame conveyed by a narrative tempo that gives the impression of a brisk rhythm. By opting for marked regularity of the panel frame and the motif, Crumb has compressed the passage of time, producing an accelerated scrolling effect.
While we cannot measure the flow of time absolutely in this comic, we can at least measure variations in how the temporality is presented. [[So we do not get an extensive measure of the duration, but we do get intensive variations where less time is presented in more space. This has the effect of slowing down time’s passage.]]
If we cannot precisely measure the speed at which the narrative unfolds, we can at least observe the variations that it undergoes. We can see, for example, that the second and third strips of the second page deploy six panels in order to subdivide a very brief moment, that of the confrontation between Mr Natural and the traffic cop, up to the point where the cop backs off. The dialogue and the breakdown make it clear that it takes no more than a few seconds to enact the scene. Six images to cover a few seconds, when something of the order of days or weeks elapses between the others. This remarkable change in the pace of events is expressed visually by a break in the scale of the images, a zoom in on Mr Natural who, for the duration of these six images, is blown up to three times the size of his previous and subsequent manifestations. Thus, within the temporal progression of the story, a brief fragment has been dilated and scrutinized in more detail, as if under a magnifying glass. And this effect, even as it slows down the action, enlarges the central motif.
In the past, the grid format was very popular. But gradually comic art moved away from this standard format so to further differentiate itself from cinema, which is stuck with a fixed frame shape. [For some discussion on this topic of frames in comics vs. cinema, and on possible objections, see section 1.7.1 of The System of Comics.] However, many comics artists are returning to regularity in their paneling patterns. Groensteen says that some artists who deal with highly personal subject matters are using regular panel patterns, and he mentions Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Jeffrey Brown, and Ivan Brunetti. [This image below is a page from Doucet’s Dirty Plot #10.]
[Here is a page from Joe Matt’s Peepshow #1.]
[And here is a page from Ivan Brunetti’s Schizo #3.]
And Groensteen also mentions Ron Regé Jr. and Sammy Harkham. [Here is a page from Ron Regé Jr’s Skibber Bee Bye.]
[And here is a page from Sammy Harkham’s Crickets #1.]
And finally Groensteen mentions some graphic novels, namely Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell. [Here is a page from Brown’s Louis Riel.]
[Here is a page from Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins Watchmen #4.]
[And here is a page from Moore’s, Campbell’s, and Mulllin’s From Hell.]
The regularity of the waffle-iron grid takes on different “tonalities” depending on the subject matter. For the autobiographical comics, “it connotes the rooting of the story in daily life (the regularity of passing days and hours) and the relative insignificance of the events recounted” (144). The regular succession of the panels is like “the clock of life as it ticks by” (144). However, in the other graphic novels we just noted [Louis Riel, Watchmen, and From Hell], “this regularity takes on another meaning, that of the inexorable march of destiny” (144).
Groensteen continues this idea in the next paragraph:
The rebellion of the mixed-race Louis Riel results in a death sentence, the countdown of the masked crime fighters ends in a massacre, and Jack the Ripper executes, one by one, all the women implicated in the conspiracy against the royal household. All three stories are inescapably drawn towards a tragic ending, and the regularity of the cadence fixed by the waffle-iron grid makes the reader feel that every step (every panel) brings them nearer to this ineluctable ending. The magnetic attraction of the apparatus (the series of multiframes) is heightened by the metronomic regularity with which the action unfolds.
Thierry Groensteen. Comics and Narration. Translated by Ann Miller. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. Originally published as Système de la bande dessinée 2. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2011.
Robert Crumb. Mr Natural #1. August 1970. Copyright Robert Crumb. Apex Novelties, 1970.
Julie Doucet. Dirty Plotte [Purity Plotte] #10. December 1996. Copyright Julie Doucet. Drawn & Guarterly.
Joe Matt. Peepshow #1. February 1992. Copyright Joe Matt. Drawn & Quarterly.
Jeffrey Brown. Clumsy. Copyright 2002 by Jeffrey Brown.
Ivan Brunetti. Schizo #2. March 1998. Copyright 1998 Ivan Brunetti. Fantagraphics Books.
Ron Regé Jr. Skibber Bee Bye. Drawn & Quarterly, 2006. Obtained gratefully from The Comics Art Collective
Sammy Harkham. Crickets #1. Copyright 2006 by Sammy Harkham. Drawn & Quarterly.
Alan Moore (Writer), Dave Gibbons (Illustrator/Letterer), & John Mullins (Colorist). Watchmen #4. December 1986. Copyright DC Comics, 1986.
Alan Moore (Writer), Eddie Cambpell (Artist), and Pete Mullins (Contributing Artist). From Hell. Copyright 2006  Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Top Shelf Productions.
Chester Brown. Louis Riel. A Comic-Strip Biography. Copyright 2006 Chester Brown. Drawn & Quarterly.
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