April 16, 2018

It's What You Leave Out: David Fairbanks on The Poetry of Absence in CHANGE by Ales Kot, Morgan Jeske, and Sloane Leong

Flip open a comic to a random page. Perhaps the first thing you notice are the seas of color or blackness greeting you. Perhaps something incredibly dynamic is happening and your eye is drawn to the "motion" of a punch through visual cues. Perhaps a character is giving a lengthy speech that leaves the page dominated by word balloons. The visual nature of the medium leads to a focus on those visual elements, but the majority of comics function rely on an absence, an anti-visual element of the page: the gutter. 

As comics have mostly moved away from a more rigid formalism, they have begun to walk the path of free verse poetry by making incredible and innovative use of panel placement and the breaks between panels. Ask a poet why they broke their line in a certain way and they are just as likely to say "because it felt right" as they are to offer a straight answer regarding form and sound and image and surprise. While the medium of comics and the responses of creators to questions about page composition and gutter placement is similar, there is nowhere near as lively a conversation around the insertion of absences (or the absence of absences) into a page of comics as there are the breaking of lines in a poem.

It's a conversation I would like to start. 

Discussion of page layout and panel composition most often focuses on grids -- a critic's discovery of a comic plotted mostly on a grid or a creator's announcement that their comic was put on a grid with some purpose. David Hine and Shaky Kane used a 4-panel grid for a Burroughsian cut-up experiment in Bulletproof Coffin (inspired by 4-panel grids in older Jack Kirby comics), Frank Miller used 16-panel grids in Dark Knight Returns, and Tom King seems inexplicably intent on using 9-panel grids with multiple artists on multiple comics. And critics talk about them. A little. There is a certain point at which the discussion of the grid -- much like its continued use page after page -- gets repetitive and a little boring. So I won't be talking about grids, except perhaps for the ways in which they do something innovative. 

Change (Kot, Jeske, Leong, and Brisson) was certainly not the first comic to get creative with panel placement, gutters, and page layout, but it was the first time I took notice of what panel placement and arrangement can do for the communication of the story. It was the first time I felt it, and it might be easier to start with an example. 
This page has some of the clearest examples of Change taking advantage of readers' familiarity with comics and how they are read. Occurring in the prologue, this snippet lets Morgan Jeske and Sloane Leong accomplish more in one(ish) panel than many comics do in a single page, condensing heightened emotions and tensions into a single panel instead of a series of talking heads -- and in this panel, there are two trios of inset panels emphasizing the characters' eyes and mouths as the conversation gets heated. Jeske is saying "yes, this conversation is occurring now, but also so are these facial movements," and the contrasting colors brought by Leong allow these microscopic panels to command a reader's attention. Constructing a panel this way requires a certain level of faith in the reader -- after all, there are comics readers who simply follow the word balloons from top left to bottom right and then turn the page, like listening to a TV show as your eyes are elsewhere -- but the combination of the contrasting colors and the placement in line with the word balloons makes it more likely for a reader to pick up what Jeske and Leong are putting down. 

If I were to extrapolate the idea of the gutter as comics' line break further, that would leave a page as an equivalent to a stanza. What, then, is going on with those inset panels? They have clearly defined panel borders with space between them, but they are laid on top of other, relevant art. They are taking the advantages of breaking a panel -- creating discrete ideas/emotions and presenting them to the reader -- without the formless void that exists in the typical gutter. It's an example of having your cake and eating it too, and it is a technique that poets like Mica Woods and Chrissy Martin do incredibly well. 

In the third of Mica Woods' "Three Poems from Now/Here," she incorporates the forward slash (typically used for marking line breaks in poetry transcribed as prose) to break the line without really breaking it: 
suspicion on the train from one stop / to the next an American train / on a German train once / the woman across from me and B thought we were German / until we told her we weren’t / this was perhaps flattery / to no end except kindness in a version of a haunted house centipede / the great / murder mysteries and robberies should happen on trains not in mansions / nor banks / the path is inevitable / unless it hits a cow or car and these things are usually considered / replaceable parts / so all plots are resting / places everyone can catch their breath / in the arc as it appro/aches infinity, which is always (a) suspect for this reason / you’ll need / a good feast of an intermission to gut out the suspense within an unstoppable train / we know / where it’s going / five bodies will be on the floor and at least four / will not get up into the shuddering air of humanity again 
This creates the effect of a boundary without fully separating the text from the rest of its line. It encourages a reader to hold multiple ideas in their head at once, in much the same way that the inset panels in the panel of Change. One could make the argument that word balloons work similarly to this application of panels within panels, but there are unfortunately few examples of word balloons with distinctly non-textual elements in them. 

Chrissy Martin's poem "Flexible," on the other hand, encourages the holding of potentially conflicting ideas, leading a reader where she wants them to go while massaging that reader's lexicon in a way that might give them a bit of empathy toward women and a better understanding of the expectations placed upon them: 
We are girls scrawling words across collarbones, my body is instrumental no no not ornamental / how then so many hands decide to pluck pluck / decide to perform their favorite songs / high notes on the tightness of our thighs / lows in the resonance of empty bellies / girls that are playable / pliable / malleable / see flexible / see supple / see stars from hunger / i.e. thin / i.e. desirable / girls someplace between mace and home / carrying catchphrases, 
The conflict brought up by Jeske and Leong on the third page of Change is more visual than conceptual, for while the inset panels clearly work in concert with the dialogue and facial expressions in the main panel, it's the color contrast that makes the panel work as a whole. 

There are three other techniques on display in this image alone: panels overlapping each other and spilling out into the gutter, a panel that has been sliced into discrete chunks to effectively slow the transition to the next panel, and a consistently inconsistent panel size that dispels notions of uniformity throughout the entire work. 

Let’s bring that image back again to focus on something a little different: panels that either spill out into the gutter or overlap other panels. Panels overlapping panels creates the sort of simultaneity I’ve already discussed -- it’s what allows a reader to hold those transforming emotions in mind while also experiencing the static image on the page. When they overlap with each other, however, those smaller panels create something of an order of operations that suggests a reader should move down the stack to the next overlapped panel, refusing to allow a reader’s brain to fill in the gap. What is arguably more interesting, however, is when the overlapping panel spills into a gutter and does the comics equivalent of a long line (Scott McCloud might argue the comics equivalent of the long line is the infinite canvas. He is wrong). The work of Walt Whitman is perhaps best defined by the long line, represented on the page like so:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, 

     and measure them, 

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with 

     much applause in the lecture-room, 

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Those indentations allow poets to both utilize the line break and demand a reader’s attention for longer than the page’s apparent limitations. Comics can certainly do this with panel size alone, elongating it to the edge of the page, but the problem then becomes the opposite of increased attention: readers often spend more time when they have more panels, and less time when there are fewer panels to read. The solution, then, is to slap a panel over or under your current panel to take advantage of the break in image without being forced to place a gutter between them. 

There is, of course, another way: 
Both in the original example and here, Change takes an image and slices it into panels of varying widths (and, if you’ll notice, slightly varying heights as well), requesting the reader to slow themselves as they move left to right, panel to panel. This might be one of the most common artistic techniques found in comics, and it calls to mind poets who utilize the short line and/or frequent line breaks to feed the reader in such small bites as to finish and not realize they’ve been eating a person from the toes up: 
Buffalo Bill ’s 

          who used to 

          ride a watersmooth-silver 


and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat 


he was a handsome man 

                                              and what i want to know is 

how do you like your blue-eyed boy 

Mister Death
We could talk about the placement of words on the page, here -- you almost always can with e e cummings -- but for now simply look at what the reader is being fed and where it ends up. In comics, there is rarely so grand a reveal as to call it a volta, but the realm of digital comics and guided view could change that. Imagine seeing those slices of eye above, piece by piece, until your comics viewer zoomed out to show the full panel. Either way, slicing an image takes advantage of the pacing, elongating a reader’s experience with the panel while actually removing parts of the whole image. 

I’ve examined only half a page, but I think it’s clear something is going on that bridges the gap between two seemingly disparate media. While not unique to Change, this was a comic helmed primarily by relative newcomers to mainstream comics who likely held less rigid ideas of what a comic is and how it is made, who have interests outside the medium as well as within it. Here is one more example of Change doing something interesting with its panel progression and page layout: 
Though not necessarily a chaotic arrangement, Kot/Jeske/Leong offer up a different way to look at a fight, perhaps a more honest one than the finely choreographed conflicts Michel Fiffe discusses on his blog or that some comics legends are known for (see that grid there, too?). The arrangement you see above contains sixteen panels with a loose indication of how one might read them after the large one on the left. It’s glimpses and flashes, and the result is eventually revealed to the reader, But the process? Well, it’s a mess, and it should be. 

Though people will discuss time “slowing down” in a chaotic or fearful moment, this occurs from the activity of the amygdala and its laying down of extra memories to be recalled alongside those the brain might normally preserve. Change puts to page what one would experience in that fight instead of what an onlooker may see, mimicking through image and arrangement. There are ways for poets to create similar effects, but few seem as skilled at transitioning from order to disorder and back to order as Douglas Kearney
No two poets are the same, and yet the most common desire I’ve heard from friends and teachers, professional poets and amateurs, is one to be understood beyond the limits of language through the use of language alone. You could argue that Kearney’s poem uses something more than language as it turns into a lexical soup, but I don’t. It all bleeds together, and you can stare until you’re convinced it makes sense, but know that this is a lie your brain tells you so you can move on and finish the thing you were reading and get on with your damn life. 

To recreate an emotion or experience for a human being through their interaction with a piece of work…? I can think of no better way to describe “art,” and I believe all of the areas where Change overlaps with these poetic ideas are just that. There is a philosophical belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but that is a mistranslation of Kurt Koffka that has stuck around for some time due to people’s inability to break down and comprehend overly complex ideas and the incorrect assumption that an absence lacks sufficient thingness to be summed up. Koffka’s original intention -- that the whole is other than the sum of its parts -- might more accurately account for this creative dark matter. 

In comics, in poetry, what we put in matters -- and sometimes a nothingness is put in. Put simply, what is left out can contribute as much if not more than what is included. These are the absences that allow a reader to fill in and become a part of the work, for it to transform them and them to transform it. They are perhaps the key to the persistence of these mostly niche mediums. 
David Fairbanks is an artist, poet, and critic who makes a living doing none of those things. David's work has appeared at Loser City, Comics Bulletin, FreezeRay, DayOne, and now Your Chicken Enemy. His handle is bairfanx basically everywhere, and you can learn more at his charming yet infrequently updated website: davidjfairbanks.com.

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