Page & Panel Scrutiny

Dynamic Does Not Equal Unbridled

This is another post where I analyze a particular page of one of my favorite webcomics, this time today’s page of Opportunities, but it’s also a post where I talk about a more general theme.

In a recent discussion on twitter, the idea came up that many of today’s comics are no longer written in the awesomely dynamic style of bygone days, but rather in the style of movie / TV show scripts, making the comics subject to limitations that are crucial in film-making but suck the lifeblood out of comics. That discussion focused on superhero comics, which I don’t read and cannot comment on. But I do have an opinion on what makes comics so special, as I have written about before, for example in my blog post called Framing: Fancy, Focused, Fast, And Furious.

In that post I wrote specifically about the differences between movie/TV style and webcomic techniques. And I really love it when comics push borders, even if it are only the panel borders. But today, in contrast, I find it very interesting to look at this comic page, that does not use any fancy techniques, but works just like a scene in a TV drama might unfold, and nevertheless looks awesome and dynamic.

It is probably no accident that I choose a page from Opportunities to explore this theme, because it is the webcomic that reminds me the most of a modern TV drama (Breaking Bad, The Good Wife, How To Get Away With Murder), as evidenced by the fact that I even wrote about the way I would write and cast an Opportunities TV show.

Opportunities contains some action and some violence, and certainly more than enough from the point of view of a couple of murder victims featured in the story. But it treats these in a more suptle way – once again, not from the point of view of the victims – and relies more on dramatic tension or dramatic impulse. The page in question is full of dramatic impulse (I don’t use the term dramatic action because I want to contrast it with action action, without introducing confusion) expressed as a rather one-sided dialog.

The central element in dramatic dialog, who would have thought of it, is the exchange of words between the participants. These words are either on the audio channel (movies/TV) or in the dialog boxes (comics). The visual elements must not detract from them or make them more diffcult to follow – except in cases where you specifically want dialog to be confusing or blurred – but rather enhance the spoken word, by adding emotion, guiding audience focus, or implying subtext. To achieve these goals, both film and comic use quite similar techniques to cue in the audience:

  • Use the spacial postion of the speaker and the listener, both with regard to each other and with regard to the surroundings, as indicators for their abstract position: power (im)balance, emotional (dis)connection, kind of relationship.
  • Either keep focus on one person, or switch focus between persons, to stress the nature of the dialog (one-sided or interactive).
  • Zoom in on the speaker, or on the listener, to emphasize that person’s emotional state.
  • Zoom out from the persons to emphasize the importance of the dialog for the outside world.
  • Use small actions to stress the most important words or emotions.
  • Use movement to lead into or out of the dialog scene and connect it meaningfully with other plot developments.

  • Today’s page of Opportunities uses several of these techniques to great avail.

    The first row of five panels focuses on Sara, without looking directly into her face, and shows her gestures and her banging at the door. This emphasizes her anger and frustration.

    The first panel in row two zooms in on Sara’s face to give the reader an idea of what Cortez must feels looking at her angry face. The rest of row two shows Cortez hopeless attemt at defending himself; Sara will have none of it.

    In the third row we zoom out, and also see Sara distancing herself from Cortez, and we see – masterfully emphasized by the lettering – that she is now talking monologue, fully focused on her own problem, pretty much ignoring Cortez’ point of view completely.

    In the forth and final row, we have a sigle wide panel showing how Sara walks away from Cortez, with a small overlay panel that shows her looking back with contempt. This walk away both puts the final nail in their converstation, leaving Cortez behind alone, distressed, and probably hurt, and also segues into the next page, where we can expect some more drama (or action).

    To sum up, for me such a page with lots of drama expressed by suptle rather than loud visual means is a wonderful reading experience. It is something that should be part of any serious storytelling in comics.

    What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments!