APOLOGY AND INTRODUCTION
Hell, everyone. Baseball madness has gripped Pipeline HQ in glorious northern New Jersey. As such, this week’s promised column looking into why comics readers and/or Diamond and/or comics companies are to blame for everything will have to be put off until next week. I’ve been spending way too much time in front of the television watching the Yankees dissecting the Mets. I needed a day off. So, what to do?
I thought it was time for a reprint. I thought about a couple of columns I had written here in the summer 1999 that focused on the direct market and its failures. Those turned out to be too long to both post here and update. I don’t want to bore you all to tears.
But in looking through the archives, I came across Pipeline Commentary and Review #40, first published on 08 March 1998. The topic that week was sideways comics. In light of the publication of PROMETHEA #11 this week and its utilization of the sideways formatting, I thought it might be interesting to reprint that column here now. Besides, this thing was written more than a year before I started writing for CBR. Pipeline’s audience has grown a lot in the past two and a half years, so this will probably be new to most of you.
I’ve changed it only in a couple of places for typos and grammar. (Since I just mentioned that, I have no doubt that I missed a couple errors.) I’ll have some brief thoughts/updates after the column, too.
PCR #40: READ THIS SIDEWAYS
I did a column last year sometime with my wish list of things I’d like to see done with comic books more often. I can’t remember everything I put on that list, but one thing I can remember and still believe strongly in is the concept of “sideways” comics. It’s been done and tried a number of times in the past, including a SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL issue and a SPIDER-MAN/X-FORCE crossover that I can think of off the top of my head. The problem with the technique is that we still don’t know how to read it properly, and no master artist or storyteller has come forward to strongly proclaim that it’s something that deserves to be done and then shown us how to do it. We need a Scott McCloud to do one.
Or maybe Frank Miller. Last week’s new PREVIEWS includes an excerpt from his upcoming 300 series. (Sounds like a set-up for a bowling punch line, doesn’t it?) It’s all done sideways. It looks great, is easy to read, and allows for panoramic shots the likes of which we’re used to with dramatic Roman epics such as, say, SPARTACUS. I really do hope that Frank Miller can pull this off. That all five issues of the mini-series will be done sideways. That it will catch on and someone else will try it. That the format won’t then just be limited to epic stories set in the times of the classics.
There are obvious problems with the format. You might get a layout and storytelling technique which more closely resembles a Sunday comic strip than a comic book. This would, no doubt, be off-putting to people. Of course, Bill Watterson started doing more comic-book-y approaches to his CALVIN AND HOBBES Sunday strips, and did so wonderfully. So there is, indeed, some cross-pollination.
You become more limited, then, in how much story you can get across in a page. You only get one clear row of panels. If you add any more in, you run the risk of confusing the reader.
The artist has to adjust his mindset. The big vertical splash pages are gone. The story has to be told across the page, rather than across and down. The paper has to be held a completely different way. (The last part sounds petty, but have you ever tried breaking people of their long-held habits and classic industry training?) You lose the large vertical splash page, since to put one large panel across two pages means losing part of the middle of the art in the crease, as well as having a splash page that just isn’t as tall, anyway. Your other choice is to just do it the standard way and make the reader twist the book 90 degrees. And if you’re doing a splash page across two pages, then you look like you’re wasting a page. After all, you can get the same effect from a straight up-and-down splash page.
You also have to convince the non-believers that holding a comic book on its side is a good thing. Speaking on a retailer level, you still have to draw the front cover straight up-and-down, since that’s the way the books are shelved, but that means cluttering up your cover with some sort of blurb to let the reader know that “This issue is told sideways.” And you also add the “stigma” of an off-format book.
There are still advantages, though. We’re in an industry that loves to compare itself to the movie industry. Telling a story sideways means using a more cinematic approach. The widescreen format can be better replicated in this manner. And the widescreen format has certain advantages, such as the awe-inspiring long shots certain panel angles. And for those of us who just love to buck the trends, it has a certain appeal. 😉
So what does the sideways format need to make it popular or, at the very least, sellable? It needs a sponsor. It needs an advocate. It needs someone with enough storytelling know-how to make it work properly. I don’t know how to pull it off. I wish I did. (I’m willing to work on it, but who would I tell? If I ever had a scanner and an art program, it might be fun to try rearranging a story sometime…) We need someone with terrific art and storytelling skills to show us all how it’s done. We also need a big name to do it. Nobody is going to buy the format and the book if that’s its sole selling point. I hate to say that, but you’ll need a wider audience a recognizable name can bring to the table. You have to have a creator who has his or her own built-in audience who would follow them anywhere, to try this. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?
This isn’t necessarily limited to an artist, though. You could use a good writer with a strong grasp of sequential art. Kurt Busiek comes to mind.
I like the format. I’d like to see it succeed. Maybe this is just because nobody’s really ever tried it before and I’m a cranky cynic. Maybe it’s because I think it might look really cool. Maybe because it’s an unused storytelling technique, or one that’s only misused. (Such is the case when an artist throws a sideways page into the middle of the book for no good reason. See a last month’s DEADPOOL issue for a good example.)
Of course, I might be wrong. It may be unworkable.
But I’d like to see someone give it a chance.
UPDATES AND THOUGHTS
No, I can’t tell you which DEADPOOL issue it is I’m referencing there. I’m sure someone could work it out, but the game starts soon!
Frank Miller did draw the entire 300 mini-series sideways. The eventual hardcover reprint is one of the nicest books in my collection. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
I do have a scanner now. If I ever get the ambition up, I’ll have to make good on that promise to construct something in sideways format.
PROMETHEA #11 came out this week in Cinemascope format. But you’ll have to wait until Tuesday to see what I thought of it. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet.
See you then!