Watchmen #7 (1986), page 16. Dave Gibbons.
Dream sequences are always a lot of fun. The comics medium nails dream states on a regular basis better than any other medium, in my opinion. Something about it is perfectly pitched to depicting that particular mental activity. Maybe it’s because we dream “in comics” a lot of the time — science tells us that the amount of actual moving images we see in dreams is relatively small compared to the number of still images that flash one after another through our minds, linked into continuity by the imagination. The narratives we create while dreaming exercise the same thought processes we use to read comics, so perhaps it’s no wonder that seeing dreams drawn into comics form feels so right, so familiar.
Dream comics so often means formalist comics — the call to produce a convincingly different state of consciousness gets inside the layouts at least as often as the boxes themselves, the actual mode of working altered to reflect it. The dream sequence is a chance to push boundaries and try things, to cut loose or bring a little something extra. The Dave Gibbons page above is one of the all-time great dream scenes, up there with Jim Steranko’s psychedelic muraling in Captain America and Winsor McCay’s all-time champion fantasies on Little Nemo.
Here, as always in Watchmen, Gibbons stays within a variation on the nine-panel grid, bisecting the panels vertically to create a hypnotic strobe effect. The fact that Gibbons is able to compose seventeen effective pictures in such a tall, thin panel space is impressive in and of itself, but equally special is the way he links them up, creating a definite sense of continuous motion that never quite stays on the same angle for long enough to reach the level of figure animation. It’s a whirl, disorienting but magnetic, easy to experience but tough to grasp the component parts of all at once. Just as it is when we sleep.
In fact, this page displays a downright astonishing fidelity to the look and temper of dream states. The thin panels allow Gibbons to pack a massive amount of information into a single page, forcing the reader to slow down on the way through it, following the same gradual, inevitable path all dream narratives seem to take, the simple power of the individual panel compositions never allowing the eye to turn away. More than that, their elimination of peripheral vision creates a similar “tunnel vision” to what we experience in dreams, focusing the reader in on the figures like a laser beam, because for the moment literally nothing else exists. And the surreal, haunting beauty of the subject matter gives the panel play a powerful counterpoint — never have pictures of people ripping each other’s skin off carried such an air of serenity, such a strange quietness of effect. These images, like all the most vivid pictures glimpsed in dreams, play with the archetypal. Nude human figures, domino masks, skeletons, a mushroom cloud: these are universal symbols, ones that mean something to everyone. Even Gibbons’ barren landscape (colored in the perfect shade of placid green by John Higgins) is open for interpretation, the bare bones of an environment, no more specific than it absolutely has to be.
Such a dense, thickly paneled page also just about begs for examination on a macro level: the individual tiers of panels are vastly impressive in and of themselves, dense enough for Gibbons to build up rhythms and harmonies within them. Look at the bilateral symmetry of the middle tier, with matching compositions on the outer edges and second panels in resolving in a dissonant note, or the way the zoom out on the figure’s approach in panels two through four creates the effect of running in place, or the V shape created in panels eight through ten, pointing directly at the explosion in panel fifteen. The real showpiece is the bottom tier, however, with Higgins choreographing a devastating fade from the red of the dream back into the blue of real life (underlined by a return to a nine-grid panel size). Notice the way the TV screen hangs a halo of the explosion’s white around the head in that final panel: his body’s awake, but his mind is still back there. The amount of nuance brought bear on to this page is staggering. It’s an entry in a particularly interesting corner of comics art that deserves every bit of its legendary status.