“Pop!” one-page strip in Solo #12 (2006). Brendan McCarthy.
At times the things that can be achieved by comics’ usual mode of sequencing — strings of single panels after single panels — can seem almost limitless. Looking at it from the inside out, as a comics-literate reader who can see the vast differences in approach to sequence that distinguish a Ware from a Kirby from an Eisner, it’s easy to get lost in just how diverse the pages can get. But take a step back and look at comics as one visual medium among many, a vehicle for creating information to be absorbed through the eyes, and the methods of sequencing used by its artists begin to look surprisingly limited.
Think about it — or better yet, get out a bunch of your comics, all genres, all drawing styles, as diverse and differentiated a selection as you can find, and give them all a flip-though. While comics have no shortage of different colors on their pages and different methods of mark-making swimming through their panels, a ridiculously large majority of them stick to that one typical mode of sequencing — boxed panels following boxed panels, groups of them fit more or less perfectly together like puzzle pieces, jammed snugly into the rectangle of the page. The grid, as wonderful and variable a sequencing tool as it is, possesses a downright tyrannical stranglehold on the comics form.
Now I don’t know about you, but personally I like reading comics better than I like reading prose chiefly because their pages don’t all look the same. And it’s frustrating to see how many comics lock themselves into prose’s side-scrolling, line-above-line sequencing pattern to put their information across. Try to think about a page of comics as a painter or a sculptor would and it’s almost laughable. Why does everyone stay in those safe little boxes all the time? A page of comics is a canvas, a big pure space that can contain anything, and yet for over a century now, its artists have jailed their pictures in panel borders rather than exploring the possibilities of setting them free on the page, leading readers’ eyes along lines that aren’t straight and short and easy.
This Brendan McCarthy sequence is so interesting precisely because it breaks free of tradition, denying the grid and composing comics by simply laying multiple images down on the page. It isn’t rocket science, people — draw one thing in one space and then another in close enough proximity and you’re working in the medium. McCarthy, a fine-art student, brings a painterly awareness of the page-as-unit to all his work. You can see it on his gridded pages, which always hew to a larger, unified color/design scheme, but it’s most apparent in single-page comics canvases like “Pop!”, quite possibly the most formally audacious, revolutionary piece of comics ever published by DC.
“Pop!” is a gorgeously cohesive thing, a page that can’t quite be reduced into its component parts, demanding instead to be viewed as a whole. That’s interesting enough on its own in the context of a medium that typically propels its stories by demanding that the reader ignore the whole to follow the progression of little bits and pieces, but “Pop!” also bends its form to its function. This is art-comix as pure as they come, but that doesn’t mean it lacks meaning beyond the pictures. “Pop!” is a story about the world around us (circa 2006, but at least as relevant and applicable to this current instant), an attempt to encompass the dissonant, clashing currents at play in our real lives, to unify completely different things into one superstructure — just as Reality itself does. The images give us three things: the rage of a bloody war, a sedate, bourgeois home life… and the world of hero comics, as perfectly symbolized by a Curt Swan Superman sample. They aren’t subdivided into their own separate boxes, allowed to exist in private, hidden from one another. They stretch all over the page, overlap and dialogue. These are three real things McCarthy’s cartooning about, facts of life for every English-language comics reader, and in “Pop!” they’re taken out of the hermetically sealed arenas they usually occupy, stripped of separators, forced into contact.
The sense of flow in “Pop!” is beautiful. Rather than the usual syncopated, stop-start motion that powers gridded comics pages, McCarthy’s page is a single extended movement, a long gesture from a beginning through a middle and into an end that fades out rather than full-stopping. The near-satanic evocation of war at the top of the page has a literal stake in McCarthy’s caricature of the average well-to-do American’s peaceful home life. The typesetting, understated but beautifully considered, forms a neat ‘L’ shape that takes the place of a panel border, separating the first image off from the second while leaving the total composition plenty of room to breathe. McCarthy’s deft sequencing of his text pieces deserves just as much credit as his placement of the art fragments: a cohesive story can be easily grasped from hand-scrawled titles, a neat logo, a scattered bit of poetry, and a few disconnected balloons. That story, of course, is one of idealistic revolution, peace triumphing over war, the mellow hippy type in the second image taking power from the American military-industrial hegemony symbolized by Superman, seen admitting his final defeat. (In a world where the cultural revolutionaries are the good guys, superheroes are not only outmoded, but dangerous, after all. You ever read something you just can’t believe they got away with? I have.)
It’s an action comic with absolutely none of the action shown, but the constant motion of McCarthy’s free sequencing, the telegraphic power of the images he uses, and the amplified rhetoric of his words leave little in doubt. A story like “Pop!” simply couldn’t exist in a grid: the images are so diffuse, the connections to be drawn between them such large leaps of logic that visually separating them would destroy the comprehensibility of the whole. Only by presenting the images as parts of a single, indivisible canvas can McCarthy create the dialogue he does between them.
It’s the closest comics have come to emulating the pop song in word and image: the psychedelic color-field background unifies everything on the page with its brilliant pastels, giving it a shared tone and the sense of music’s continuous motion through time. The song’s three “verses” flesh out the narrative in broad, colorful arcs, and the slickly designed “Pop!” logo works just like a catchy hook, a repeating motif between verses to tie it all together, as well as a final, indelible note to fade out on. It’s almost like animation, this kinetic, flowing motion of one image into another; but instead of creating actual moving pictures to be experienced by a passive audience, McCarthy draws the mind in, providing a definite sequence of image and word to be moved through without stopping, lining up the breaks between drawings and balloons with the mental connections the reader has to make for it all to line up. This is hardly the usual way of making “pictures that move” with comics — but that unusual approach, the wholesale discarding of comics-native tropes for something that simply works better to achieve McCarthy’s purpose, is exactly why “Pop!” is such a raging success.
(A final note: don’t you love that thin little strip of color running down the right side of the page, utterly harmonic but obviously disconnected from the main image? That’s actually a bit of the next page that got pushed out when I laid the book flat on my scanner. It looked so lovely that I left it on rather than crop it, because I think it makes the page a lot stronger as a whole. The sequencing McCarthy plans for is incredible, but the total accidents that lie far outside of authorial intent can make artwork magic.)