One of the most appealing things about the comics form is that no one’s ever been able to offer a satisfying definition of it, a telegraphing sentence-or-two that puts everything that is together into one continuum while simultaneously providing grounds to exclude everything that ain’t. What is comics? you ask. The best answer is that it’s complicated. Without a hard and fast verbal box to place it in, comics remains a fully living field, open to new claimants. There are plenty of kinds of comics that we’ve never seen before, that we won’t even know are comics until someone points it out. Mayan pictoglyphs, Mondrian canvases. The possibilities are endless.
With that said, I’d like to claim the movie trailer above for comics, if I may. Get over the fact that it’s a trailer for a bad movie: as always in this medium, there are more important things than the content going on here. And yes, I realize that the content isn’t the first impediment to a reading of a piece of film as comics. In our current era of genre comics that want nothing more dearly than to be big Hollywood blockbusters, the comparisons between comics and film are made over and over — to the detriment of both media, I believe. While both are ways of visual storytelling, that’s pretty much where the similarities begin and end. Film is all about the actual depiction of the world in motion, while comics’ raison d’etre is to strive against the impossibility of creating still images that also move. Comics, from Jack Kirby to Osamu Tezuka to Robert Crumb to Herge and on from there, are about the suggestion of motion more than its actual existence. Nailing down the pose that speaks of a whole gesture, finding separate planes within a single picture to pull the reader’s eye over it, organizing figures in space so that a read-through of a panel becomes an animation of a choreographed scene, these are the cartoonist’s tasks. To bring life to stillness; something from nothing.
But even the most dynamically drawn panel of comics is still only one image, a fixed and static thing. What makes the medium move is sequence. This is where comics’ real departure from the action of film is. Comics is like a vast, complex machine that can only perform a single task: each still image performs its story function, then terminates, to be picked up from by the next. Film, meanwhile, can accomplish multiple story beats with a single shot thanks to its ability to show motion in the frame. Even when our viewpoint into a film is fixed, it is in perpetual motion. Basically, film relies on its audience’s immediate memory of what they have just seen to construct what is constructs. Comics must create a concentrated enough sense of place, tone, and content that the audience can hold onto the story in between pictures that occupy completely different spaces and times from one another, with nothing but readers’ imaginations to link them together. A shot of film can exist over past, present, and future, a space ranging anywhere from a fraction of a second to hours. Comics panels exist in an everlasting present.
That said, film still participates in the sequencing of images. The common intellectualized jargon-name for comics, “sequential art,” can just as aptly describe a few pieced-together shots of film as an Eisner page. And these days, comics are changing. The advent of webcomics has shown that existence as printed matter is not inherent to the form. Full-screen, single-image “scroller” webcomics like Blaise Larmee’s 2001 and J-Shasta’s 1981 function as completely convincing denials of the idea that simultaneous apprehension of multiple pictures is necessary to comics, and also that sequence must remain open to the reader’s interpretation. As we’ve discussed before in this column, the mode of comics is being brought closer to that of film; not just in appearance, but in the way the medium acts on its readers.
It always requires an extra step of some kind to bring something new into the sphere of comics. With the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trailer, that step is a denial of the reader’s ability to determine the time they spend with each individual image. It’s a tradeoff, but hopefully readers can entertain the idea of a mode of comics-making that loses this particular aspect of the medium in favor of an increased authorial control, the way a scroller comic effectively prevents its readers from taking in the panels out of order. This hurdle aside, the trailer is as much a part of comics as of anything else.
Most importantly, it is not in any way indebted to the onscreen movement it contains. Aside from the four-second opening shot, the images flash by at a rate of one per tick of the clock, too fast for the eye to do much more than apprehend the basic content of each shot. It is not the movement, but the composition and organization of figures that we see. These pictorial crafts construct what the trailer constructs, not the movement of the objects within the frames. We know a car crosses a bridge not because we see it drive from one end to the other, but because it is in the road somewhere in between. We know a man drinks from a cup not because we see him transfer the liquid from vessel to mouth, but because we see him raise it to his face, lips pursed. The suggestion of motion more than its actual existence.
When a motion is depicted rather than implied, it is done with multiple shots, just as in any comic: a man has his hand raised to his face, then he is grasping the frame of his glasses, then the glasses are removed, in his hand somewhere level with his nose. Or a house at the end of an icy road moves closer and closer — not in the continuous slide of filmic motion but the jump-cut rhythm of comics, slices of road eaten up off-panel, the space of sky around the house becoming smaller and smaller in great still bursts. No immediate memory of what happened in the picture before the present moment is allowed, because a different picture was there a second ago, and now this one too is gone. What is created is comics’ multiple views into one thing, a sense of place and tone and content brought on not by extended exploration of anything, but a barrage of images both disconnected and inherently related to one another.
The metronome flashing of the pictures is a gridded page. The compositions are cartoons, telegraphing more than they speak of. The piece of filmmaking is a comic: another new way in a medium too vital to be pinned down.
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