Ada (2010), pages 2-3. Atak.
The sequence that the pictures on a page of comics run in is the most important decision an artist in the form can make; everything proceeds from there. Less pressingly important, but still often worth examining, is the sequencing of words. I don’t mean the poetic order that the individual units of language are put in, but the actual organization of text on the page, the way the reader’s eye is invited to move from one line of text to the next. It’s so important to effective comics storytelling that the through-lines between blocks of type be clean and easy to follow that it can be difficult to find anything really out of the ordinary being done with them.
The predominance of designated letterers in commercial comics only adds to this homogeneity. A good letterer’s typefacing and balloon placement can elevate a comic greatly, but division of labor between the hands putting the pictures and words on the page places an inevitable disconnect between the two. Cartoonists of all stripes forget too often that words can be made to work as pictures, with the same telegraphing power and simplified grace as the most elegant drawings. And that the words on a comics page, just like the pictures, are open to bold and different sequencing techniques, pieces to be moved into place with all due abandon.
This sequence by the mysterious Berlin-based artist Atak is a perfect example of comic book text that goes further than mere explanation of the pictures it accompanies. The first impression the words give off is purely visual: hot, plastic reds and yellows and the curlicues of thick, graphic letterforms hit the eyes before the words can register as the usual abstract pathways to information. The pictorial sequencing is simple in the extreme, having as much to do with the look of picture books as more complex, intricate comics-style layouts. One picture per page is enough, a simple one-two that leaves no room for confusion.
All the intricacy of layout comes from Atak’s unique writing style and the layout he employs to carry it. The Gertrude Stein story that Ada is adapted from rolls out the four characters we see on this spread with the linear slowness of prose, beginning with the paragraph Atak places at bottom right. Abram Colhard, the father, is introduced a paragraph later, and the mother takes hundreds of words to make her nameless entrance. Ada, the title character, is first named more than halfway through the story. Atak’s clear labeling of each right off the bat turns the dramatic tension of the written word into the plainly stated literality of comics, which places everything on the page at once for the reader to construct on their own. The complexity of the “A, B, C, D” sequence the blocks of text are organized with is set in perfect opposition to the simplicity of the pictures, making the spread much more engaging than its “one to the next” pictorial layout implies.
It’s a thoroughly modern approach to comics, a disruption of the usual “literary” way of making the form. Atak’s sequence encourages readers to take the words in out of order, acknowledging each element of the first picture before moving on to the long caption underneath the second. The layout and text placement creates a circular reading of the pages: the eye moves across the top of the spread and then down the right-hand page before sliding back to the left along the bottom. From there it’s necessary to move across the entire spread once more before the page can be turned. Where most comics push the reader to the bottom right, the “end”, just as a page of prose does, Atak forces his audience into contemplation of his spread as a closed circuit, a closed loop as much like a painter’s standalone canvas as a piece of a larger story. As with all the best comics, we’re forced into looking at the pictures that little bit harder, into relaxing as the content is given to us rather than taking it greedily for ourselves. What marks out Atak’s approach is his use of words, not pictures, to accomplish what he accomplishes, the strange way that reading the text in this piece of comics art brings us to a place where the information coded in the words is secondary to the look of things, the way line and color overwhelm us.
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