BodyWorld chapter 8 (2008; read), panels 291-296. Dash Shaw.
When “sequence” in comics comes up, what’s being talked about most often is the order of individual panels. But the medium is more complex than that. Comics is the herky-jerkiest, most truncated, stop-and-go medium of them all, every formal element glimpsed for a second in each panel before disappearing completely and then reconstituting themselves in the next. Word balloons, for example, don’t mimic the continuous sound of speech by popping up one after the other any more than panels with blank borders cut in between them mimic the neverending flow of light. Sequence is everything in comics; not just the way the panels link together, but the way the pages turn and the camera angles shift and the characters move and the way their voices are heard. Everything the comics reader takes in, everything we are fed, is taken in the context of the previous panels, before contributing to the context in which we take the next. Everything is sequenced.
By and large, the medium’s artists have accepted the dominance of sequence in comics and set themselves to trying to make it sing. But every once in a while there’s an interesting attempt to set the medium free from its point-by-point presentation of things and create something a little more flowing, more integrated with itself and less staccato. Walt Simonson had his all-splash-page issue of Thor, which took away the panels and allowed single images to code for long stretches of time, and JH Williams and Alan Moore’s final issue of Promethea wasn’t even pages, but one giant poster with a whole story’s worth of information on it. (There are obviously more.) Of course, neither of those comics took sequence out of the reading experience. That might well be impossible, given that the human eye simply can’t take in a whole story all at once, but has to consider its component parts one at a time. Rather, those books were attempts to take sequence out of the panels it usually occupies and place it in a less chopped-up, more immediate environment, a place for it to progress rather than rebuild itself again and again inside every new set of panel borders. Dash Shaw did the same thing in the BodyWorld sequence above, but his way was different, and to my eyes more interesting.
Shaw keeps panels a part of his approach, but he superimposes multiple sets of images on single frames. Suddenly sequence isn’t only something that happens in between the panels, but something that happens in them as well, changing the reading experience from a skip across the surface of the images (picture a stone skipping across water) to a journey down into them (and we’re sinking…). It’s a bracingly organic way of creating picture stories: this way, the artificial world comics construct doesn’t have to break down between images. This way, the previous picture doesn’t only contribute to the reader’s experience of the next via context, but by actually influencing the way it looks, actually being there.
There’s an interesting problem inherent to Shaw’s approach, though. When single images are laid out in panels, there’s almost never a question of how to read them. You just go from the first to the last. But that objective sense of order is completely destroyed when two images occupy the exact same space. It’s impossible to tell which image “comes first” when Shaw layers two on top of one another. It’s a bold move, the author ceding control to the reader, allowing us to define our own experience. It also reveals a fundamental truth about the medium: in comics, space is time. Whether one panel leads us forward from one action to another, or into a flashback, whether a millisecond or a month is taken up in a panel border, two separated panels always depict two different moments. But Shaw’s panels aren’t separated, and so neither are the things they depict. The reader, not the author, decides which of the superimposed images comes first, and as such it’s impossible to create one agreed-upon order for them, a certain way to proceed through story time.
The black leaves that take up a piece of every frame are the glue that holds it all together: this sequence is a tangle of content happening all at once, a sudden surge of simultaneous word and image that readers can only take in, not actually sort through. One thing sliced up into many and put in panels because that’s how comics look, not because there’s an order to them. That creation of entireties from their slices, of course, is what all comics are supposed to do. But Shaw’s overloaded approach is a singularly elegant way of getting there, an employment of the form that mimics the effect of actual memory or sensation rather than simply trying to tell a story with pictures. Images, words, associations, emotions — they’re all called up at once, all shoved into the same space to coexist with each other. The product is comics that are simply richer than anything else, that ask to be taken in not as the sum of their parts but as a whole.
Next week on Your Wednesday Sequence: CF
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