24 February 2008

Rolling in the Gutters

In book production, the "gutter" is the place where two facing pages meet at the binding. Because book pages rarely lie flat there, picture-book artists and book designers working on full-page spreads learn not to let important details fall into the gutter.

In comics, the "gutters" are all the gaps between panels. Sometimes there's no physical space to a gutter; two panels bump right up against each other. But there's still a conceptual space created by the differences between one panel's image and the next. (To be technical, comics bound in the middle also have the other type of gutter; it can correlate with the panels' gutter or cut right through a panel, in which case we're supposed to conceptually ignore it.)

Comics gutters have acquired great theoretical weight since the publication of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which posits that readers' intellectual act of connecting two images (which he calls "closure") is what sets comics art apart from all other forms. Thus, the meaning of a comics story can actually lie in those empty gutters. Very deep.

McCloud offered a taxonomy of transitions from one panel to another:

  • Moment to Moment
  • Action to Action
  • Subject to Subject
  • Scene to Scene
  • Aspect to Aspect
  • Non Sequitur
Here are examples of each from a McCloud student.

Every so often, however, comics artists insert gutters into what by all rights should be a single panel. Today's weekly Robin is an example of that technique from New Teen Titans, second series, issue 20, script by Marv Wolfman and art by Eduardo Barreto and Romeo Tanghal.

In the drawing below, Wonder Girl on the left contemplates how she's going to lead an ad hoc Titans group she's assembled, including (from left) Aqualad, the third Robin, Speedy, Hawk, and the Flash. In her mind she quotes the group's usual motto/battle cry, "Titans Together."
By dividing what looks unmistakably like a single scene at a single moment into three panels through the tactical placement of gutters, the comic's creators signal that this team is divided. They haven't worked together before. They all have different things on their minds. These Titans aren't "together" at all.

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