31 December 2010

A Higher Level of Transition in Comics

At this transitional time, I turn to the matter of transitions in comics. Duy at the Comics Cube has provided a two-part review of the types of transitions between panels listed by practitioner and taxonomist Scott McCloud:

  • Action to Action
  • Subject to Subject
  • Scene to Scene
  • Moment to Moment
  • Aspect to Aspect
  • Non Sequitur
I think we should give equal weight to the transition from one page spread to the next, which are perforce also transitions between panels. Picture-book creators have long played with such page turns as an element of their storytelling and pacing. Comics creators do so as well, as McCloud was well aware, but this transition may have been overshadowed in his emphasis on what makes comics different from other forms of illustrated narrative.

Unlike a transition from one panel to the next on a single page, readers can’t see both images at once during a page turn. Their minds can’t compare and contrast panels even as they focus on one and then the next. The transition therefore depends more on readers’ memory.

Furthermore, a page turn can hide the entrance of something new in the scene—a character, a sudden event, a shift in tone. A page of many small, cramped panels can transition to a single, large panel, or vice versa. Mainstream adventure comics, which rely on plot twists and other surprises, use the page turn quite a lot to introduce some element the readers literally haven’t seen coming.

Finally, the physical act of turning the page is (while not as essential to the act of reading a book as many of us traditionalists like to believe) a signal to readers’ minds which may facilitate a shift of scenes, or a leap forward in time.

I’ve noted before how picture-book artists map out spreads while many comics artists—at least at one point—planned individual pages. The latter tradition was undoubtedly shaped by the large number of panels to get through, and the lack of control over where page turns would fall as stories were broken up with advertising and reprinted. Of course, comics creators still used the page turn at the end of a story.

Lately, I see the page turn becoming increasingly important in comics. “Decompressed” storytelling has produced fewer and bigger panels, and the advertising-free book form makes page breaks more predictable and permanent. Indeed, when a book in comics form doesn’t use page turns, I feel something missing.

TOMORROW: Comics without page turns?

(Image above showing a prototype page turn with Ty Landercasper’s Comic Reader Mobi app. And Yotsuba!)


Duy Tano said...

I definitely think highly of the page turn. You have no choice but to write AROUND the page turn. I know that for some writers, it seems to be a constraint, but in my short experience, I think it provides a good structural edict.

Happy New Year!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I think that in many types of art a constraint can actually be turned into a tool. The page turn was made necessary by the technological shift from scrolls to codices in the late Roman Empire, but book creators have found ways to make that transition beautiful and meaningful.