15 November 2007

Get Out of the Gutter: Hong Kil Dong Goes Comics

Anne Sibley O'Brien's The Legend of Hong Kil Dong is a recent example of an American picture book that uses the visual vocabulary of comics. Earlier in the year I wrote about hearing O'Brien speak of the challenges, for her and her production team at Charlesbridge, of figuring out this new style.

Here's another wrinkle that probably became apparent only after the book had been bound. Hardcover picture books usually have a strong library-quality binding, so the pages don't lie flat. That produces a deep gutter, and an artistic challenge. If any illustration extends over two facing pages, and these days most picture-book illustrations do, the artist must be careful not put crucial details where the gutter will fall. In laying out the book, the Production Department must make each pair of facing pages meet at their join as seamlessly as possible.

Here's a scan of one problematic gutter from The Legend of Hong Kil Dong:
O'Brien drew two panels of the same place from the same angle--a common comics technique. In the first, her hero Hong Kil Dong practices with his sword in a walled garden. In the second, a man approaches him and speaks.

Unfortunately, the space between those panels and the borders that defined them fell into the gutter between the pages and disappeared. Because the two panels show the same sky, wall, and grass, they appear at first glance to be a single panel stretching across the gutter. There's even a bush that seems to provide visual continuity from one side to the other.

Only after "rereading" the spread did it become clear to me that the two young men with swords are in fact the same young man at different moments. This is a minor glitch in a book that generally uses comics techniques well, but it's a sign of how picture-book publishers will have to learn new tricks as more artists try the comics style.

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