07 November 2007

Page Spreads versus Pages

Yesterday I promised my thoughts on how picture books and comics work differently, even though they're both made up of words and sequential pictures. Here's the first major difference I see.

By and large, in modern picture books the main subsidiary unit is a two-page spread containing a single large image. When artists plan a picture book from a manuscript, their first step is to divide the text into page spreads.

In contrast, comics by and large have two or more--usually many more--images assembled in front of the reader at the same time. Together they make up one large image, of course, but each represents a different scene in time and space. Furthermore, historically the main subsidiary unit of comics has been the single page, broken into panels; of all the ways to write comics scripts, the pages/panels organization seems like the only constant.

This is, of course, not a hard and fast rule. Plenty of picture books have two or more separate pictures on a page spread, especially to break up a series of large images and change the mood or pace. Last year I talked about how nicely Chris Wormell's George and the Dragon does this.

Conversely, plenty of comics have two-page spreads. Indeed, a dramatic single-image spread containing title and credits has overtaken the introductory splash page as a comic-book convention. I also see more artists designing comics so that a page spread, even though it contains many images, has a unified visual scheme.

That's a recent development in comics, however--at least in the format that dominated the field in the US for so many years, the comic book. Those books depend on advertising pages that pop up in the middle of the story, making it harder for artists to plan full-page spreads. We can see the consequence in volumes collecting comics that are twenty or more years old. Each page of a story/issue is usually numbered by hand in a lower corner; sometimes even-numbered pages appear on the left in the book, sometimes on the right. In other words, the two pages we see on a spread were probably not designed to be viewed side by side.

The most popular periodical comics still have ads, but their publishers have discovered the additional revenue stream of reprints without ads in "graphic novel" format. That, plus digital tweaking of art, has let comics artists think in terms of page spreads. But there can still be a few bugs in the system. In the book version of DC's histrionic Infinite Crisis, editor Anton Kawasaki says of one segment:

We're also adding two new pages to this issue to "fix" the awkward way the Green Lantern spread originally fell. Damn you periodicals people for not paying attention and making us poor Collected Editions guys work harder!
A two-page spread in the original comic book would have been broken by a page turn in the graphic novel if Kawasaki hadn't commissioned an extra page before and after it. That sort of problem never comes up in picture books because they're designed around spreads from the start (and have no ads).

How does this play out in classic picture books? Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson's The Story of Ferdinand usually has one large illustration on each spread, showing one moment of time. So do Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, and Ellen Raskin's Spectacles. [I choose my classics; you choose yours.]

But Sendak's In the Night Kitchen does not. As shown yesterday, Sendak took a leaf from his model, comics master Winsor McCay, and pictured more than one instant on a single page. Two other author-illustrators who often used that technique are Jules Feiffer and Edward Gorey--the other children's-book creators that Scott McCloud proudly names in Understanding Comics. Yet another example that McCloud doesn't mention, but who I think clearly belongs in the same group, is Richard Scarry in his larger books. They all have multiple sequential images on a typical page, my first hallmark of comics style.

TOMORROW: How we read picture books and comics differently.


david elzey said...

I think one of the things about McCloud's work in defining the field is basically he's like Columbus "discovering" America. Obviously others have figured out what McCloud is talking about because they did the exploration necessary for him to reference it.

Certainly the geography of comics has always been there, and there have been others to chart the territory (Eisner = the Vikings?) but it's just a starting point, a place from which we can mark time and move forward with our definitions. I see his books as a detailed primer for a lay audience, a survey that is only slightly defensive in its attempt to legitimize comics to an American audience.

I like what you're doing here, discussing the stylistic differences between picture books and comics. We need to have this conversation on a larger scale so that the average American consumer can find the same comfort as their European and Japanese counterparts in accepting comics as legitimate literature/art.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Scott McCloud's strength is in synthesizing a great deal of preceding work (creative and critical) and prodding (squeezing?) it into some theoretical formulations. To his credit, he appears to have cast a very wide net, and to acknowledge Eisner and many other forerunners.

I actually think Eisner's earlier formulations aren't as helpful, for a couple of reasons. First, there's even more defensiveness, which results in some high-flying claims, like the term "graphic novel" for what's clearly a collection, and thus not a novel. Second, Eisner's own work was so great, so flowing, and so sui generis that he may be a great person to emulate but not to learn from. In baseball the best managers were usually journeyman ballplayers because they had to study the game and not rely on natural talent. Eisner is like Reggie Jackson, not Joe Torre.

McCloud's work seems to be having great influence on authors and artists who are trying the comics field for the first time. As I've noted, Andrew Clements's Lunch Money shows a character learning comics form (overnight!) from Understanding Comics. Anne Sibley O'Brien consulted McCloud's books when she set out to write The Legend of Hong Kil Dong. That's one reason I'm using his statements as a starting point, too.

david elzey said...

I'm with you on Eisner, and pretty much everything else, but did you have to go Joe Torre? He's so... stodgy.

McCloud's definitions aside, another thing I think many don't get is that the writing of comics is a very different beast altogether, and because what people see are the visual similarities between comics and multi-paneled picture books it is difficult to understand where the two are and are not linked.

In some ways comics are to picture books what movies are to theatre. Both use actors/pictures, both present drama/narratives, both begin in written form but how they are executed and perceived by audiences is a whole big ball of wax.

Sheesh, I hope I didn't paint myself in a corner.

J. L. Bell said...

Folks can visit this post to see further comments on Will Eisner's coinage of "graphic novel" and what the term has come to mean from an Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist.

J. L. Bell said...

David E., can you say more about how you see comics and picture books "executed and perceived by audiences"?

I think there are (at least) three elements to how we perceive and group such books:
* form. Panels, speech balloons, color illustrations filling page spreads, etc.
* content. Superheroes, early life experiences of graphic artists, history, humor, etc.
* cultural meaning. Perceptions of certain forms as more or less literary or juvenile or modern than others.

In my musings on the differences between comics and picture books, I'm trying to focus only on form from this list, and also to discuss something the book-buying public doesn't see: how the businesses behind those publications work.

david elzey said...

I will say this, however: art my local library they've got Bone on the same shelves as Foxtrot collections, which I think is a small glimpse into the issue of perceptions.