09 November 2007

Same Image, Slightly Different

Having broken the news that there are more pictures on a typical comics page than a typical picture-book page, I'm going out on a limb today to suggest that there are fewer pictures in a traditional picture book than a comics-style book of the same length. Yes, the insights just keep coming.

My real point is that I think the smaller number of images in typical picture books has pushed artists away from a method of using sequential pictures that comics artists use a lot: a series of similar images with small changes from one to the next.

Picture books have a minimum number of images, a fact that writers have to consider when they conceive of their stories. As Peggy Tibbetts wrote, "if you can't come up with at least a dozen concrete visual images for the illustrator to choose from, you might want to re-think your picture book idea." Jan Fields went further in distinguishing a picture-book story from one more appropriate for a magazine: "In a picture book, it is...important that every illustration be different (not all in the same room, not all of two people talking)."

Traditional picture books also have a maximum number of images. They tend to be 32 pages, and if nearly every spread offers a single picture, that means there are only about 17 holes to fill. Where the Wild Things Are has an extra half-signature: 48 pages (including endpapers). But, even counting the cover, Maurice Sendak created only 20 images for that book. The picture-storybook Pink and Say is also 48 pages; Patricia Polacco created only 26 pictures.

Faced with so few opportunities for art, most picture-book artists strive for visual variety. They make each image a full-spread masterpiece, showing a complete scene. When a manuscript calls for them to portray the same scene over time, most choose different angles or move characters around to create dissimilar images. After all, why spend 2 of 17 spreads (more than 10% of a 32-page book) repeating yourself?

In contrast, the comics storytelling style often requires artists to depict the same scene several times on a page: the same two people talking in a room, for example. Artists can show that scene from a variety of angles, with lots of character action. Or they can create a series of similar panels, focusing readers' attention on the passage of time or the small variation between one panel and the next. I've come to think of that technique as another hallmark of comics art that's uncharacteristic of recent picture books.

The page from Sendak's In the Night Kitchen that I showed back here offers a view of that technique, clearly inspired by comics. A single page contains two images of Max falling through the same room. By comparing one to the next, we can see how he's moving down past the chandelier and the clock. We can also see Max lose all his clothes, which is bound to keep a young reader's attention.

I suspect that technique works best if the two similar illustrations aren't separated by a page turn. When the two images are side by side, we can see their similarity even as we concentrate on the details; we don't have to hold one in memory. However, some picture-book artists have used this technique well from spread to spread. Ellen Raskin was a master at it: Spectacles, And It Rained, Nothing Ever Happens on My Block. (I wonder if it was more popular when artists were responsible for supplying their own separations, and so were copying their drawings already.)

As an example of how this type of sequential art works so well in comics, I've taken two facing pages from Art Spiegelman's Maus. (I've fuzzed the unnecessary words so as not to show more than fair use.) On these pages the narrator's father describes his family gatherings before World War II.

This page contains eight images. Two show the narrator's father speaking from his exercise bicycle; in a picture book, that would be redundant. The other six images show the father's family, and they're even more repetitive. They're all from the same angle. They all show nearly the same instant in time. Yet they're still visually interesting because of their differences.

By comparing one similar image to the next, we understand that Spiegalman is bringing us into the scene through the window (like the opening of Citizen Kane!), and introducing us to each part of the family in turn. On this page, he's used panels to organize a single scene mostly by space.

On the facing page, Spiegelman continues to show us the same family from the same angle, but this time he emphasizes time by keeping the same part of the table in every picture, the same characters in the same seats. We're forced to focus on what changes from one panel to the next.
That puts more weight on the grown-up characters' words. We also see time pass by following a couple of little wordless stories involving the younger relatives. The teenager Lolek has his book taken away, and pouts. Baby Richieu turns over his plate, gets scolded, wails, and gets a hug. In a picture book with one image per spread, those four moments would need nearly a quarter of the book. Here it's just a lovely detail on a single page.

No comments: