03 December 2009

Bone on a Phone

I flagged two items that Brigid Alverson highlighted at Good Comics for Kids, showing two ways of reading Bone by Jeff Smith that appear to be on a collision course with each other.

Back in January, Josiah Leighton discussed the movement depicted in two pages of Out from Boneville, as part of a discussion of how drawing for animation differs from drawing for comics. I’ll quote a bit of his analysis, but I recommend reading the whole thing alongside the pages:

Notice first how Smith expertly subdivides the action by tiers. Each horizontal is a distinct set piece of the ongoing chase. This is a great way to start laying out the page.

Notice also the big climax, the shift of the action that sends it down rather than across, is placed on the page turn. This is also the best method for deciding where one page ends and the next begins within a continuous scene, NOT the oft used oh-crud-I-ran-out-of-space-I-guess-it’s-time-to-start-drawing-on-the-next-piece-of-bristol method.
(That same sequence also shows Smith’s success in scripting dialogue. The phrase “Stupid, stupid rat creatures!” became the series’ first catch phrase, and proves useful in many situations.)

This month, Eric Federspiel discussed “Mobile Comics Apps in the Classroom,” at Graphic Novel Reporter. He makes the case for having students read comics—specifically, the same volume of Bone—on a smartphone, a format that shows only one panel at a time:
There are obvious shortcomings of such apps, including the relatively small size of the screen, splicing of large panels or two-page spreads into multiple viewable pages, oversimplification of page layouts, etc.

However, the comics nerd in me has to admit that as much as I enjoy seeing how an artist organizes his/her storytelling in terms of varied and unique page layouts, the truth is that my students have great difficulty with such organization. Considering how much emphasis traditional reading and writing instruction places on consistency and structure, it’s been my experience that seventh graders are not necessarily impressed by this kind of creativity. Most are purely seeking fun, simple storytelling.

Viewing one panel at a time, my students do not need to focus their attention on decoding the organization of multiple images on one page. Instead, they can focus on the simple relationships between text and images within each panel.
But viewing Bone one panel at a time means that the formatting Leighton discusses above—the tiers, the page turn—gets wiped away. Readers can see how panel shapes and scales change, but not how they relate to each other. It seems like the equivalent of reading a classic novel in an abridged version with all the hard vocabulary replaced with “fun, simple” synonyms.


David Maxine said...

I find Federspiel's suggestion that highschool kid's have trouble following/understanding "form" and or having no interest in such things quite distressing.

I don't really expect kids of that age to do so- but if they don't read it and expose themselves to it they won't EVER turn into adults that CAN analyze, study, look for subtler details and levels of structure.

I keep thinking of all the picky kids with food allergies and one dimensional taste buds. If you only feed a child mac-and-cheese, chances are that's all he can digest once he's an adult.

J. L. Bell said...

Federspiel wrote about teaching seventh-graders, so I’m not surprised that they’re into simple, fun narrative. But I agree that if they don’t even get exposed to the full form artistic storytellers use, then that higher level of interpretation will be even tougher for them later.