The purpose of this exercise was to create a short comic strip based on the themes of slowness and pace so that any lessons relating to the way comic strips function can be learned and used in later projects.
Key words from the brief:
Option 3 – A comic book
- This option involves developing a simple narrative and then producing an illustrated storyboard in a comic book style
- Have a look at a few comics or graphic novels and note down your thoughts on their respective styles in your log
- The theme of the exercise is based on slowness and pace
- Keep it simple so that you can concentrate on making the panels of your storyboard interesting
- Three page narrative, with either 6 or 9 panels per page
- Work in a distinct visual style – this is a creative risk because this is something I haven’t done before
- Don’t polish – this is a creative risk because I tend to over finish final artwork
- Be daring with the narrative – this is a creative risk because I would say to date the stories I’ve used in illustrated sequences have been conservative and safe
Theoretical and artist research
Before starting to work on developing ideas for this exercise I wanted to understand a bit more around around the theory of comic books, particularly the use of panels in expressing movement through time. Given the theme of the exercise was about slowness and pace, this seemed like a good place to start.
My artists research is sourced from ‘Between the panels: the power of the panel’ (Gravett, 2013 pp54-69), a chapter in his book ‘Comics Art’ (Gravett, 2013). In this chapter, Gravett looks at some of the characteristics of comics and illustrates these with the work of specific comic artists.
In his introduction, he points out that “a comic doesn’t come with a running time” (Gravett, 2013 p54), and unlike other time based media such as film or television, where the audience is in the hands of the director that use a linear time bound process to pull the audience through a story, comics don’t have that constraint. They operate in a nonlinear fashion. Although the flow of the story may be in one direction, the reader can jump backwards and forwards at will, across panels and pages.
Unlike film, where to a large extent the story is prescriptive and controlled and not reliant on the imagination of the viewer, the panels in a comic invite a reader to fill in the spaces between the panels, using imagination to fill in the blanks.
Another aspect particular to comics is that the panel size can vary as much as the design, layout and readability allow.
These two characteristics give the comic artists a whole toolbox of tools and techniques that can be employed to create pace and mood.
In their excellent book “Drawing Words & Writing Pictures”, Jessica Able and Matt Madden dedicate a whole chapter to panel design and describe the different design and compositional techniques that form the language that is at the disposal of the comic artist.
The list includes:
- Tonal balance
- Reading path
- Internal framing
- Visual rhythm
- Negative space
- Depth of field
(Able, Madden, 2008 pp156-159)
The following artist analysis provides examples of work that I found of particular interest in relation to this exercise i.e. where the artist has used panel layout to create a sense of pace and time.
Palestine – Joe Sacco
Gravett suggests that there is a general rule in comics that the smaller the panel, the smaller the amount of time it is trying to convey. Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2003) is an interesting example where variation in panel size is used progressively to achieve a particular effect.
The torture sequence runs across 11-pages and describes the experience of a Palestinian man who is arrested, tortured and interrogated by the Israeli police and security forces over a period of 19-days.
Panels become progressively smaller and darker as the treatment of the prisoner and his plight get worse.
Analysis of the sequences shows how the pace builds:
- Page 1 – 3 x panels
- Page 2 – 6 x panels
- Page 3 – 9 x panels
- Page 4 – 12 x panels
- Page 5 > 6 – 16 x panels
- Page 7 > 10 – 20 x panels
- Page 11 – 7 x panels (6 x small panels and 1 x half page panel)
It is also interesting to note how the use of tone is used to differentiate between the experience of the prisoner in his cell against any action that takes place outside.
Sculptor – Scott McCloud
I selected a sequence from Scott McCloud’s graphic novel Sculptor (2015), that shows the main protagonist in the story, David Smith, having a breakdown and attempting to throw himself in front of a train in a New York subway. The sequence runs across 6-pages and uses a combination of disjointed panel sizes, big sound effects that break right across multiple panels, extreme close ups, dynamic movement and different points of view/reactions to describe the event.
Like the previous sequence from Palestine, the panel structure and visual language are used to create tension and suspense and give a sense of time.
Here – Richard McGuire
Here (2014), describes future and past events that take place in the corner of a room. It uses frames within frames and captions to create a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in decades of time, completely breaking the conventional practice where the story moves from left to right moving forwards in time.
One of the subjects I’ve been working with that could work really well in a sequential image format around a pace and slowness theme is Brookwood Cemetery. I used this subject to mind map out potential ideas in 2.4 Word associations, so I had a good starting point from which to create a new ideas map.
I created a new map to clarify my ideas, and started to make connections between my theoretical research and my subject. I became quite excited by how I might use the sequential comic format as a way to explore a subject that I’ve had a growing interest in.
You can view a higher resolution PDF here: Slow mindmap
I used the elevator pitch format to really tune my ideas.
Elevator pitch: I’m making a comic strip that explores the passing of time through an examination of how we’ve remembered our dead over the past 200-years. This is interesting because a cemetery is a physical manifestation of the passing of time, with recent vivid memories and expressions of loss and grieving fading first into the past, then becoming history, ultimately to be reclaimed by nature and forgotten. It is perhaps made more poignant by the fact that death is something we all have or will experience, either through the loss of loved ones or through our own mortality.
The conceptual design was derived from Gravett’s observations about how panels within comic books function, coupled with my analysis of the torture sequence in Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2003).
I wanted to test the idea that varying panel size creates an effect of speeding up or slowing down the passing of time.
One of the things I noticed about Brookwood Cemetery is how my perception of time seems to change depending on whether I’m in the South side, amongst all of the old dilapidated gravestones and mausoleums, or the North side, where the majority of recent burials take place. It struck me that this perception of time slowing might be achieved in a comic format through the gradual and progressive change in panel size.
So the basic concept was: To record the passing of time, starting from present day and going back to 1824 (the oldest gravestone I could find), using dated inscriptions on headstones as the physical markers of time, whilst gradually increasing the panel size as the dates recede into the past.
My mind map captured a number of different ideas related to how the content could be displayed, and these were all considered as possibilities to be tested as part of the production process.
Idea 1 – Would it work to start the comic strip in the future rather than arbitrarily in the present? I liked this idea because it communicates the reality that time marches on regardless of our perceptions.
Idea 2 – Would it work to have multiple labels in a single image? What would this do to the chronology?
Idea 3 – A variation on idea #2. Could a single image be broken across more than one panel? I liked this idea particularly for the military cemeteries where there are hundreds of headstones all from a limited period of time i.e. 1914 to 1918.
Idea 4 – Could I use a single point such as one of the large mausoleums, as a central pivot point across a number of panels. The centre of the South Cemetery has a plot called The Ring which would be a perfect location for this treatment.
Before doing any research I mocked up layout grids. The brief specified the need for three pages and 27-panels. I used this as my minimum but realised to achieve the effect I wanted I’d need considerably more.
The layouts below demonstrate what the variation in panel size might look like across three pages.
I completed my visual research in two visits to the cemetery, each lasting for around 3-hours.
For my for my first visit I decided to be fairly unstructured and just take photographs of anything that looked interesting or of significance. I started in the old part of the the cemetery because that’s the section I’m most familiar with.
I tried to visit as many of the different plots covering different, religions, nationalities, parishes and denominations as I could. The weather was sunny and I took around 150 photographs.
Before leaving the site I did an observational pen and ink drawing of the final panel that I wanted to be a full page, bleeding to the edges and in a slightly softer visual style.
I took this research home, created contact sheets and carefully mapped the dates to each image. At this point I used the grid layouts to start adding in content (or at least the dates of the content that I had). This created a picture across two centuries and highlighted areas where there were gaps, and gave me a ‘hit list’ for my second visit.
In the second visit I was much more targeted and was able to look for graves with specific dates. I also covered the military cemeteries.
I noticed a funeral taking place and respectfully took a couple of reference photographs. These would represent ‘present day’ and include the only people to appear in the work.
When I got home I created contact sheets for the new images and added the dates to my catalogue. In all I had taken 180 photographs.
The final artwork was drawn up on Bristol Board using a fountain pen and black ink. Because there was so much drawing to do, my primary concern was keeping the images really simple and working fast. I used spot blacks and some cross hatching to add depth to the drawings.
In all it took about 12-hours to complete drawing 53-panels. I worked at 1:1 scale which meant that compositing the final work together was really simple with minimum adjustments required.
I experimented with the layout of the captions:
In the end I settled on having the date captions at the bottom and centre of each panel. This aids readability and makes for a more flowing reading experience which is what I wanted.
Finished comic strip – “Momento mori”
The final pages were composited together in 3-hours.
Overall I’m really pleased with this piece of work because the results are quite unexpected, multi layered and interesting.
What did you find most challenging?
Generating the ideas in the first place. I really wasn’t sure what to do right through until I’d almost completed my theoretical research. It was when I looking at the work of Richard McGuire that it suddenly occurred to me that a cemetery is a physical manifestation of time passing. At that point all of my research fell into place.
Is establishing a particular pace something that you have experimented with before?
Yes. This is something I grappled with when making Assignment 3 – A graphic short story, where it became clear that my original design for the climactic fight sequence between Theseus and the Minotaur was too short. I also had to find a visual device to move the reader through the traumatic suicide of the king quickly into the final end sequence.
Would you attempt this again and if so how would you change your approach?
Comics strips are all about playing with time, so I will use what I’ve learned about the visual language of comics and how panels operate in the future.
Taking the time to carry out theoretical and artist research really paid dividends, and this is something I need to remember and repeat.
Creative risks reflection
I set myself three creative risks:
Work in a distinct visual style – this is a creative risk because this is something I haven’t done before
I partially met this. I have used pen and ink to create comic books frequently in the past but not using spot black as a technique. The reason why this only partially meets the creative risk criteria is because when I set the challenge I had in mind something radically different to my usual ways of working. In my defense, the large number of panels meant I needed to use a technique that would allow be to work at pace, and pen and ink gives that flexibility.
Don’t polish – this is a creative risk because I tend to over finish final artwork
Achieved. I was consciously not polishing the drawings and was more concerned to get through the volume rather than the finished quality. I think it works. Some of the images could be simplified, but this comes with experience and something I can be conscious of in the future.
Be daring with the narrative – this is a creative risk because I would say to date the stories I’ve used in illustrated sequences have been conservative and safe
Achieved. This was primarily a process driven project, and previously I wouldn’t have trusted using this approach.
Lesson: What I learned is that the process should be seen as a means to an end. It allowed me to take the work to a point where I could begin to see connections and value that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
Abel, J. and Madden, M. (2008) Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond. (s.l.): Macmillan.
Gravett, P. (2013) Comics art. (s.l.): Tate Publishing.
List of illustrations
Figure 1 – Sacco, J. and Said, E. W. (2003) Interrogation sequence In: Palestine (2003) (s.l.): Fantagraphic Books p.111.
Figure 2 – McCloud, Scott (2015) Subway scene In: Sculptor (2015) London: SelfMadeHero pp.160-161.
Figure 3 – Barker, G. and Profile, V. my C. (s.d.) Richard McGuire’s ‘Here’. At: http://fineartdrawinglca.blogspot.com/2015/02/richard-mcguires-here.html (Accessed 27/06/2020).