December 22, 2015 The Rhyming Dead (Analyzing Comics 101: Page Schemes)
The Walking Dead Volume 1 “Days Gone Bye” is anti-feminist, anti-government, pro-gun, libertarian fantasy propaganda. So pretty much my opposite on the political spectrum. And yet I teach it every year in my first-year writing seminar. It helps that it pairs so well with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (which is nihilistic, anti-everything fantasy propaganda). It helps even more that I like the Walking Dead TV show so much. I always assign open essay topics, so I get a range of gender critiques, pro-family analysis, and (my favorite) the meaning of Rick’s hat. That one requires a deeper level of visual analysis, and that’s what I want to focus on today.
On a previous blog, I laid out my thoughts on layout, and now I want to apply them a little more systematically to one specific comic: The Walking Dead #1 (October 2003) by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. I’ll work through the issue page-by-page first, then follow up with a page scheme analysis: how the layouts of separate pages combine for issue-wide effects. I’m working with the general principle that pages have base patterns, and when those patterns repeat, their pages relate at a formal level (they visually rhyme) and so the content of those pages are connected too.
Those panel heights vary only slightly, so I would call it a regular 4-row layout, with top and bottom full-width panels. The bottom panel is also unframed and merges with the underlying page panel, giving it additional significance.
Full-page panel and a regular 3×3. Often a comic establishes a single base pattern, but the 3×3 contradicts the 4-row (and the implied 4×2) of page one. The full-page panel is ambiguous since it can divide into any layout pattern, and so it is an effective bridge between the two base patterns.
The regular 3-row begins with 3 panels, but then switches to a 2-panel bottom row that breaks the 3×3 pattern established on the previous page. The next page is also a 3-row, but since the top, full-width panel could divide into three panels, I’d say the page is still using 3×3 as its implied base pattern.
Another full-page panel (on the left side of the spread like the full-page panel of page two, so the positioning rhymes as well) and another regular 3-row with a top, full-width panel that implies a 3×3 base pattern, same as page five (which was also on the right side of the page spread, so another positioning rhyme).
And here Moore and Kirkman completely break any base patterning. The bottom row would suit a 3×3, but the top two-thirds shift to a regular 2-column layout, with the first column combing three panels to establish the reading path for the paneled second column (what I would call paired sub-columns). The next page then switches back to a regular 3-row. The top, full-width panel is unframed and merges with the underlying page panel which slowly darkens to black gutters, a motif continued on the next page.
Another atypical page, an irregular 3-row but now with a bottom, 4-panel row, which is a new layout element. Like the preceding page, the top, full-width panel is unframed and merges with the page panel which darkens to black gutters again. The next page returns to a regular 3×3, same as page three.
A regular 3-row and implied 3×3, since both the top unframed full-width panel and the middle framed full-width panel would divide accordingly. The implied 3×3 is further suggested by the actual 3×3 of the facing page.
Atypical again: an irregular 2-row. The bottom row partly evokes 3×3, but the panels are closer to half-page height, and they are also insets over the full-page panel image that dominates the top half of the page. The next page is a regular 3-row, though now with a bottom, 4-panel row (as first seen on page ten).
Two regular 3-row pages, with a total of three full-width panels, two 3-panel rows, and one 2-panel row. (That all black background at the bottom of 16 is interesting, but not part of today’s focus.)
More regular 3-rows, with three 3-panel rows, two full-widths, and one 2-panel. The second page repeats the exact layout of pages five and seven, with a top, full-width implying the 3×3.
Two more regular 3-rows with an implied 3×3 base. The first page repeats page nineteen, seven, and five, and the second partially echoes page fourteen (irregular 2-row), though here the top two-thirds of the page fit a 3×3 pattern by combining two implied rows into a single unframed panel. Also the bottom panels are insets over the full-page panel which darkens into black gutters–so close to page fourteen, but not an exact match, more of a slant rhyme.
The fifth iteration of a regular 3-row with a 3×3-implying top full-width panel. The second page’s 4-row also brings back the implied 4×4 of page one, now with black gutters.
Mostly a roughly regular 4-row, except the first panels of the first two rows are combined into a single sub-column, the only column seen since page eight. This is also the sixth page to include black gutters.
So how does any of this combine into any meaningful analysis?
Since well over half of the pages (fourteen or fifteen depending on how you feel about page twenty-one) are regular 3-rows, there’s a dominant base pattern. Eleven of those pages follow a flexible 3×3, and the two full-page panels can be added to that count too. Those two full-pages deserve special attention, rhyming the two formally largest moments in the narrative layout: Rick waking up for the first time after his apocalypse-triggering injury, and the first, apocalypse-signifying depiction of zombies. Pages fourteen and twenty-one are the next visually significant, with their top panels dominating more than half of their layouts: Rick being struck by a shovel, and a zombie appearing behind a fence. Frankly, the shovel shot seems a bit gratuitous to me since the moment is not that narratively important (a character-introducing misunderstanding patched up by the next page), but page twenty-one is key to Rick’s development since he learns not to waste a bullet by killing a zombie unnecessarily, setting up his character-defining mercy killing on the concluding pages. The two concluding pages also rhyme with page one, creating implied 4×2 bookends to the issue. The black gutter motif also begins on pages nine and ten, when the bicycling zombie is introduced, further linking to page twenty-one’s black gutters and harmless zombie.
And now that I look at those two half-page columns on pages eight and twenty-four again, I realize they are the only two times that Rick kills a zombie. Both times the zombie is beneath or below him, with its head lowest in the frame. An action-produced sound effect–WHUMP! and BLAM!–partially cover Rick both times too. But in the first panel Rick’s zombie-killing action is accidental, and his full body is shown upside down as he tumbles down the stairs. The second time it’s deeply intentional, and Rick’s full body is rigid and right side up–a complete visual and thematic reversal. Also, the first panel is unframed, and the second is framed by black gutters, further accentuating the contrast and perhaps suggesting the change in Rick’s mental state too–open naiveté to dark conviction? Those two sub-columns are formally unique, literally shaping their two equally unique narrative moments and so drawing a contrast that would be lost if the story were drawn in identically sized and shaped panels.
So the page scheme presents Rick’s character development in different ways than just the words and image content. There are other angles of interpretation available here (I’d tackle all of those top full-width panels next), but the point is that layout doesn’t simply transmit narrative. The formal qualities amplify the narrative, adding meanings and relating moments that in terms of story alone are not linked.