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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Leigh Ann and I just got some final feedback from our series editors at Bloomsbury and so are now putting the finishing touches on our Creating Comics textbook. Part of the process for me was deleting most of the comics theory since undergrad comics creators don’t really care what French scholar Thierry Groensteen (that’s his actual name) has to say about general arthrology and spatio-topia (those are his actual terms). Happily all of that theory is finding a home in my next book, The Comics Form, due out from Routledge in 2021.

Meanwhile, there is literally one Groensteen term I’m keeping for Creating Comics. He describes how panels that occupy the same location on separate pages can “rhyme.” Because the layouts create a formal relationship between the images, they also connect their story content. Other techniques can create rhymes too: images in circular panels in a book consisting otherwise of rectangular panels; images that share a distinctive tilt or frame design; images that break the Z-path norm to produce brief N-paths. The range is wide. By rhyming two images, you make your reader experience a connection between two story moments that would otherwise be unrelated.

Rhyming can also apply to layouts overall. Abel and Madden note that grids provide “continuity to multiple-page stories,” which is true of any repeating layout. A comic that repeats the same layout on every page produces no layout rhymes—or rather it produces unvarying rhymes that differentiate no pages. A comic that repeats no layouts also doesn’t highlight and connect any pages through a rhyme scheme.

In poetry a rhyme scheme refers to the pattern of end-word rhymes. A Shakespearean sonnet, for example, follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG pattern, and a Petrarchan ABBAABBA CDECDE. Comics that use layout schemes relate pages for similar work-wide effects, connecting the entire story content of each page.

The sixth chapter of Charles Burns’ Black Hole (2005) includes twenty-seven pages. After an unpaired non-rectangular splash page, pages vary between row- and column-based layouts. Sixteen pages either use a 3×2 grid or imply it by combing panels, while another six feature 1×3 columns; the remaining four pages variously combine a regular row with a row of tall panels that echo the columns:

Divided into two-page spreads, Burns’ page scheme is:

AA BB BB AA BC BB BB CC BC BB BB AA BB

Since the 3×2 pages are most prominent, B is the base pattern, giving emphasis to the three A spreads and the three C pages. The scheme also connects the story content of the A pages, and the story content of the C pages. The A spreads are the most memory-focused, with flashback images interspersed into the current action. The C pages are transitions points, highlighting the introduction of a new character and then a movement into that character’s new space—each disrupting both the narrative and formal status quo. The scheme also reveals Burns’ pattern of rhyming couplets, giving additional emphasis to the one break in the pattern, when in the fifth spread a row layout pairs with a combined layout—further highlighting the new character.

Image result for Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead #1

In Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead #1 (2010), over half of the pages are regular 3-rows, establishing a dominant base pattern. The two full-page images rhyme the two formally largest moments in the narrative: the protagonist waking for the first time after his apocalypse-triggering injury, and the first, apocalypse-signifying depiction of zombies. The concluding pages also rhyme with page one, giving the issue implied 4×2 bookends. The half-page columns on pages eight and twenty-four produce the most striking rhyme, depicting the only two times that the protagonist kills a zombie. In both the zombie is beneath or below him, with its head lowest in the frame. An action-produced sound effect—“WHUMP!” and “BLAM!”—partially cover the hero both times. In the first panel, his zombie killing is accidental, as he tumbles down the stairs upside down. The second time the killing is intentional, and the hero’s body is rigid and right side up—a visual and thematic reversal suggesting the change in his mental state. The two columns are formally unique, shaping their two narrative moments into N-paths and so highlighting a contrast that would be lost if the story were drawn in identically sized and shaped panels.

The layouts don’t simply transmit narrative. The rhyme portrays character development in a way additional to the words and images. Here’s the rhyme scheme for our student Maddie’s ten-page comic: ABCDCDCDBA.

Maddie began image-first, creating her main character from a class doodle that she then visually researched, revised, and redrew multiple times from multiple angles until she could render it easily for any story situation that might arise. She developed her first page by drawing her character in a page-width panel, which she then repeated for the other images, adjusting the number of panels to suit the page and using a single line for framing rather than the white space of a formal gutter. Because page one ended with her fish feeling alone, the rest of the story developed into a search for companions. She had initially thought that one of the animals he meets would return with him, and that a wise mentor figure would convince him to return, but both characters and plot points seemed unnecessary once she was drawing the actual comic.

Her page scheme developed from her character’s first adventure away from home, which she drew in a three-row layout of full-width panels, except for the evenly divided middle row of the second page. When her character enters his second adventure, she used the same two-page template, rhyming the layouts and, more specifically, the center panel of the second page where in all three adventures the main character discovers that he can’t be happy with his new group of friends. When he returns, she repeated the opening two page’s layouts—but now in reverse order. Where on the second page the fish swims out into the full-page vastness of the ocean, on the penultimate page, he swims toward the viewer, with all of his ocean friends now visible behind him. And when he approaches his own fish community, it’s in the same 4-row arrangement as page one, only ending with his joining them.

Emily’s nine-page comic is less regular than Maddie’s, but she still uses page scheme effects:

Page one establishes both the story world space of the bookshelf and the formal space of the layout with a two-panel row at the top implying a three-row base for the following five pages. Page two then creates an internal, fantasy space of the cube’s thoughts by using panels shaped like thought balloons over a black background and gutters. Sometimes each page’s fantasy sequence begins in the second panel of row of one, and sometimes it ends in the first panel of row two, but the page scheme always includes the complete middle row. Emily then break that norm with page eight—which includes no fantasy and switches from an implied 3×2 grid to an overt 5×3 of square panels that echo the shape the cube. The new layout deepens the sense of the cube’s immobility within the story world—until the owner’s hand reappears at the bottom of the page and then rolls the cube on the final page in an unframed sequence of embedded images showing the cube’s actual movement. Without the repetition of the base layout in the first seven pages, the last two pages would have less formal significance and so their story content would have less significance too.

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