- Space = time
- Time ↔ reading
I have always been fascinated by the way the language of comics expresses the flow of time indirectly—through static images.
As a rule of thumb, by combining two basic but core principles:
space = time(space equals time)
time ↔ reading(time is related to the reading experience)
Before jumping into detailing the two principles, let us note that, in any piece of sequential art 1, these two can not be clearly separated from each other, that is, they are combined seamlessly, forming a gestalt.
Space = time
Let us focus on the 1st principle:
space = time. The language of comics expresses the flow of time by sequencing space. Overall, it sequences space at three different levels. From highest to lowest:
- space/time is structured in a sequence of pages
- space/time is structured in a sequence of panels within a single page
- space/time is structured in a sequence of elements within a single panel
Sequence of pages
How is space/time structured in a sequence of pages?
In a sequence of pages, each of the pages (usually) works as a a macro unit of meaning that moves the story and action forward.
Let us look at a sequence of pages taken from the manga Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama as an example. In the sequence, Gohan—Goku’s son—counterattacks to prevent Cell—the mashed up villain—from destroying planet Earth.
If we go trough the above sequence and try to time roughly how much time each page covers:
|Uh-oh. Cell is charging a huge Kamehameha 2. Things are about to go south.
|Cell launches the wave towards Earth. How foolish of him! If Gohan dodges it, planet Earth will be nuked.
|Oh my gosh! Cell’s Kamehameha is too powerful. There is no way that Gohan can possibly survive the hit. How will he bail us out?
|Hold on. Gohan is charging a Kamehameha as well. Maybe there is some hope.
|Also Gohan launches his wave! suspence
|Hurray! Gohan’s Kamehameha overpowers Cell’s one!
|Take this Cell! That is what you get if you try to mess with the wrong folks.
we can conclude that the entire sequence spans a time of more or less ∼50 seconds.
As mentioned before, we should always keep in mind that these ∼50 seconds are not a product of just the sequence of pages in itself, but rather the outcome of mixing the two principles
space = time (at the level of pages, panels, and elements) and
time ↔ reading in different quantities.
Sequence of panels
How is space/time structured in a sequence of panels within a single page?
In a sequence of panels, each of the panels (usually) represents a distinct event in time, and each gutter—the void space between panels—advances the time forward from one panel to next.
The amount of time a gutter represents is derived from the events in the adjacent panels it separates. The further in time these events are, the longer the time the gutter expresses.
Let us look at a sequence of panels taken from the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller as an example. In the spread, Bruce Wayne—also known as Batman—has a flashback where he remembers his parents being killed during an armed robbery.
In the above spread from The Dark Knight Returns, events represented in the panels are quite near to each other in time.
This results in the time expressed by each gutter being rather uniformed and condensed, and makes the entire sequence of panels feel like a cinematographic slow motion 3.
Sequence of elements
How is space/time structured in a sequence of elements within a single panel?
In most cases, a sequence of elements in a panel represents events that indeed happen simultaneously.
In particular cases though, elements juxtaposed in a panel can represent simultaneous yet distinct events, “stretching” the time expressed within a space that is otherwise preceived as continuous.
Let us look a panel taken from the comic book Asterix And The Banquet by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo as an example.
In the above example, the first panel of page 6 from the comic book Asterix And The Banquet depicts three distinct events that, technically 4, happen at the same time:
|Two women are having a conversation.
|A man is leading a cart to carry hay.
|Obelix talks while Asterix peels a few potatoes.
yet, since they are juxtaposed in space one after the other and we read them from left to right, we perceive them as happening one slightly after the other.
Jumping through three different events within the same panel makes its perceived duration much longer than if another panel with the same size and shape were to represent a single event. The panel from Asterix And The Banquet ends up feeling like a cinematographic pan shot 5.
Time ↔ reading
Let us now focus on the 2nd principle:
time ↔ reading. The language of comics expresses the flow of time by speeding up or slowing down the reading experience.
As a rule of thumb, the more time we spend reading a sequence of pages, panels, and/or elements, the longer we perceive its “duration”.
How can we influence the reading experience? Usually, in two ways:
- the more visually complex a sequence is, the more time we need to digest it, and vice versa
- the more speech balloons a sequence has, the more time we need to read it, and vice versa
How can visual complexity influence the reading experience?
Again, the more visually complex a sequence is, the more time we need to digest it, and vice versa.
Let us look at a spread from the manga Gon by Masashi Tanaka as an example. In volume 2 chapter 8 Gon the dinosaur tries to blend and live in a colony of penguins.
In the above example from the manga Gon, by the time it takes us to find the main protagonist lost in the waddle of penguins, we end up feeling as the little dinosaur has been living with colony for quite a while.
How can speech ballons influence the reading experience?
Again, the more speech balloons a sequence has, the more time we need to read it, and vice versa.
Let use a panel from Sin City: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller as an experiment and play with the speech ballons of Marv, the protagonist, who is about to get wasted.
In the above example the first panel of the page is modified: Marv’s speech ballons have been removed and the panel does not have any dialogue.
Let us compare its reading experience with the one of the below example, where the same panel is left unmodified: Marv’s speech ballons have not been removed and the panel preserves the original dialogue.
Reading the balloons in the unmodified panel slows our reading experience: Marv turns from taking a sip from a bottle into getting wildly drunk.
As illustrated by the above examples, the language of comics can express the flow of time indirectly—through static images—by combining seamlessly these two core principles:
space = time(space equal time)
time ↔ reading(time is related to the reading experience)
Comics can be defined as sequential art: the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea—a definition created in 1985 by Will Eisner and expanded in 1994 by Scott McCloud. ↩
The Kamehameha is the signature energy wave of the Dragon Ball series. ↩
Technically because they are juxtaposed in a same continuous space enclosed in a panel, without any gutter or page break separating them. ↩