by L. Nichols
Let’s consider time and time manipulation as an important component of what comics are about. Sequentiality alone is a little stuffy for me. Manipulation of the reading/understanding of time may be a little closer to the truth. But again, also maybe not quite hitting the nail on the head either.
I imagine that this is a topic I’ll talk about a bit in the future in various ways and with various examples, but for the time being I thought I would continue from the Sacco + words discussion and start by analyzing a passage from Joe Sacco’s Palestine. (Just as a warning, this is about an interrogation).
Sacco sets up this subsection of the larger story by giving it its own title and further establishes the story within a story aspect of this with the words talking about “parallel worlds.” Leading into the next page with the words “And then the door gets bashed down…” sets up the scene change/flashback without any additional visual cues (for example, the oft used wavy line flashback/dream technique). Same black borders. Same panel usage. Only the words, the use of quotations, and the shift in what is being depicted tell you that this is now the imagery of the story he’s telling.
I particularly like how he uses the perspective in the last two panels to set up the power dynamic here. He is helpless & viewed from above. They are powerful and viewed from below. Starting with the page turn, he sets up a grid that he then manipulates for the rest of this story.
With a grid like this, it feels like each section time is given somewhat equal weight. It sets up a rhythm. Tick tick tick tick panel panel panel panel. At first, this seems like it could be any other panel decision, but the further you read the story, the more obvious that the use of grids is very deliberate. The next page breaks the grid a bit smaller. Instead of 3×2, it is 3×3. The space feels more cramped.
The next page, the grid becomes 4×3. The feeling of time and space changes, conveying an idea of how the perception of time and space must’ve changed for our story-teller.
With each successive page, the grid gets more and more cramped… time feels slowed. The strict grid becomes simultaneously structured and disorienting. Now the page is 4×4. This continues for two pages then the grid becomes an even more tightly packed 5×4. Notice the way the reading changes, the way the panels feel cramped in, the way the black borders start to almost feel oppressive. What Sacco is doing here is simple, yet effective.
As soon as the character becomes released, we become released from the strict and tight grid. At first, this means just fewer panels, but the final panel of the story is somewhat expansive (in comparison to what has come before). There is air. There is the city. There are people kissing. There is hope.
What Sacco has done with this technique is pretty interesting, I think. Not only has he managed to tell the story of this man in a coherent and compelling way, he has attempted to also transfer an idea of what this man might have been perceiving as this story occurred. The way time changed. The feeling of confinement.
And this is something that is pretty incredible. This is something I think is at the heart of what special about comics. Not only is this a medium capable of telling a story (I mean, so are so many other media that can do that, too!), this is a medium that has the ability to communicate shifts in perception. The way panels are chosen and used forms an underlying structure for the manipulation of reading, which in turn can become the manipulation of the perception of time itself.