What have we got to work with and what can we make it do?
This article is about comics, but first I’d like to talk about movies.
William Castle built buzzers into random movie theater seats to terrify the viewers of his film The Tingler. Walt Disney pumped the scent of flowers into the theater during certain scenes in Fantasia. In 1952 a technique billed as Cinerama used three separate projectors to create one giant screen.
Filmmakers have experimented with the form like nobody’s business. Some of these attempts to bring the audience into the story have gone the way of Smell-O-Vision while others, like surround sound and widescreen, have been championed as great ideas and become industry standards.
I’m a cartoonist, not a filmmaker, but there’s one crazy stunt that came out around the same time as Cinerama that forever changed the way I think about telling stories. The movie that showcased this pull-you-into-the-action trick was one you’ve probably seen:
I’d always loved Rear Window, but the first time I watched it I didn’t even realize it included a gimmick along these lines. But it’s right there, in the climax of the film.
If you haven’t seen “Rear Window” this is a spoiler warning.
Wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart, hiding from a killer in a darkened apartment, uses flash bulbs from his camera to blind the approaching villain just long enough for the police to arrive.
Cinematically, Hitchcock makes a big deal out of this moment. A glowing red circle fills the frame whenever a flash bulb goes off. You could say the filmmaking feels “flashy”. Ahem. It feels like you’re supposed to be impressed, but the scene always came off to me as a bit quaint.
I didn’t realize that the reason it didn’t impress me was because I wasn’t sitting in one of the chairs with a buzzer in it.
When Rear Window was released in 1954 there was no home video market. Everyone who saw the film did so in a darkened room, sitting in front of a giant screen that filled their field of view. Where as, when I would watch Rear Window, I watched it in my living room on a 20" television in the middle of the day. What Hitchcock was doing doesn’t work in that environment.
Imagine being in a darkened theater and watching these shots that precede the flash bulbs going off:
These are actual stills from the movie. The screen was almost completely black.Which means the theater would be in near total darkness. Hitchcock gives everyone time for their eyes to adjust.
Then he floods the frame, and given the size of the screen, the theater with light!
Not only is the killer suddenly blinded, everyone in the theater is. The giant red circle isn’t the point of the effect, it’s just their to nudge along the feeling what our eyes are already experiencing.
The best part about all this is that it was achieved without building equipment into the seats, without re-engineering the projection system of the theater. They didn’t need to re-invent filmmaking, they simply considered the way in which the viewer was going to be receiving the material and wondered if there was anything interesting they could accomplish with that.
We’ve got light in a dark room to work with. What can we make it do?
And now, comics.
Comics traditionally don’t emit light, they can’t use that specific trick of Hitchcock's, but over the years they have done their share of experimentation.
Generations of comic book artists exploring the printed page created things like gatefold pages, glow in the dark panels, 3D comics, die cut work, fold-ins, even incredable comics that you operate using a system of tabs.
Along the way we also learned how to use the page turn dramatically, how panels that bleed of the edge of a page make you feel, discovered the splash page, and the double page spread.
We’ve tried everything and figured out what works and what doesn’t.
We’ve created, and gotten a generation of people fluent in reading, an entire visual language that grew out of print.
These days however, much, if not most of our work isn’t being received in print. It’s being received digitally, on a screen.
While, just like bringing drama from the stage to film, a lot of what’s been learned from print comics is compatable with comics on a screen. But, again like the transition from stage to film, there’s a lot to discover as well.
Some of us look at all these un-tried experiments and are afraid of becoming the next William Castle with his buzzer seats, we’re afraid of producing work that ends up being more gimmick than substance, but not everyone needs to take things to that extreme.
Sure, some of us can go off and try bold experiments (which may result in lasting innovations like surround sound or splash pages) but the rest of us can try to be more like Hitchcock, carefully considering the situation we’re already in, as well as the context that the reader is in, the tools we have, and take advantage the opportunities they bring us.
We’ve got pictures in sequence on a screen to work with. What can we make them do?
There are all kinds of areas to explore but the most exciting work I’ve seen in this area comes from, Pablo Defendini (digitalcomics.co). Pablo is exploring ways cartoonists can take techniques they’ve already mastered in print and transition them to digital more gracefully than I’ve ever seen before. Would you like it if your comic could automatically do this when loaded on a differently proportioned screen?
He’s written eloquently about the problems of resizing word balloons for different screen sizes, making comics faster and more compatable with the way the web is progressing, and even the re-flowing of panels when viewed on screes as diverse televisions and iPhones.
Go read his work if this kind of thing excites you.