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March 31, 2008

On the Passage of Time

[From the Desk of :01 Editor Calista Brill]

Something that has always fascinated me about comics is the medium’s ability to express the passage of time.




Comics also possess an almost unmatched capacity to manipulate time. With sequential art, you have the flexibility to linger on a single moment, exploring it from every angle. Manga is a genre especially well equipped for this, with the luxury of multi-volume storytelling. In Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo devotes 40 pages to the destruction of Neo Tokyo, a disaster that probably takes about two minutes to unfold in “real time.”


On the other side of this equation, decades, even generations, can be effectively expressed in a simple transition between panels:


The condensation of time is often a necessity for storytelling in graphic novel form. By their very nature, comics are expansive. Often, the text bears much of the responsibility for advancing the plot, while the art illustrates, enriches, complicates, and even subverts it. A balanced page won’t have too much text on it… which means information and events can take a little while to unfold.


When a story is limited to 200 or fewer pages, as many graphic novels are, this wonderfully leisurely mode of conveying information can threaten to overflow the bounds of the format. There’s just so much to say, and so little space to say it.


And that’s great news!


No, really, it is.

Some of my favorite moments in my favorite comics are examples of genius in the service of efficiency. If poetry is language, condensed, and if much of the joy of a sonnet is the struggle to work within the narrow confines of the form – then the same could be said about a well-crafted graphic novel. Every moment has to count, and many moments have to count on a number of different levels, if for no other reason than economy of space. This is true of storytelling in any genre, but graphic novels have the advantage of a visual means to this end. And happily, a subtle, layered comics story where every panel is significant and many are interesting on a few different levels isn’t just efficient—it’s also awesome.

There are all sorts of ways to pack extra information into a page or a panel.

Scott Pilgrim does it here with vital statistics and diagrams that also happen to be really freaking funny:


Fun Home uses a ton of literary allusions to tap into a larger cultural context / hive-mind.


A strong, expressive initial visual impression can also tell you almost everything you need to know about a character. Meet Jellaby.


The following three panels effectively and poignantly condense the childhood (cub-hood?) of the bear Vivol, from the webcomic The Abominable Charles Christopher.


Grady Klein uses loaded single-panel visual flashbacks, flash-forwards, and parallels throughout The Lost Colony to heighten and enrich the current action.


The final moment of the Love and Rockets story Sugar ‘n Spikes offers a simple smile that complicates the entire story, and somehow makes it about 100 times more melancholy.


A peek into the subconscious of Uncle Scrooge… you won’t be particularly surprised at what you find, I’m afraid. One-liners and sight gags are also a great tool for highly condensed storytelling.



This is fairly obvious stuff, and anyone who’s thought about comics in a serious way has doubtless come down this road, but it’s certainly a pleasant exercise. It’s nice be reminded now and then that the constraints that bind us—and sometimes frustrate us—can also inspire our greatest innovations… or, at the very least, a few good jokes.


Excerpts in this post from: The Arrival, by Shaun Tan; Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo; Elfquest, by Wendy and Richard Pini; Tintin: The Shooting Star, by Hergé; Owly: Just a Little Blue, by Andy Runton; Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, by Bryan Lee O’Malley; Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel; Jellaby, by Kean Soo; The Abominable Charles Christopher, by Karl Kerschl; The Lost Colony Book No. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy, by Grady Klein; Love and Rockets, by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez; Uncle Scrooge: The Son of the Sun, by Don Rosa.



calista you should teach! you're really good :)

Huh. My post yesterday never showed up. Oh well, welcome aboard, Calista. It's good to have another L&R fan aboard.

Good examples. In addition to linear time, Comics can also convey the nonlinear within the same panels/images (something film can't do). Jae Lee did this in an FF story where the Torch flies through the panel he started in. McKeown did a similar thing in a backup story in SUCKLE, I believe. I don't know how to embed an image here, but click on my url link and scroll down if you want to see it.

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