Analysis of the Christmas Disaster Episode
I've been thinking and writing recently about comics as a medium. A friend of mine asked in an email about spacial organization of story in comics -- whether things like line breaks were important narrative choices. My response become an analysis of episode 18:
Absolutely... In this way comics can be compared to poetry, in which things like line breaks are always explicitly intentional. With prose, somehow we know to filter out that kind of information... we know that the placement of line breaks is just a result of the font size and margin widths. We are aware of line breaks, but whatever dramatic/aesthetic/other effect they may have is muted by our presupposition that they are not part of the art.
Anyway, the way we read comics, taking in a lot at once, things like line breaks are deeply important. But to talk of line breaks as though they were as straightforward as in prose is a mistake. Some comics are built very regularly, in lines and rows, but it's possible to get much wilder than that. Take a look the Christmas Disaster Episode. ... Although it hasn't got very obvious panel divisions anywhere, the top part of the comic is built with a certain flat organization. We see a couple women, a tree, David, and Paul -- all seemingly part of the same scene. Despite a certain degree of stylish abstraction, we can imagine that all these elements could be captured more or less as they are by a camera. One bit that doesn't fit in with photographic logic, however, is the Jessica Rabbit-like figure to the left of David. Her scale and way of blending into the figures to the left of her suggest that she is not literally, spacially behind David, but maybe a graphic representation of what he is thinking or looking at as he says "that girl is so hot! I'm going to get her number."
As we continue to read, we see some presents cavorting festively in a column down the left side of the composition. Probably feeling a little disoriented, we fall back on habit and read the next "line," where I am peering through a black space in the panel structure, presumably a window. In the next panel, but relating to me in a way that indicates he shares the same space, Paul gestures to the panel following him. This panel, besides looking generically like a 'panel,' also appears to be a window (it resembles hanging drapes). So these three panels function simultaneously as abstract design elements, as 'panels,' as time divisions (indicating three moments), and as tangible elements of the scene (windows, drapes). David and Paul share the same space. In a sense they share the same moment, but Paul's remark responds to David's action. So although they appear visually to occupy the same moment together, it is not a photographic moment; it is a moment made of several. That unit of behavior (looking through the window, Paul's pointing in the other direction, the view which drew his attention), which could be characterized as a single 'gesture,' a collection of actions which somehow compose a single motion, a gestalt of transferring attention and energy, is depicted in a way that does not drain it of mystery.
Next, we see that the city visible through the window 'spills' into a larger space below... Reading on, things become more jumbled and confused as David springs into action and disaster befalls the city. The panels, initially flat, begin to suggest a simple 3D space, then become a stair well which looks extremely flat while also inheriting a conflicting 3D feeling by aligning with the walls of the buildings behind it. The wave looms ominously above, then seems to crash below. The division between these moments is ambiguous. Again, they don't coexist as two objects in a photograph coexist. They are the "same thing" and they are two different things: a wave in two discrete moments AND a single body of water extending through a continuous space.
The flowing water carries us left, crashing against tall buildings, then right again, zig-zagging behind the stair well. Meanwhile, the packages which we began to follow vertically before now plunge into the water, almost like a reemerging sub-plot. David is depicted among them, in what could be interpreted as an alternative view of his pose in the adjacent panel (in which paul calls, "David, she's doomed"), or as a separate moment... But by the time one has become comfortable reading this kind of thing, the question of whether it is the same moment or not ceases to register. Everything blends together as a fluid experience. The figure in the column of falling presents doesn't need to exist in a literal, definable spacial relationship to anything else. The important thing is that it's expressive, it helps us feel the action. We experience the moment it its dynamic, living chaos and ambiguity. We allow media to be not a systematic/logical conquering of experience, but a compliment to it which fluidly embodies its rhythms and mysteries.
The two figures together -- David's hands on the girl's shoulders -- seizes our attention at the largest scale so far, with an impact worthy of that moment. The waves still crashing behind them, David and the red-haired girl share a moment which repeats like an echo from that first face-to-face instant. The two panels which follow are the most "panelly" thing in the comic, isolating the figures, isolating the moment, drawing focus in the way that confrontation would. The two panels, with their slanted top lines, really do seem to emanate from the pair on the left, like a signal which grows fainter with each repetition. The recurring image of the girl, hair and shoulder, her face unseen, seems decreasingly human and more graphic, and David's face literally simplifies, the blue of his shirt fragmenting. The disappointment and deflation is palpable.
David plunges into the water. The splash rises in front of the 'echo' panels, both interrupting them and existing separately. Therefore there's a certain sense of division between it and everything that came before. Unlike David's departure from the apartment, the transition is not fully depicted. We don't follow him in the same way. We don't see him leave the girl on a rooftop, leaping away from her... We're given no help with the transition. So, subtly here, there's a change in feeling. I suppose I was trying to communicate the strange detached sensation of walking away from disappointment. One's mind drifts away, one's feet begin to move for lack of any other solution. The last part of the comic exists in this sad, confused mindset. Underwater, David meets a girl in a bookstore; laughs over drinks; kisses in an empty movie theater. It's as real as anything else we've read, but it hovers around David's diving form, his lenses bright, indicating to us vision or consciousness, but isolated and haunted on a face with no other detail. The images which surround those eyes could be only their projection. The rubble of the submerged city -- and the tree which had been so festive at the beginning, now fallen without its star -- speak of ruin and death. Also, the string of lights (or whatever they are) which had been a ring at the top now hang in a thread which seems to drift in the current. Do the scenes of David and the girl exist in the present? Are they a projection of an inevitable future? Are they simply a wish, probabilistically neutral? Or does the desolation surrounding them suggest that the dream is doomed? I hope that all these thoughts can coexist, that the reader can be left with a sense of something unresolved... That sense of no resolution, of hope and fear together, is the subject of the comic.
That's all for my analysis.
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