Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
City-Hunter Magazine #1 (2009), page 4 panels 1-3. CF.
It’s easy to overlook just how incredible a thing sequence in comics can be. It’s the language the form uses to construct itself, so of course it’s going to gain some transparency for the average reader, become as silent and reliable and forgotten as the shapes of the individual letters that make up this article. Sequence is the most essential element of comics, and as such it’s taken for granted by many who engage the form.
But sequence is magic. To me the most mind blowing, amazing aspect of the comics form is how it can juxtapose multiple images that have absolutely no continuity, no relationship between themselves, and still force readers to see them as connected, inextricable, bound up in one whole. That might sound obvious or silly when they’re sitting right next to one another — comics panels do share the context of the pages they’re printed on, the books they reside in — but the same can be said for a Rembrandt hanging next to a Girodet in an art museum. That shared context is a mysterious and powerful thing. I’m not sure anybody can explain why it works, why we instinctively understand disconnected single-panel images as contributing parts of a whole. It just does. We just do.
That inherent ability to make completely separated parts interact and speak to one another gives comics an interesting potential for abstraction and poesy that isn’t really available in any other medium. It isn’t something that’s explored all too often — mostly when two disconnected panels appear in sequence, a third will come along at some point and square the circle by placing them in a larger scene together, giving them a shared pictorial context. And that’s fine, that works for telling stories and choreographing scenes and plenty of the other things comics do. This sequence from CF’s xeroxed City-Hunter zine, though, is cool because that doesn’t happen. Image leads to image more intuitively, the substance of the pictures themselves, not the content, suggesting the form the next one takes.
We start with a complex, depictive panel. Luminous, flashing bubble letters beam out at us, communicating brute-simple linguistic ideas as a high-tech, futuristic car zooms by, drawn with a bewitchingly decorative simplicity, lines full of flow and grace. It’s the basic elements of comics — words and pictures — set free on the page, without story, without previously established context, not telling the reader anything discernible. Just existing.
The page’s mode of operation is made clear in the second panel. Comics necessarily track the progression of images, but this page’s progress isn’t a forward motion. That car isn’t going anywhere. What’s going on instead is a refinement, a paring down of the images in the first panel to their essence. Despite the fact that the words in the first panel arch and loop over the page rather than running straight across it, that’s the motion our eyes move in to read them because of our familiarity with straight-set text. The straight-across, line-above-line experience of reading words is what gets transmuted into the top half of the second panel, thick black squeegees of horizontal pencil markings that work like text without meaning, pulling the eye across and then dumping it onto the next one down below. The black-to-white rhythm of the lines mirrors the black and white words in the panel above them. The picture of the car is similarly pared down, the same parallel lines and diagonal orientation that took up the bottom half of the first panel taking up the bottom half of the second as well, this time without communicating any figurative meaning. There is just as tangible a progression between these two panels as there is in any more straightforward sequence you care to name. But rather than tracking concrete, fixed-form subjects through space, CF goes to work on evolving the subjects themselves, creating motion by changing the very substance of his forms.
The progression reaches its terminus in the final panel, where everything is stripped down to the absolute barest it can get. The third frame departs from the second just as the second departed from the first: the evolution is no longer working on a car and some letters, but four thick black lines and the spiky abstract shapes below them. The thick lines are reoriented to form panel borders. The lines that form the strange shapes are stretched into regular parallels, echoing the organization of the thicker lines above, but also calling back to their previous form with their diagonal lean and their thin, clean quality. This third panel is stripped of the first’s depictive content and even of the second’s pictorial conflict, every element pared down until it simply sits there as a solid unit. CF uses comics to transform something into nothing, pulling total harmony from dissonance and abrasion, showing us each step along the way. Oftentimes sequence creates wonders. Here it makes something disappear. Like I said, this stuff is magic.