Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 10 | Steve Bissette

Saga of the Swamp Thing #34 (1985), page 17.  Steve Bissette.

The grid, in one form or another, is such a ubiquity in comics art that it’s hard to think of logic to apply or standard rules to serve as guidelines for breaking out of it.  Even when panels of the strangest shapes are used, even when the lines they follow are counter-intuitive and asymmetrical, the basic look of the comics page is a rectangle filled up with smaller pictures that have been neatly arranged to fit inside it like puzzle pieces.  Pulling the grid off the page is like pulling the cloth off a table — the space is large, and bare, and it can be daunting to figure out how to go about setting it.  The great comics artists have worked in grids, period.  One has to go far afield, typically to the medium’s forgotten psychedelicists, names like Greg Irons or Philippe Druillet or Alex Nino, before encountering comics art that attempts to make grid-less pages work as anything more than cheap novelty.  Without a grid, the artist is truly alone — no automatic compositional axis to base the page around, no storytelling rhythm in place, and few canonical works to draw inspiration from.

Steve Bissette went “off the grid” at an almost feverish rate in his mid-’80s work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing.  Though Moore’s scripts have drawn (at least) hundreds of times as many praise, Bissette’s artwork isn’t just the aspect of the comics that’s aged best — it’s what makes them work at all.  This page is a prime example of why: Moore’s captions are poesy rather than narration, verse and not prose.  They swirl around in blatant disregard of the idea that an artist must put direct action of some sort or other on the page, calling up flashes of color and shadowy half-forms instead.  Gridding a sequence in which “clusters of insect eggs burn like nebulae, suspended in their unique and vine-wrought cosmos,” and things only go on like that too, would border on the ridiculous.  These words are not intended to produce an exact counterpoint in the art.  They’re flights of fancy.  Bissette understands this, and does the same thing: this page is anything but literal, vague in its depiction of both progression through time and movement through space.  Instead, it gives us multiple, somewhat interconnected views into one scene, leaving plenty of space for Moore’s image-rich writing.  Rather than simply act as an echo to the words, Bissette finds their purpose and creates a complementary piece of art.

It’s a fascinating bit of collaboration-in-comics, with neither writer nor artist much bothered with “telling the story”, which is usually held up as the ultimate concern of divided-labor comic books.  Rather than put any specific information across, the aim is to immerse readers in the sensual experience of comics, words and pictures intertwined.  The grid, which divides story into bite-size chunks for readers to consume one by one, disappears, and twisting blacks and radiant color roar off the page to encompass the reader as fully as possible.  Bissette’s composition is designed to be more than readers can take in all at once: you need to live on the page for a few moments to understand its content.  That, of course, is the point.  Rather than seeing a sequence of characters moving and speaking and living — the “illusion of life” summoned up by the grid — readers are forced instead to see the same colors and patterns as the characters themselves to.  To feel the story more deeply.  If “literary comics” don’t necessitate the muralist Bissette approach, one has to wonder if they don’t at least invite it.  When the words strive to move beyond the typical way of comics, maybe the pictures should too.

But for all the artistic experimentation here, Bissette’s page is still a strikingly readable, comprehensible page of comics.  Its flow is absolutely beautiful, zooming out and then back in on a single mutating human figure, tracing a lazy diagonal from top left to bottom right. Beginning to end, without the pattern of doubling back that gridded pages force the eye into.  The top right and bottom left corners, free of readable information, strike up a harmonic motif with one another, lines stretching outward from the shell and the flower before being cut off by the line of the “action”.  These op-art flourishes bind the page with an ‘X’ shape, its axis hovering directly over the center image.  That picture of a girl immersed in a planet is bathed in blacks that draw the eye to it before anything else, the whole page proceeding from it in all directions.  Bissette creates something that has as much of painting’s rhythm and logic as that of gridded comics.  It’s not the typical page’s directionality — but comics are pictures, and don’t always need to be read like books.

What Bissette accomplishes here is what his collaborator Moore is often credited with.  It’s a link between the comics of yesterday and today, a page that takes the amplitude and techniques of Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby’s psychedelic montages as its starting point, while anticipating the free expression of the hardcore, pictorial logic-driven art-comix to come.  It may not look much like “comics” as they’re typically thought of, but it’s a flag planted for the medium in much wilder territory than it usually dares to explore.

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I haven’t read the book, but this sequence has to be the most vivid representation of an orgasm I’ve ever seen in a comic.

It’s always interesting to consider how much Moore puts into the art direction. By the time of this Bissette page, he was already transitioning to incredibly detailed layout descriptions (if David Lloyd is to be believed). But even if it was explicit in the script, who knows how closely Bissette followed it (unless the script is out there?). Regardless, it’s a beautifully designed page from a landmark issue in a landmark series.

I believe the technical term “grid” most often refers to a layout that has at least some orientation in line with an x and y axis set perpendicularly; moreover (more or less) panels that evenly divide the page. So even a Brian Hitch “widescreen” Ultimates page with stacked horizontal panels wouldn’t usually be called a grid. But semantics aside, if we’re talking about layouts without traditional panels filling the page like a jigsaw puzzle, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to consider. Kaluta has always had it in his repetoire. And on the other end of the spectrum, Aragones (including of course all those great Mad Magazine marginalia). Frank Miller goes there throughout Sin City. Amy Reeder uses it repeatedly–and she prompts me to think of two other things: 1) it’s ubiquitious in some manga titles–especially some shojo titles; 2) Matt Wagner has some really memorable pages (although with Matt I think it IS novelty–but what novelty! Check out Batman: Faces with that race track page: both an experimental layout AND a 9-panel grid all in one). Jim Starlin does it–specifically when he wants to convey that something very trippy is happening. And I think that’s a truth: when the story is less narrative and more ethereal or immersive (or even confused), you see more of this type of layout.

So I don’t know how hard you’re making that period. And I would disagree that you have to go all that far afield to find people using similar approaches. But the effect is certainly unique, as you mentioned. And its a very neat and tidy concept: you want restrictive environment, simply remove the borders!

Bissette’s work always astonishes. Look at any of his other books or stories and you’ll see that this is just one example of what he brought to the page. He should be studied more.

@ Brandon my point wasn’t necessarily that you have to go to great lengths to see non-grid comics pages, but that they’re pretty much nonexistent in comics’ canonical texts. Kaluta, Starlin, Amy Reeder — not the first, or even the tenth or twelfth cartoonists most readers are going to encounter. The medium’s essential texts are basically built out of grids (or strips, which are like mini-grids).

“When the words strive to move beyond the typical way of comics, maybe the pictures should too.”

Yeppppppp. It’s weird when one gets ahead of the other. Bissette matches Moore here, so everything comes together nicely. If Bissette DID take a more straight-forward approach, it would either seem like Moore was trying to overwrite, or Bissette just couldn’t keep up; in either situation, the sequence becomes so much less effective.

(I wish I could think of an example of this offhand, but it’s not happening.)

Canonicity is a can of worms! It’s debateable criteria–the most debateable is where you draw the line between who’s in and who’s out. Kaluta and Starlin and Reeder are not the first things you’re “supposed” to read–but I’d say collectively they are more immediate than Druillett and Nino and Irons. Certainly Miller is canon–but is Sin City, or only some of his other stuff? And is your example–Moore’s Swamp Thing–canon? You could argue it, but not with the effectiveness you can argue Watchman. Interestingly, if you take Miller’s most popular work, DKR as well as Watchmen–both are in very different ways very griddy. But Eisner in A Contract With God (and other stuff, of course) does the kind of panel-less, off-grid layouts you’re talking about… and in ways goes a bit further than your current example with how freeform his lettering is–and I think that book safely in most people’s canon. And is CLAMP canon? Maybe their work isn’t the first ten things you read–but you can make the argument to include them in a broad canon without being cruxified. But for what it’s worth CLAMP most frequently employes these kinds of layouts in Clover–and that’s one of their least read books. And of couse, there’s the very panel-breaking and layout-pushing Asterios Polyp–it’s not top ten, but it’s hard to find a book in the last few years with more marks on the canonicity checklist. …It’s an interesting line of thought, thanks as always for starting it.

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