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The Wrong Place (2010), page 72. Brecht Evens.
The printed comics page is rarely allowed to exist as a whole. In comics as they’re traditionally done, the page is basically a vehicle for strings of panels, connected to one another by narrative and the flow of action but usually nothing more. Panels are typically conceived as isolated moments, with poses and camera angles and color schemes unique unto themselves. When one follows the next it almost always tracks the same dialogue streams, the same characters, the same forward thrust of time; but rarely if ever does it expand on the actual space set out in the box before it. Comics cut and cut and cut again, like a film helmed by a hyperactive editor. This is most often a searching medium, forever sliding into new angles and new compositions, looking for a newer and more immediate way into the spaces being set out by the story.
But the page itself is a space too — a single, uninterrupted space, one surface, even when it’s been sectioned up by gutter lines. The artists of comics worth paying attention to are usually aware of this to some extent or another, composing passages of panel-to-panel cutting that also work as a single visual unit, treating the page as a venue for both incremental storytelling and immediate fine art. There’s something to be said for pages that can be taken in all at once, that pull all the space the surface has to give into the accomplishment of a single visual effect.
What’s so wonderful about this Brecht Evens page is the way it joins the two approaches — single-composition and panel-by-panel, incremental and immediate — into a perfectly unified whole. Evens has an instinctive understanding of something many cartoonists never comprehend: the page, no matter how many panels it’s made to hold, is one picture. And so there is only one picture drawn on it here, a vast and multi-tiered environment for the characters’ actions to play out on. (Of course, that last half-sentence of description could be applied to “the page” as an abstract idea too. There are no potentials of more traditional page composition that Evens’ painterly “single canvas” approach blocks off.) However, this particular full-page drawing is divided up by thick, loud gutter spaces whose pure white pops out at the eyes before the fact that this is a single picture does. There’s nothing jarring here, nothing to immediately interrupt the familiar mode of comics reading.
The reader’s journey through this page, then, becomes a gradual process of discovery, an environmental exploration that parallels the path its subject takes through it. And though on the first look there’s nothing here that differs from the same six-panel grid that every comics reader’s seen countless times before, following that path draws the eye into a different pattern than just about any other comic requires. It’s so easy to follow the light, bright shape of the girl in the red dress against the dark-blurry background that one might not even notice this page reads in an uninterrupted stream, an “S” shape that avoids the visual interrupts imposed by back-and-forth, tier-to-tier page compositions. She moves down the page, and so do we. The reason such an unconventional layout works so smoothly here is Evens’ use of a single background: the dislocation it might cause otherwise is neatly avoided by placing everything in a continuous single space, a larger meta-panel that guarantees a slickness to the motion of the subdivided boxes within it.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the way Evens uses his layout to develop character. The very fact of our eyes’ tracking with the girl, moving through the same space she moves through at the same pace in the same direction, creates an automatic empathy. We understand this environment at the same rate as her, along with her. And by reducing the mass of other human forms on the page to ghostly silhouettes, Evens ensures that she is the one holding our attention, that the others are as inaccessible and mysterious to us as they are to her. The uncertainty in her body language, tightening up right before the slide from panel two into what would usually be panel four but here acts as panel three, is a perfect mirror to the eye’s slight unwillingness to give itself to the strange new path that’s been laid out for it. But she goes, and so do we. It’s a beautiful bit of comics, no doubt, but its beauty is just the first of the many tools being used here to pull readers in.