Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 18 | Dave Gibbons

Watchmen #7 (1986), page 16.  Dave Gibbons.

Dream sequences are always a lot of fun.  The comics medium nails dream states on a regular basis better than any other medium, in my opinion.  Something about it is perfectly pitched to depicting that particular mental activity.  Maybe it’s because we dream “in comics” a lot of the time — science tells us that the amount of actual moving images we see in dreams is relatively small compared to the number of still images that flash one after another through our minds, linked into continuity by the imagination.  The narratives we create while dreaming exercise the same thought processes we use to read comics, so perhaps it’s no wonder that seeing dreams drawn into comics form feels so right, so familiar.

Dream comics so often means formalist comics — the call to produce a convincingly different state of consciousness gets inside the layouts at least as often as the boxes themselves, the actual mode of working altered to reflect it.  The dream sequence is a chance to push boundaries and try things, to cut loose or bring a little something extra.   The Dave Gibbons page above is one of the all-time great dream scenes, up there with Jim Steranko’s psychedelic muraling in Captain America and Winsor McCay’s all-time champion fantasies on Little Nemo.

Here, as always in Watchmen, Gibbons stays within a variation on the nine-panel grid, bisecting the panels vertically to create a hypnotic strobe effect.  The fact that Gibbons is able to compose seventeen effective pictures in such a tall, thin panel space is impressive in and of itself, but equally special is the way he links them up, creating a definite sense of continuous motion that never quite stays on the same angle for long enough to reach the level of figure animation.  It’s a whirl, disorienting but magnetic, easy to experience but tough to grasp the component parts of all at once.  Just as it is when we sleep.

In fact, this page displays a downright astonishing fidelity to the look and temper of dream states.  The thin panels allow Gibbons to pack a massive amount of information into a single page, forcing the reader to slow down on the way through it, following the same gradual, inevitable path all dream narratives seem to take, the simple power of the individual panel compositions never allowing the eye to turn away.  More than that, their elimination of peripheral vision creates a similar “tunnel vision” to what we experience in dreams, focusing the reader in on the figures like a laser beam, because for the moment literally nothing else exists.  And the surreal, haunting beauty of the subject matter gives the panel play a powerful counterpoint — never have pictures of people ripping each other’s skin off carried such an air of serenity, such a strange quietness of effect.  These images, like all the most vivid pictures glimpsed in dreams, play with the archetypal.  Nude human figures, domino masks, skeletons, a mushroom cloud: these are universal symbols, ones that mean something to everyone.  Even Gibbons’ barren landscape (colored in the perfect shade of placid green by John Higgins) is open for interpretation, the bare bones of an environment, no more specific than it absolutely has to be.

Such a dense, thickly paneled page also just about begs for examination on a macro level: the individual tiers of panels are vastly impressive in and of themselves, dense enough for Gibbons to build up rhythms and harmonies within them.  Look at the bilateral symmetry of the middle tier, with matching compositions on the outer edges and second panels in resolving in a dissonant note, or the way the zoom out on the figure’s approach in panels two through four creates the effect of running in place, or the V shape created in panels eight through ten, pointing directly at the explosion in panel fifteen.  The real showpiece is the bottom tier, however, with Higgins choreographing a devastating fade from the red of the dream back into the blue of real life (underlined by a return to a nine-grid panel size).  Notice the way the TV screen hangs a halo of the explosion’s white around the head in that final panel: his body’s awake, but his mind is still back there.  The amount of nuance brought bear on to this page is staggering.  It’s an entry in a particularly interesting corner of comics art that deserves every bit of its legendary status.

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I love the information that a comic is like dreaming. I dream every night, and remember them. My father does not ever remember any dreams, says he doesn’t do it.
Wondering if comics fans have more dreams and better retention than non dreamers who may not find comics as interesting.

Excellent, simple thesis re: comics mimicking dream forms. They’ve got it ALL OVER film in that department.

That death herald with the pointing finger (sorry if that’s a known Marvel U character) at the top left corner of the Steranko Cap. America–does that remind you a ton of the man on the beach pointing his finger in the video from the film Ringu?

Oh, and by the way, never do a Google image search for Ringu

I generally dislike dream sequences so much, that I’m always eager to hear someone’s championing of them. This is a good start for me. I find dreams in fiction to be window dressing, lazy devices to reveal story points, or excuses for a cartoonist (or director or writer) to show off with no real thrust toward a conclusion. Not that every single piece of a whole has to move the story along, but dream sequences never do it for me. They’re formalist exercises like you suggested and the better ones (such as this example) deserve closer examination, for sure.

This is not to say I don’t like dreamlike things: I’m with you on McKay and Steranko, Woodring’s entire backlog, Clowes’ pre-David Boring short stories, and Rogan Gosh. Shit, I supposed I can say the same thing for hallucinations. For some reason, I like those.

In college, my creative writing professor borrowed my copy of Watchmen because he’d heard good things. This is the only bit he liked.

@Fiffe Kevin H does some pretty good ones too, so does Frank King. I feel like it’s often been an excuse for artists who were bound in by really specific formats or genres to loosen up and draw whatever they felt like drawing for a page or two. McCay’s whole career is basically just the best draftsman ever drawing whatever the hell he wants and using dream states as an excuse to do it: Skyscrapers! Next week, elephants! Next week, Santa Claus! That looseness works in direct proportion to the talent of the artist taking advantage of it, but there’s plenty to value there, I think.

“Dream sequences are always a lot of fun. The comics medium nails dream states on a regular basis better than any other medium, in my opinion.”

David Lynch deserves some credit, though. There’s just something about a surrealist Lynch sequence that is entirely dream-like…. in that dreams are skewed representations of something we might see in waking life but with a sense of uncertainty. Like dreams, the strange elements that pop up in a Lynch sequence feel like they’re loaded with symbolic meaning and relevance but you can’t quite put your finger on it. The pacing and sequencing of events is necessarily off-kilter and there’s an underlying current of dread and fascination.

Great article all around. Both Moore and Gibbons deserve their praise for being masterful comic book architects. Even people who dislike WATCHMEN for its thematic content (read: Grant Morrison, among others) have to admit that WATCHMEN is one of the most exquisitely constructed and engineered comics of all time. It’s hard to imagine how one could possibly pull off such a feat… every beat is perfect and there’s nothing sloppy, no mess or wasted panels. Pretty impressive.

“In college, my creative writing professor borrowed my copy of Watchmen because he’d heard good things. This is the only bit he liked.”

In fairness to the rest of WATCHMEN, though, academics are dicks because it’s basically their job description and life destiny.

“In fairness to the rest of WATCHMEN, though, academics are dicks because it’s basically their job description and life destiny.”

This is where I’d scribble in the margins of the paper that you should avoid sweeping generalizations.

Yeah, but you can’t because I’m not in school and therefore allowed to think and say and do whatever I want, including things that are true and don’t fit into your agenda.

Whether or not you’re in school, your writing will be taken more seriously by your audience if you avoid hyperbole and logical fallacies.

Personally, I’m curious how you’ll demonstrate that there are zero non-dick academics. That sounds like a massive undertaking. I look forward to seeing your results.

“science tells us that the amount of actual moving images we see in dreams is relatively small compared to the number of still images that flash one after another through our minds, linked into continuity by the imagination”

Where can I find info regarding this? sounds fascinating…

I wonder if the amount of exposition to, or investment you have in a particular media affect the way you dream. It hasn’t happened in years, but back when I was studying film, I would often remember the “camera movements” in my dreams.

BTW, speaking of dreamlike comics, have you checked out the just released Forgotten Fantasy, from Sunday Press? What a treasure trove of masterful indulgence! I

In dreams and comics you simply must mention Rick Veitch.
Great stuff!

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