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Gasoline Alley Sunday page (1934). Frank King.
Even when cartoonists working in the comic book format caught on to the fact that it was possible to design sequential pages that also worked as unified visual statements, it never quite worked the same as the Sunday strip. The context of the single-page broadsheet comic is something that the form lacked for years post-1950 or so, and has only recently begun to make a return. To really understand Sunday pages it’s necessary to think about how they were originally presented, not how we see them today.
For the better part of the medium’s first half-century, its territory was the funny pages, not the pamphlet and certainly not the book. The comics sections of yesteryear provided artists with a presentational challenge that the comic book format avoids: when each page of the work’s delivery system is drawn in a completely different style on a completely different subject by a completely different artist, that work lacks a pre-existing context. It’s forced, essentially, to create its own. To my mind, the emphasis the comics section put on creating a fully-rounded aesthetic statement in one page is at least as responsible for the staggering weight of brilliance the Sunday page format produced as a more frequently discussed property — page size — is. When the turn of each page doesn’t add to the experience of a single work of art but actively works against it, the one-page spotlight an artist is given becomes an urgent call for something fully formed, a single page that stands alone. Like the one above.
Gasoline Alley’s Sunday pages were always special, even when viewed in the context of Frank King’s total body of work. King was something almost entirely unique in comics history — both a great domesticist and a great experimenter (Kevin Huizenga and Will Eisner share the honor). While his daily strips occasionally contain flurries of formal boldness, they’re story first for fifty years solid, always placing characters and narrative above more technical concerns. It was on the vast playing field provided by the Sunday broadsheet that King challenged formal boundaries, or created new ones. The page above is an example of what is probably King’s most prominent innovation, a trope taken up by everyone from Chris Ware to Marcos Martin to Brecht Evens: the gridded single canvas, which bends the practice of sequencing as close to that of picture-making as possible.
King panoramic pages are still unsurpassed as solutions to comics’ fundamental problem of accurately depicting time and space. In comics, sequence is time: one can quibble about how much time passes within the panel borders of a single image, but single frames are basically still, animated only by the context the images flanking them provide. But in the vast majority of comics, sequence leads to a total or near-total spatial dislocation. As characters movements in space are tracked in sequence, their surroundings become completely different from panel to panel. Movement is comics is most often accomplished by a flickering through different backgrounds, ones we understand to have some connection to one another, but can’t actually piece together.
A considered establishing shot can help with this problem, but not eradicate it. That takes a much more elegant solution, like the one King creates here. By staging his action with small figures against a single, massive background, King manages to represent his setting as both a series of smaller, localized spaces and one larger one. We always know exactly where the characters are, both in relation to their surroundings and to where they were last panel and the one before that — that is, both in space and in time. King even inserts a clever bit of dialogue in the first panel to clarify the three minutes elapsed between the only two panels that aren’t sequenced in moment-to-moment storytelling.
The layout is more than dry formalism, though. By depicting one single space, King can emphasize his characters’ willy-nilly movement through it — up ladders, through windows, dangling off the edges of roofs, even defying the left-to-right action of the typical comic in the transition between tiers two and three. The flow of this page is astounding: the unified background allows the page to completely avoid the disconnections between single images that most comics carry. Though the choreography is no more precisely tracked than plenty of other comics, King’s page mimics the action of animation, allowing us to fill in the gaps between the drawings with perfect accuracy.
But beyond all that, this page is in many ways a perfect definition of what King was all about as an artist, a whimsical, gorgeously drawn piece of experimental comics that reads as smooth as butter. It’s an aesthetic statement about comics that contains all the warmth of King’s work in one twelve-panel message: the comic is literally a house for its characters to live in.