Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 32 | Frank King

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.

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4 Comments

This is a fine article, but I disagree about certain things:

“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. ”

Single panels can and do show time and multiple actions. That’s what motion lines were invented for. Admittedly, they’re seldom used these days, replaced by decompressed panel sequences that take several pages to shows what decades ago took only a handful of panels to show; the hegemony of decompression, however, for me is evidence that writers and pencillers no longer know the rudimentary tools of the medium they work in.

Secondly, although I admire King’s innovation here, this is not a very easy to follow sequence, is it? On the third panel, they’re at the right edge of the rooftop, then on the fourth it seems like they’re climbing down; but on the fifth they’re back on the rooftop. Then on the seventh panel Clarence is chasing them around the house, but on the ninth he’s already in front of them. And on the eight they’re stepping out of the window, in the middle of the page, but on the tenth Clarence is already on top of the other boy, on the left side.

I’m sorry, but this page is confusing as hell. There’s no flow. There are huge jumps in time and space from panel to panel for it to read easily. It’s, however, a fine first attempt, and I’m glad others have improved the reading clarity of this type of sequence. Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz did it in Big Numbers #2:

http://scans-daily.dreamwidth.org/3438420.html

I think this one flows a lot better.

That’s why I added in that “we can quibble about…” qualifier — yeah, somebody like Frank Quitely can get like five seconds of time into a panel, and Carmine Infantino can communicate up to maybe fifty feet of motion in one. But we don’t read those things as “time passing”, we read them as motion against a basically static temporal background. To really get the sense of “this is happening later than that” we need a transition from one panrl to the next.

I thought this page read pretty smoothly, but that’s a subjective evaluation, of course. King did some other pages like this that read more typically up-down, left-right: http://theperiodicfable.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/gasoline-alley-1.jpg

Wow! Great page of comics! Great article, Matt! Great response, Miguel!

Everybody did good here.

I must admit, some of the above panels were jarringly out of sequence in placement of the characters — like time had gone backwards. Or like they were flashbacks. But I gotta love the attempt.

Many of today’s “top” superhero artists don’t even know how to lead the eye from one panel to the next on a normal comics page.

Thanks for the kind words, Jake.

I was re-reading Promethea recently, and I’m amazed at the storytelling in it. Moore, Williams III and Todd Klein managed to drive the reader’s eyes all over the page, from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, zigzaging all over it, and it always made sense. Williams would place the characters in a way that made the reader look at a certain direction, and often Klein’s placement of the thought balloons aided the storytelling too.

Modern artists should study this series; it should be their bible.

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