It’s All In The Timing

Back in my first column, I asked people for suggestions of resources to help me understand literary criticism as it relates to comics. My first commenter, Derik A. Badman (aka derikb), pointed me toward a couple of texts in French as well as R. C. Harvey’s The Art of the Funnies and The Art of the Comic Book.

I can’t read French, but I did meet R. C. Harvey at ComicCon in 2004 (a guy pointed me at a guy who pointed me to R. C. for a history question I had). Since I found Harvey intelligent and informed, I jumped on the idea of reading his books and ordered both of them.

And now, between the other comments in the first column, discussions with various folks, and reading bits of Harvey’s books, I understand that I pointed myself in sort of the wrong direction. I should be looking at comics criticism instead of (or perhaps in addition to) literary criticism, a point Harvey addresses in the beginning of The Art of the Comic Book on page 3:

Because comics are narratives, many critics and students of the medium treat comics at they do another storytelling medium, literary fiction. The emerging critical canon is consequently laced with discussions of plot, character development, theme, and all the rest of the apparatus of literary criticism. But this approach ignores the narrative function of the pictures in comics. In the best examples of the art of the comics, the pictures do not merely depict characters and events in a story: the pictures also add meaning – significance – to a story. The pictures are thus as much a part of a story as the plot line. No serious consideration of the art of the comics can overlook the narrative function of pictures. At the same time, other critics are tempted to treat the comics as they would film. Recognizing the narrative role of the pictures, they discuss achievements of the medium by using the language of film criticism.

Harvey argues that both approaches have their value, including useful terms for discussion, but that:

neither can wholly embrace the unique aspects of comics’ static blending of word and picture for narrative purposes. For that, we need a vocabulary and a critical perspective forged expressly in the image of the form.

In other words, comics criticism.

Of course, this seems obvious. I want to learn about the criticism of webcomics, so I should investigate comics criticism. Duh. I guess I didn’t realize that comics criticism even existed, with its own terms and everything, in the way literary criticism exists. I just thought everyone was applying literary criticism to comics. It’s utterly, utterly obvious and I feel like an idiot for not framing my approach this way. But as I said back in the first column, I expected a lot of cringing. Here is my first big cringe. Ouch.

Now the tricky part is, of course, FINDING comics criticism. I mean, there seems to be quite a bit of it out there, but very little that explains things. Even a list of terms would be fabulous. But despite the fact that comics are only a little younger than mystery novels, there aren’t quite so many works of analysis dedicated to comics as mysteries. The vast majority of the books I’ve found are history-oriented. Magazines seem to assume you have a certain amount of inherent knowledge of the field.

But I don’t want to retread the same complaints I had when I started this column. Instead, I’d like to move forward and start discussing a uniquely comics-oriented concept that Harvey addresses: timing.

Per Harvey, to "time" a comic is to control the unfurling of the story, panel by panel, to set up the joke and punch line or the conflict and dramatic revelation. For instance, in this page of Questionable Content, two characters are having a conversation. The conversation could take place anywhere and, despite the fact that it took a long time for Jacques to create the interior of an airport for his backgrounds, this whole scene could have been rendered in text without any loss of information. Both characters have neutral-to-pleasant expressions through the whole thing except for one moment when Amanda frowns, but since it’s accompanied by the phrase "Augh, it SUCKS" the unhappiness was clear. But what the panel by panel presentation gives us is the gradual release of information, culminating in an amusing punch line.

In a similar page of The Wandering Ones, each dialogue balloon is accompanied by a close-up of the speaker’s face. This is a neat way to pack a non-action scene with more information on the speakers, but keep it from being too overloaded with text. The last panel is a visual punch line, so this example has a tighter bond between words and text. While the text all makes sense without the images, the images enliven the text and provide the twist at the end.

Timing also allows us to enjoy what I like to call "the pause that refreshes,"* when the character or characters take a moment to contemplate an idea, as Monique does in this Sinfest strip. After the pause (a panel with no thought or speech), the punch line is delivered to well-timed comic effect. That moment of reflection, where the character wonders whether he or she might have to take personal responsibility, followed by an amusing deflection of that possibility, is really funny. It is extremely difficult to convey that type of pause in text alone and still have it be funny.

Another similar type of pause (again, a panel with no thought or speech) is the one in which something wished for or unexpected happens, as it does in this College Roomies From Hell!!! strip when Dave’s cat appears at the least expected moment. With this type of pause, the visual element is married tightly to the text. The only way to make sense of the images or of the text is to view them together.

Thus we have the first real element in my vocabulary of comics criticism: timing. We see how timing works in webcomics where the visuals are unnecessary, in webcomics where the visuals and text are loosely bound, and where they are both required for a complete understanding of the work. Pretty cool, eh?


*One of Coca-Cola’s slogans back in 1929. So? I’m a nerd.


Note: I’m still looking for terms or references. Feel free to suggest or link to stuff you think I’d find useful with regard to comics criticism. Thanks.

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