Skip to main content

Panels & Pictures: Ordering Strips

How can we order comics besides the traditional plot (where cause and effect lead to a conclusion)? Derik Badman looks a few examples from comic strips (web and print).

I've been thinking about comics and narrative ordering, and I'd like to offer some preliminary thoughts on the matter here. By narrative ordering I mean in what way narratives are organized. Conventionally and most commonly we have plot, where cause and effect lead us to some conclusion. Less conventionally there are numerous other ways to organize a narrative, such as repetition/variation, collage, chance, rhetorically (to make an argument), or through some kind of pre-established pattern or system. These types of ordering are not mutually exclusive: a narrative could have a conventional plot that is also based around the cards in a tarot deck or the throw of a die (for more examples see my blog post about it).

Most graphic novels or comic books have fairly conventional plot-based ordering (there is little in the form of comics to compare with the experimental literature of modernism and postmodernism). On the other hand, comic strips (of the paper or digital kind) offer an interesting case of narrative ordering. Unlike a novel, film, or even graphic novel, a comic strip offers distinct levels of narrative ordering: the individual strip and the series. While in some comic strips these levels are organized homogeneously (that is, all are organized in the same way, i.e. plot), in others these levels are organized in different (multiple) ways.

In the classic adventure strip (Steve Canyon, Little Orphan Annie) or some contemporary serialized webcomics (Scary Go Round) the panels, strips, and the series are consistently plot based, the events in one strip lead to the next in an ongoing chain of cause and effect. The focus is distinctly on plot, suspense, and maintaining the reader's interest in "what happens next," yet, unlike a conventional plot, these types of stories offer no distinct end or, at least, delay it indefinitely (some of these strips still continue from decades ago). Episodic endings, where a grouping of strips form one storyline with its own mini-conclusioning, are frequent in these types of strips, but the ending of one is always the beginning of another. This unending narrative is not unique to comics, but it is probably under considered. When we read these strips, each individual strip is directly linked to the next and rarely considered as an individuated unit. People don't clip out one Little Orphan Annie strip, they are each part of the group, and rely on the preceding and following strips for context. In this type of narrative the individual strip seems less important than the whole--it is subsumed by the relentless forward narrative.

Little Orphan Annie also offers an example of the rhetorical type of ordering a narrative. In this case Harold Gray often organized his episodes in a way to make an argument (in his case often a kind of self-reliant conservativism), which isn't to say he didn't use a conventional plot. Rather, the cause-effect ordering of the plot is often adjusted to the needs of the greater socio-political point.

In other genres of strips like Peanuts or Hutch Owen (and probably many of your favorite webcomic strips) the narrative ordering of the strip is in contrast to that of the series. An individual Peanuts strip is plot-based, often in the form of a joke--for what is a joke but a sequence of cause and effect leading to an end, but if you look at the strips in the aggregate, there is little in the way of plot connecting one to the next. Instead we see repetitions, variations, thematic groupings. Only rarely does one strip follow from the preceding in a plot-based sense. All the classic Peanuts moments (losing the ballgame, kites in trees, blanket stealing) are repeated in endless slight variations. On a weekly level, the strips are often based upon a repeated theme, object, or situation like a week of strips about Linus' "blanket-hating grandmother" visiting or the first day of school. Few of these are specifically plot-based--cause and effect are absent between the strips as is any resolution (and thus the endless repetition), but occasionally there is a plot-based episode (in the most recent Fantagraphics reprint volume there is a story about Charlie Brown getting "little leaguer's elbow" that is surprisingly self-contained and plot-based for Peanuts).

Similarly Tom Hart's Hutch Owen strips are plot based as individuals, usually in the form of a joke. While his earlier strips were ongoing plot-based narratives, his more recent strips are arranged in thematic/situational groupings that are not directly linked by causation (currently there is an ongoing riff on Hutch's "radioactive spider"). These strips are easier to read at the strip level as individuals. You can isolate one strip and read it. The units are individuated by the less directly plot-based ordering from one to the next.

Another ordering that one sees in comic strips is that based on the calendar (one form of the "pre-established system" ordering). Events follow each other on a rigorous day-to-day basis not with cause and effect but through the simple passing of time. At the highest degree this would be the daily diary strip (American Elf). At lower degrees there are the seasonal/holiday shifts in Peanuts. While many comic strips (online and off) are published daily, they are not necessarily ordered in such a way, narratively. Again, these types of strips are easy to see as individuals because their ordering does not stress the connection form one strip to the next. Adventure or soap strips from the classic newspaper style (Terry and the Pirates, On Stage) or webcomics (like Scary Go Round) appear daily, but in contrast to these calendar-based strips the narratives maintain a plot-based cause/effect ordering.

Gasoline Alley could well be the ultimate combination of the plot and calendar based ordering. The strips tick off the accumulation of days, months, years, decades in a way that is possibly unique in a fictive narrative in showing the passing of time, yet there is also a predominance of plot, cause-effect ordering, in a way that something like a diary strip cannot maintain.

To briefly proselytize for myself, my comics Things Change shows another example of narrative ordering, that based on another work. The stories and their order in the larger narrative are based upon the Metamorphoses of Ovid in various ways. This dictates what story occurs next and some of what occurs in each story.

I should note that certain comic strips (like Perry Bible Followship) which are offered more as an umbrella title for individual strips cannot easily be considered as a single narrative. Without a clear repetition of characters, plot, events, or setting, there is little holding one strip to the next in anyway beyond the simple organization of title/author/publication.

I realize this little more than a listing, but I hope it at least provides some opening for thought about narrative ordering. There is much room in comics for experimenting with alternative narrative orderings, but little that is done beyond the types I list above. The unique form of serialized comic strips allows for numerous possibilities for rethinking how the panels, strips, and series are ordered by taking advantage of the individual in contrast to the whole.

(Note: All the print strips I mention are either currently or soon to be available in reprinted volumes: Peanuts from Fantagraphics, Terry and the Pirates and Little Orphan Annie forthcoming from IDW, Gasoline Alley from Drawn & Quarterly, On Stage from Classic Comics Press, and Steve Canyon from Checker.)

Re: Panels & Pictures: Ordering Strips

Every example you've listed is based on a pattern of narrative order (cause leads to effect), however considering narrative layering (where each panel on each page adds to the level of knowledge being unearthed about the characters) communicates story to the reader, that can then be read both left to right, north to south, and visa versa.