Form Is Function: Suffering from Decompression Slickness?
There just aren't any rules for creating comics. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don't, and you can figure out principles to guide you in the use of these things, but there's never any rule that always works.
"Decompression" is a term used to describe the American comics that have been influenced by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch's Authority comics. "Decompressed storytelling" refers to comics that slow down the action so that what had taken a panel or two now took several pages. Ellis and Hitch didn't invent the idea, but The Authority made it very popular in American comics. It's heavily influenced by Japanese comics, especially the stuff that was first popular in American comic book stores; stuff like Akira and Lone Wolf and Cub.
Decompression started making its way into mainstream American comics, then became a buzzword a couple of years ago, then became sort of controversial because some people think it's just padding for stories that don't have enough "meat" to them.
Really, it's all about density of information. For the sake of this examination, I'm going to consider two types of information density: story and visual. Some comics have a very high amount of story information on every page, some have a relatively low amount. There isn't one right way to do it, what matters is what's right for the comic.
A four-panel gag comic strip has to have a pretty high story density. Every panel has to be performing a very specific storytelling task – introducing a concept, setting up a joke, delivering a punchline, whatever. A 500-page graphic novel doesn't have to be as packed. It can be, but that depends on the story that's being told.
Most of the writers and artists who use decompression techniques well are trying to control the pace of the story. So let's look at what's become something of a cliché of decompressed storytelling: a 2-page spread of a cityscape. A recognizable cityscape, like New York.
When you get a 2-page spread of an intricately rendered city, it's meant to add a beat to the story, not supply story-information. Even if the page is a perfectly realized map of New York, unless somehow the rest of the story requires you to have memorized the locations of key landmarks, the story-information value of this spread is almost nothing; absolutely nothing that couldn't be replaced by a caption ("New York") on the first panel of the following page.
But those two pages could be well-spent if you're going from, say, an intense scene of confrontation to a scene of domestic calm. That beat of: intense scene/page turn/zero story information/page turn/calm scene can have an important effect, breaking the two scenes into two very discrete sections.
It's no accident that the best practitioners – in terms of drawing – of decompressed storytelling are highly detailed, fairly realistic artists. The reason for this is that they have a high level of density of visual information in every panel. When this sort of decompression works, it works in the juxtaposition of story and visual information densities.
Comic book artist Frank Miller has commented that one of the biggest tricks in comics is slowing the reader down, and the best way to do that is to introduce visual elements to hold the reader's attention on a panel, or a page, for a moment longer. Not necessarily something that's integral to the story, but something that helps the telling of the story.
The "highly detailed, fairly realistic artists" that are usually associated with decompressed storytelling make comics that are full of those elements.
Some artists—usually indy comics artists or comic strip artists, in the American and European comics industries (a lot of Manga artists fall into this camp—more than you'll find in "mainstream" American comics, certainly)—have a very low visual density of information. Artists like Charles Schulz or Tom Hart or Bill Watterson—as diverse as they are—draw in each panel the minimum amount of information necessary to tell the story. All three take great pains to avoid having unnecessary information distract from the story.
For many, this is the epitome of comics creation. I can easily see why. This style of comics holds the story to be of primary importance, and reduces the visuals down to only what is necessary to tell that story. Which is an extremely difficult thing to do, artistically.
But decompression techniques, when used properly, rely on an artist that does the opposite—one that fills every panel with all sorts of information that isn't necessary to tell the story. It relies on a different kind of writing to keep the story in the conceptual foreground. It requires a writing that uses this would-be extraneous visual information to control the pacing.
If Tom Hart (who's one of my favorite comics artists, don't get me wrong) were to draw the above-described 2-page spread of New York, he'd draw it in a way that was visually highly economical. You'd get that it was New York, and virtually nothing else. This works perfectly for his comics, but for the decompressed purposes outlined above, his style wouldn't work. You'd have a 2-page spread with nearly zero story and visual information densities.
This sort of decompression technique works best when the amount of story density is at odds with the amount of visual density. Hart generates a rhythm with his low visual density panels. This rhythm would be wrecked if there was a panel that made the reader sit and linger over the quality of the artwork.
But decompressed storytelling relies on this. It doesn't matter if the reader spends five seconds or five minutes looking at the 2-page spread of New York. It's a deliberate break in story rhythm. It's a different way of telling a story than the style of artists like Hart.
It's another principle that comics creators can look at. It's something that can sometimes work. It's another tool to place on our workbench without rules.