Wednesday, 19 January 2011

On wordiness and time in Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead I'm transitioning from teaching film to comics in my unfortunately named "Slow Horror" course tomorrow and so I'm preparing to introduce my students to comic conventions using Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. Kirkman's wordiness works to my advantage, as with duo-specific word-picture relations: Kirkman didn't need to inform the reader that Glenn returned with toilet paper because the paper is clearly visible. Because the characters are constantly carrying on, examples of them pointing out the obvious abound. The same applies for interdependent word-picture relations: Notice the difference between the examples McCloud used at the link and Kirkman and penciller Tony Moore's panel? The examples use textual elements in a variety ways—be it thought balloons or captioned narration—but the Kirkman and Moore panel only uses them as a means for delivering direct dialogue. It wasn't until I wrote the previous sentence that I realized the same might be true for the entire run of The Walking Dead. After I flipped through the first few issues to confirm my suspicions, I thought about why he might have chosen to eschew one of the formal properties of comic grammar that differentiates it from televisual media: natural interiority. Unlike first-person voice overs in television and film, thought balloons and captions provide a window into the mind of character without calling attention to themselves as narrative devices. In other words, there is nothing special about the audience's access to the mind of the characters because such access is a feature of the medium so ingrained as to be beneath notice. A comic book in which such access is never granted creates characters whose motivations seem cryptic despite the fact that such access is almost never granted on television or in film. To be uncharitable: Kirkman is writing a television show that happens to be in a comic book and the fact that it was adapted is a function of its easy adaptability. But to say that would be to miss the point, which is that the ease with which it could be adapted obscures what has been lost in the translation to the small screen: because interior access is only very rarely granted, whatever is gained by withholding it in the book is lost in the transition to the screen. The characters will no longer be ciphers whose thoughts must be inferred from their words and actions: they will merely be characters on a television show. The implications for the television show are obvious: recreating the suspicious atmosphere of the comic must be done by other means ... which I will discuss when I teach the show next week. Returning to the panel above: the wordiness of that specific panel and the book generally creates some interesting formal difficulties, the most interesting of which relates to the disconnect between the single expression on his face and the time it would have taken him to speak all those words. As represented in that panel, time is both slowing to a halt (visually) and speeding up (verbally)....
Panel transitions in Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead After discussing the wordiness of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, it only makes sense to discuss its visual counterpart, by which I mean pages like this one from the third issue: Kirkman fiddles with these quiet panels that transition from moment-to-moment. On the one hand, panels without textual components read more quickly, as Kirkman himself frequently notes on the letters pages.* On the other hand, panels without textual components encourage readers to linger on the images. When combined with moment-to-moment transitions, then, text-free panels compel the reader to search for minor changes of great significance. Consider the first two panels above: Rick is asleep in his tent with his wife and son the first night after being reunited. From panel one to panel two the only change is a slightly furrowed brow. While brow-furrowing may not seem significant in and of itself, when combined with what the reader knows about what Rick went through to return to them—having to fight through hoards of zombies to escape Atlanta—the reader can infer, if not the precise content, at least the character of the nightmare that causes Rick's sleeping brow to furrow. Now compare panel two to panel three: The furrrowed brow is replaced by a half-open eye. He is looking not as his wife and son, but at the opening of the tent. Having been living and sleeping alone in a terrible world has taught him to sleep, as the saying goes, with one eye open. If something akin to what he was facing in his dreams is closing on him—if, that is, his unconscious mind was alerting to him to a present threat—he might catch it with a glance out of the door. He is sleeping the light sleep of the perpetually threatened. Only after he has asceratined that there is no immediate threat does he allow himself to get his bearings: And only when he combines his realization that, on this occasion, his nightmare was only a dream with the fact that he is sleeping next to his wife and child in panel four can he experience the emotion displayed in panel five: In narrative terms, it would have been more efficient to jump from panel one to panel five like so: As with the actual sequence, the narrative remains "Rick wakes up in a tent with his family and is happy." However, consider what has been lost by removing the intervening panels: the reader doesn't acquire the same knowledge of Rick's attitude to these events. Not to repeat myself, but what would be lost is the sense of interiority that the reader can acquire via a close study of a character's actions. A moment-to-moment sequence of word-free panels, then, can have the effect of pulling the reader into closer sympathy with the characters. It can obviously work otherwise: a more conventional usage would be a fight scene in which moment-to-moment transitions signal the speed and violence of the acts being represented. But in The Walking Dead these dialogue-free moments...

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