Part I The Poetics of Proximity, Illustrated

Illustration 1 shows an entire comics-line in which the panels cohere, creating a seamless, borderless visual narrative. The narrative development is easily distinguishable: a man forces his way into a room. The sequence begins with a rising rhythm that is dominant in the first two panels. The starting point on the left is the index finger, followed by the forearm and the hand in panel two. The hand points to the head in panel three. From that head there is a drop towards the leg and then a rise to the foot. From panel to panel there is an ascending configuration ending in a 'V' - an abstract repetition of what is actually happening: increasing suspense followed by an aggressive discharge. If one continues to follow the sequence, the 'V' unites with a second 'V' forming a 'W', the beginning and end of which is marked by the head(s) of the protagonist. The dynamic process ends and settles in a slanted, symmetrical configuration.

In this example, the shapes defy the panel borders. In addition to being interrelated by narration, they are combined by composition. Therefore the shapes are not strictly separate 'pictures'. The draw - almost the drawing - that pulls you through them also serves to support a horizontal reading direction. The 'pictures' in this example are p a s s a g e s, passages for a friction-free transition from one panel to the next. The observer is not detained as s/he would be before a traditional painting.

Illustration 2
shows a different type of visual link: the bubbles rising from the small head, the speech bubble, the speed lines of the stick, and the buttons on the glove combine to form a circular shape, connecting both panels. In this case, the expression 'train of pictures' can be understood literally, as outlined in Illustration 3. Simple compositional patterns, such as circles and triangles, are visible in comics, yet they seem to run ahead of the contents. Thematic unity, as defined by the picture frame, and compositional unity, as defined by a system of lines, differ. This shift in the compositional order corresponds to the eye movement required for reading.

Basically, the smallest narrative unit in comics, the panel, is a fragment demanding completion. Like the components in a collage, the individual panel does not achieve the status of 'picture' - an autonomous work with a full, independent shape and message - by itself. In this regard, the individual panel is similar to its text-based contents, which depend upon the context of the narrative in order to be understood. On the other hand, when the page is looked at as a whole, the concept of 'picture' is overruled by the cluster of panels. Therefore, comics are not composed of real pictures - whether one observes them as individual panels or as whole pages. The former falls short of being a picture, the latter transcends the status of a picture.

In the examples we have seen, the line schemes support the rectilinear order of the pictures. Illustration 4 demonstrates the tension between a polylinear, three-dimensional pictorial configuration and its placement within the order of writing. The crime victim in the lower center panel is crowned by the 'aureole' of a bursting mirror like a Christian martyr. This 'crown' radiates into the other panels: the slanting edge of the door kicked open in the top left panel and the stumbling man in the top right panel carry the spreading lines outward. (Ironically, the 'aureole' extends into an aggressive fist.) The red colored panels represent a retrospective view. Narratively speaking they belong together and are part of a trans-horizontal union indicated by overlapping composition and by color.

Illustration 5 shows a disintegration of the narrative surface, the discovery of a new dimension leading to a clash between visual shape and writing chronology. An alternative to the conventional left to right of narration is offered by a sudden deep plunge: the panel on the left continues in the panel below. The dominant visual continuity is in irreconcilable conflict with the continuity of the linear order; both reading directions are equally valid. The white boundary line between these two panels is a time limit, not a spatial limit. In the top panel the victim thrown out of the window is still falling; in the lower panel he is lying on the street. The victim is falling in more ways than one: out of the window in the story; out of the window of the story, i.e. out of the panel; and finally out of the story itself, from life into death.

Some artists work with an economy of space within the panels. In Illustration 6, two consecutive panels claim different parts of a hair/dress. The head in the left panel borrows a lock of hair from its enlarged neighbor, just enough to appear in full headdress. While the identities in this example do not change - hair remains hair - Illustration 7 demonstrates how individual elements can be redefined when put to multiple uses. The upper body of the man is an extension of the right shoulder of the woman. For the woman below, he serves as a hat. In this representation system, which is based on 'recycling', the individual panel's status shifts between mainline and supplementary sideline, according to its position in the reading process.

The back and forth between 'pictures' - that leads to a swinging perception on the part of the observer - is manifest to an even greater degree in Illustration 8. The car seems to move into the left-hand panel behind/back in time. Ironically, this 'return' of the car, which also invites the observer to look back during the narration, is caused by the rear view mirror. The perspective switches dramatically from the inside of the car across to the roof of the house, relating the outlines of the rear view mirror and the car. This 'false comparison', which classifies two objects with completely different dimensions as similar, leads to a formal connection between the two panels and affirms an alliance between two 'pictures' whose perspective is extremely different.

In language, two elements are placed side by side for comparison, as in: 'A is like B'. Visual (metaphorical) comparisons of this kind can be found in comics as well. Relations which in written language are quite simply indicated by the copula 'is like', are often signified in comics by the subordination of neighboring panels to identical schemes or at least to a system of horizontal and vertical axes. Topographical similarities between panels are intended to indicate the similarities between their contents. Topographical congruency, for example, is demonstrated in Illustration 9. Through parallelism the dragonfly is metaphorically compared with the fish, while the fish - by preying on and killing the same dragonfly - demonstrates that fish, too, are 'animals of prey'. Vertically below the snapping mouth of the fish are the time-consuming hands of the clock. The hands of the clock and the mouth of the man are on the same horizontal axis. A circle of comparisons links the dragonfly, the fish, the clock, the man and again the dragonfly, superimposing the linear progress of the (clockwise) narrative, including the man in the company of 'killers'. As if in parentheses, the narrative anticipates the true identity of the man, which is explicitly disclosed a few pages later. Such visual information will be overlooked in a conventional reading in which the differences between pictures are merely seen as indicators for the development of the story in space and time.

A more drastic way of conveying meaning can be seen in Illustration 10, in the left-hand panels. The vertical combination of two panels each with fragmentated figures leads to a multiplication of significance. In a conventional, isolated 'reading' of comics the head of the dog symbolizes the whole dog. If the head of the dog is included into the 'reading' of the line below, it will procure a second - metaphorical - meaning, as if saying to someone, "You dirty dog!" Transferring an unoriginal, linguistic metaphor into another medium results in a grotesque figuration, in this case one that is vivid and shocking. Metaphor means application. The result of that rhetorical operation actually comes to light here. The head of the dog, in an act of substitution, is applied to the body of the man. The adjoining panel lines reciprocally serve as metaphorical levels. A transfer of meaning - the task of the observer - is possible in both directions: connected downwards, the dog is equipped with human attributes. Connected upwards, the man becomes beastly. Both readings carry equal weight in the storyline.

Dreaming and leaving the rational line order produces monsters. It should not be difficult to detect the cynical connection of a woman with a piece of furniture in Illustration 11, indicated by extended outlines and identical coloring.

Illustration 12 shows the transformation of two protagonists into one single figure. This leads to a perpetual oscillation between two identities - a type of representation that literally pushes the medium to its limits in order to undermine the observer's ways of perception. Illustration 13 is similarly puzzling: if both pictures are united, as is suggested by the choice of perspective in the two panels, then this woman is lifting up not only a cleaning rag, but also her own apron from the neighboring picture. Below the apron are not her own legs, but the police officer's legs.


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