Monday, September 13, 2021

Time in Comics -- it works differently


In fiction, time works differently than in real life. It has to, because very often the stories we read or watch or listen to take place over the course of many days, months, or years, while we experience them in a matter of hours or days. (Alan Moore's JERUSALEM took me months, but that's a whole different beast, that.) In no other medium, though, is the idea of time more malleable or more fluid than in comic books. It's part of what I love about them. 

As a story distribution vehicle, the comic book, in its most recognizable form -- roughly 20 pages of words and images combined to relate the most recent narrative chapter of a particular, brightly garbed hero's adventures on a monthly basis -- is, perhaps, the most compressed story distribution vehicle, as regards the geographical space with which writers and artists have to work. The page count has fluctuated over the past few decades, from 17 pages with a shorter backup feature in many late-70s DC comics, to 24 pages through the 80s and 90s, to around 20 pages today. An average page may have 6 panels on it, each a snapshot of a specific moment in time, but there are also splash pages -- a single image encompassing the entirety of a page to convey a moment of high drama or cool action. And although some artists may layout pages with more than 6 panels (George Pérez could do wonders in the tiny spaces necessitated by ten or twelve or fifteen panels to a page), many will often utilize fewer panels per page to tell their story. So, creators have somewhere fewer than 120 images -- and more likely fewer than 100 or 90, to be honest -- to get across what they want to say for that month, in that chapter. It's not a lot of room. 

With those limitations of space, comic creators had to figure out ways to infuse the most narrative punch in as economical a way as possible. Early in comics' history, that meant a whole lot of word balloons and thought bubbles stuffed with text that, in my opinion, dragged the narrative to a screeching halt, leaving it as limp as a pile of wet leaves. Blechh. These writers and artists, though, also figured out some tricks hidden within the mechanics of the comic page. A prime example would be the gutters, the empty spaces in between the panels. Depending on the transition between images from one panel to the next, a lot or a little could occur in the gutter. If the artist merely drew a succession of images that linked together like those flip books we used to have, then the reader had little to do in order to get what was going on. Nothing's in the gutters; it's all on the page. But, if the creators jumped from one image in one scene to a totally different image from another scene (probably set in the near future, possibly set in the past, maybe even running parallel . . . take your pick!), a connection could be made, subconsciously, between these two images. And maybe, as more context became evident as one continued reading, there would be a direct correlation between these seemingly disparate scenes. Perhaps some action in that first scene spurred what occurred in the following scene, even if it took place in a different locale at a different point in time. 

When this happens, the gutter becomes paramount in the narrative flow, because whatever happened in between these two images, which may sit side-by-side or possibly connect through a page-turn, happened within that empty space separating them, and now the reader gets to fill that in with their imagination. The gutter is the magic spark within comic books, and it makes the reader a participant within the narrative, allowing for the tapestry of a comic to expand to a (theoretically) limitless tableau. 

The publication schedule of comics -- for the most part series have run on a monthly basis, though it's common today for more popular series to run every two weeks -- is another aspect that injects time into a comic narrative. With a month between issues, readers have all that time to ponder the most recent chapter of a hero's story, to mull it over, consider the ramifications, hypothesize about what may come next or how the hero could possibly escape that issue's cliffhanger. In short, this 4-week hiatus between issues allows the story to build in the audience's mind while also expanding time within the narrative itself. From one issue to the next, as much time as a week or a month could pass, or as little as a minute. But in our brains, even if very little time passes in Batman's story from issue #546 to #547 (as a hypothetical example), readers have still experienced a month, and that added time can help with the storytelling, because things that may have happened "too quickly" in the previous issue now have the benefit of a whole month passing, tempering the coincidental nature of some of the previous actions.  

Which all sounds far too abstract. Let me try to illuminate this argument with a concrete example: 

In the wake of DC's mega-event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, time was reset and the history of the DC universe was re-arranged and streamlined. The comics published by DC afterward needed to reflect this change in status quo, and one of those titles was Batman: the New Adventures, retitled with issue #408, written by Max Allan Collins, with pencils by Chris Warner and Inks by Mike DeCarlo. In this issue -- following directly after Miller & Mazzucchelli's classic, Year One --  Batman decides to work solo again, with no Robin, after Dick Grayson is almost killed by the Joker (a phantom image of Dick as Nightwing reveals his future . . . which, playing along with the theme of this piece, has already occurred a few years in the past, as far as publication dates). As a solo crimefighter, Batman eventually meets Jason Todd, a young vagrant who stole two of the tires from the Batmobile while it was parked in Crime Alley. Impressed, Batman takes Jason to a local orphanage, promising to check up on him.

In the following issue, written again by Collins but drawn by Ross Andru & Dick Giordano, Batman discovers, through checking up on Jason, that the orphanage where he took the boy, Ma Gunn's Orphanage, is actually a headquarters for a juvenile gang run by the matriarch of the place. Thanks to Jason, Batman discovers their plan to steal a priceless diamond necklace and thwarts the pack of hoodlums and their elderly crime boss. In the end, Batman commends Jason for his work, calling him Robin, and resetting the cycle of the Dynamic Duo once more, a mere couple of dozen pages after his declaration to work alone. 

Reading these two issues today, that shift from working alone to again taking on a partner -- a child partner in Batman's war on crime -- may seem abrupt on the part of the Batman. That's because it is. But reading it back in 1987, as it was being published, there would have been a month in between those issues. Readers would have had almost thirty days to digest the reality that Batman was again fighting crime solo. If one considers that during the 80s the primary audience for comic books, specifically superhero comics, was children, those thirty days are a not insignificant amount of time. So, when the Batman does a one-eighty in the very next issue, they would not have been reading it as if it was only yesterday he'd declared his return to solo vigilantism (and, in fact, there's a bit of a montage aspect in that previous issue when the creators show Batman fighting crime on his own again, indicating a relatively lengthy amount of time). To them the time that had passed in between reading these two issues could have translated to the narrative within the comic itself, allowing for a less abrupt transition back to having a Robin at Batman's side. And it seems possible that comic book creators may have taken this passage of real time into account when crafting the monthly adventures of one's favorite superhero. It's certainly a trick that would allow writers and artists to compress events in order to move the narrative along more swiftly, while also hopefully avoiding complaints of coincidence or a straining of credibility (he wears a batsuit and swings through skyscrapers on his batrope when he isn't using his batwing or batplane . . . straining credulity?!!?). 

It's interesting to consider that older comics should not be read in quick succession. Many issues, even up to the 80s when I began collecting comic books, were crafted as single packets of entertainment to be digested on their own, with little, if any, connective tissue to the previous issues or those that followed (outside of the power sets of heroes and villains and characterizations of the main and supporting casts). Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics from 1978 to  1987, famously (apocryphally???) stated that creators needed to craft each issue as if it were the very first issue of a new reader. Which is a fair enough assumption. But I think adherence to such a rule wasn't necessary and could be detrimental to a creative team. My first Marvel Universe comic (as opposed to G.I. Joe or Star Wars) was Marvel Super Hero Secret Wars #4. Number Four!!!! The series was already a quarter of the way through it's twelve-issue run, starring dozens of heroes and villains with whom I had a limited experience, and I just dove in and read it. And I was hooked. 

But I digress. Apologies for the tangent. Where was I? ... time in comics works differently ...

There's also the idea of characters' ages in comics. Again, specifically superhero comics. When the first original superheroes were created for comic books, the medium was seen as a cheap, throwaway bit of entertainment. Poorly reproduced art on the cheapest newsprint -- all in color for a dime! -- with little to no continuity, because who was going to hang onto these comics? Kids folded them up and stuck them in their back pockets. Issues were traded and shuffled between friends with little thought to which one belonged to which kid, because they only wanted to be able to read more and more of these adventures. And if that meant gathering with the neighborhood kids, throwing this week's issues all into a pile, and pulling out one you hadn't read yet, then so be it. With this disposability also came a lack of forethought as to the longevity of these characters. I don't believe anyone involved with the publishing of those earliest comic books expected the medium to last as long as it has. So the idea of these heroes -- Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Flash -- aging wasn't even a consideration. 

Sure, this too might strain credulity (Batman's still only 29, even though he fought against villains in 1939!), but what else would we fans of the medium want? Sure, the older Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond is pretty damn cool, but allowing the original heroes to give up the ghost isn't something fans seem inclined to want. I mean, Barry Allen (the original, Silver Age Flash) sacrificed himself in Crisis on Infinite Earths and remained dead for a very long time, almost three decades. And Wally West ably took up the mantle, becoming, in many fans' opinions, a far better character than Barry ever was. But, even Barry was brought back, and is now, today, the primary Flash. It's too bad, because he did mean more as a character, in death, than he ever did in life. But, what're you gonna do? Time in comics doesn't work the same, and the hardest thing to do in these four-color worlds is kill off a character and have them remain dead. 


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