Monday, March 29, 2004

Is synesthesiac even a word? 

Over at Fanboy Rampage I posted a long weird message that eventually touched on the criteria by which one should judge a comic book illustrator. In response to one of my exhortations, "Look at the rhythms of panel progression. Are they appropriate for the tone of a scene?" James Smith asked:

"How does this work? I mean, how do you figure out how to break this down?"

I posted this answer:

I wish that panel rhythm was something as easily analyzed as rhythm in music, but it's a much more instinctive matter. Shane and Ken are on the right track, but it's also a matter of elements within the panels. There's no proper vocabulary to discuss this, and why you try, it tends to lapse into the sort of hopelessly vague hand-waving you get when stoners talk about music. That danger acknowledged, here's my attempt at explaining how it works for me.

Every element within an image strikes a beat, "catching" the eye for a certain amount of time. Certain compositions lead the reader's eye in certain ways, taking the eye on a path along these elements that might be slow, sinuous, staccato, dissonant, or explosive. How these sorts of panels are juxtaposed creates panel rhythm.

A cartoonist can introduce changes in the rhythm of a page. When you deploy significant changes, you can make the reader take a beat to reassess what just happened. What kind of changes? They could be changes in value (light versus dark), in rendering style, in the content of a page (a surprising plot development, a jump to an unexpected camera angle or a cut to a new scene), or in the amount of detail (moving from a complete and environment to a vignetted figure). Or they could be changes in panel shape or panel border weight-- the sort that Shane and Ken referred to.

Now this is all done on instinct. No one counts out the rhythm a background provides. But if you spend enough time thinking hard about comics, experimenting with layout and reading analytically, you'll find that you are as aware of their rhythm as a synesthesiac is of the sounds of a series of colors.

Some virtuosos of comic page rhytmn: Chris Ware, Dave Sim, George Herriman, Jaime Hernandez.

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