c.e. taillefer

September 30, 2016

Get your mind into the gutter: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

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If you’re into comics even the least little bit, chances are good the name Scott McCloud has crossed your radar. He’s better known for his comics about comics rather than the franchises he’s worked on, and for good reason – Understanding Comics is something I’d consider required reading for anyone working in a creative field.

Of particular interest to me is the concept of the “gutter” – the liminal space in comics (and arguably, in writing and games as well, and films and TV to a lesser extent) where the reader supplies the details of events between panels/sentences/scenes.

"Now you die!"

“I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I’m not the one who let it drop, or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style.”

This focus on reader participation in Understanding Comics began to highlight the ways in which I exploit similar stylistic choices in my chosen mediums of short and novel-length fiction, and games.  For example, from “Haven of the Waveless Sea”, where Fandral Staghelm relives the death of his son:

   “Again.”
       The meaty rip, the buzzing song, the sound of hope dying.
In fact, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop noticing how often I used a similar “fade to black” style – as a cover for my own inexperience with elves being torn-apart by giant insect lords, or to give reuniting characters some privacy, a la William Goldman but also to poke fun at the reader’s own sense of imagination. All it takes is the narrator stating, “you can imagine the rest” after the beginning of a gory or erotic scene to get the readers actually thinking about it. (Don’t think of the pink elephant!) It’s a great way to pretend you’re a better writer than you are, since the readers are going to imagine whatever suits them best. It’s also one of the reasons why, a friend pointed out, that good tweets work so well as comic strips: they both make effective use to of the gutter to be funny or scary or poignant.
On the other hand, like any stylistic choice, it can be too often relied on.  One of the storytelling experiments I hope to use in my current Twine project is to write the whole story, regardless of how nonsensical or unreal it may seem, to get at the heart of a personal experience through the nitty gritty details. If the goal of a game is to promote both empathy and the sense of helplessness inherent in being trapped in an abusive relationship, going through the painful details with a fine tooth comb seems to be far more effective than letting the reader imagine for themselves, particularly if the project’s intent is to break down stereotypical media portrayals of abusive relationships.
In particular, I’m thinking of the ending of Watchmen by Alan Moore.  How much of a double gut punch is it for Ozymandias to admit his plan was already completed before the heroes ever arrived to stop him, and then to show, in explicit, bloody detail, what that plan entailed?  Moore’s goal was to play on tropes and stereotypes of superhero comics, and it’s effective both in thumbing its nose at the big Villain monologue (quite literally, Adrian says “I’m not some republic serial villain”!) and the amount of destruction that many superheroes cause in the process of saving the world. (Age of Ultron/Civil War in the Marvel cinematic universe tries this also, to lukewarm effect.) Moore’s got an explicit vision to sell in Watchmen, and sets it up via the non-linear transitions, where the reader can partake in their own version of Adrian’s plan before being exposed to the reality.

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