Strip Panel Naked: Changing The Medium In ‘Slam’
This week, rather than dissect a single storytelling approach in a comic, I want to look at a comic doing something unusual with the form — the Boom Studios roller derby comic Slam, by Pamela Ribon, Veronica Fish, Brittany Peer, and Jim Campbell.
There’s an expectation of what comics will be when we pick one up, particularly in the monthly “floppy” format that most of us are reading. At Thought Bubble recently, on the Image Comics panel, a few of the creators were talking about how they were able to play around with the medium a little more, and change expectations of what comics are, especially away from “mainstream” books.
You can see some fine examples of it in the Image book The Black Monday Murders, by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker, which utilizes a lot of text-heavy pages, and if you want a classic example you can always view the backmatter pages in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘s Watchmen. What Slam does is similar; it just changes up some of the pages from what you might normally expect to find in a comic.
It’s probably worth noting that when you start to change what a reader expects, it can often draw them out of a story. Breaking the fourth wall in cinema and theatre, for example, does stop the illusion that you’re watching something “real”; when a character in a film turns to directly address the audience that suspension of disbelief must be lost, because now we’re aware we’re being told a story.
What Slam does is drop in a few pages like the example above, where it appears to be a notice board with images taped on it, and text floating freely outside of the comic convention. It still has panels, but those panels now become something akin to a polaroid stuck on the page.
Does it break the illusion? Kind of — but so does a page turn. It’s a medium where the illusion drops every six panels or so, so why not change it around and re-define the parameters of your story?
The creators also add in pages like this; character bios of the people we see in the story. Now, this is particularly lovely, because it escapes the need for pages and pages of exposition. Instead, they gift you some backstory and a look at two sides of these characters, and then they move on. We understand who they are in one simple page, and we don’t have to get bogged down in scenes to set this up.
And when you read this, you accept it, because they do it a lot, and establish that as part of the visual language of the book. It stops being “an interesting effect,” and now becomes part of the tapestry of the storytelling.
It might not seem like much, but pages like this start to give the book “character,” allowing it to feel a little different than what you’d normally pick up. Which works on two levels. The first, that it proposes comics don’t need to be just page after page of panels and action within them, that we can explore and offer alternative approaches to present our stories. Secondly, it works as a device to further the type of story being told — because for the most part these characters are, for lack of a better term, “different” than the norm. They’re people who have been shunned from some other place and ended up as roller derby players. It’s beautiful and fantastic, and so simple an approach to offer in a book that reflects that idea.
I love comics, and I love storytelling, and seeing people starting to push the medium in ways such as this — no matter how small or subtle it may seem — is movement in the right direction, and utilizes this weird, bastard medium in interesting and dynamic ways.