Strip Panel Naked: The Perfect Pacing Of ‘Kill or be Killed’
Comics are all about sequences. Putting one image after another creates a sequence, through juxtaposition or movement, similarity or difference. In effect, the way you present that sequence of images doesn't really matter. If you go full Chris Ware and give a page with tons of tiny panels, or you take it the Mikel Janin route and hit double splash after double splash, the result is the same. You're showing a series of images that tell a story.
Which raises another point, naturally. In fact, if we accept that it's all just sequences, then does the presentation matter? If there's anything I hope to get across in the weekly pieces, it's that presentation counts for so much. Last time I wrote about a dialogue sequence, and this time one raises its head again.
I'm a firm believer that comics aren't a medium that favor page after page of dialogue, so you need interesting ways to present that information. I've talked about how David Aja used a series of close-ups that were framed by larger imagery in Hawkeye on my webseries before, and I noticed a similar example in this month's Kill or be Killed, by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser.
So, we're in a therapist's office, and we're spending quite a few pages on a dialogue sequence. Phillips and Brubaker have opted for these very tight panels, on the faces of Kira and the therapist, and nothing else.
You can see across the pages, it's a really condensed, controlled visual style. None of the panels hit the bleed, which is unusual for the comic generally, and there's nothing else to look at. The backgrounds are simplified and fairly straightforward, offering not much else to see --- bar some books and a framed degree. So it creates a sense of intense focus --- not a bad idea for a therapist's office --- but also a sense of claustrophobia, or being trapped. Again, contextually, perfect for the scene.
The other thing these panels do is create a real sense of rhythm. To begin with, Kira and the therapist are looking at each other in their separate panels. Phillips has framed them from the side, which creates the context of them looking at each other and interacting.
It also feels a little closed-off, because you can't see their faces completely. We focus on eyes, in real life and in stories, because eyes are very intimate. Some people struggle with holding eye contact in conversations, because it makes us feel uncomfortable, right there in the eyes is the consciousness of that person. It's where the "windows to the soul" imagery comes from. So if we're denied eye contact with a character, it's often distancing. Think villains in a superhero comic who might be lit darkly, eyes all silhouetted.
That changes as the story goes on, and it changes as Kira starts to emote more visibly, too. When she opens up about feeling lonely, that's when we can finally see her face straight on; see her eyes, and it's like she's talking straight to us now. The therapist is clearly looking off-page, but Kira is more directed at us.
Phillips has been moving his "camera" around in a semi-circle --- as you can tell by the placement of the background. He's been slowly revealing this character to us, just as Brubaker is slowly opening her up, emotionally.
It all culminates with a moment of silence, the only moment of silence in the opening pages, in fact. Here we reveal the wide shot of the therapist's office, and suddenly Kira looks a lot smaller. It comes immediately after the, "I still think you should go see your mother" panel, to which Kira has no response, and that dead space hangs in the air for a moment.
The panel hits the bleed; it feels bigger, wider, more open. It causes a dramatic effect on the page, which has been building from this continued, heavily panel-focused sequence. That emotion in there resonates because of the slowly tracking "camera," the tight shots, the condensed panels. It all works in harmony to pay off that one single moment.
Comics are all about sequences, and this is a perfect one.
In Strip Panel Naked, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou looks at elements of the art of visual storytelling on the comics page.