Strip Panel Naked: Negative Space in ‘Jessica Jones’
There’s a particular sequence in the latest issue of Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos and Matt Hollingsworth’s Jessica Jones that I want to focus on this week. About halfway through Jessica Jones #2, Jessica heads back to her office and, before she enters, she imagines what might be waiting for her behind the door. Soldiers, Avengers, or the street-level New York superheroes. Instead of going in, she decides to flee.
I wanted to look at these pages because in this big-two book about a recovering superhero is a lovely moment of storytelling.
With a comic, we’re presented a series of images, and for the most part we go left to right, top to bottom, and we see a progression of time. So Gaydos and Bendis utilize that understanding well to create air --- dead space.
In film you can do this pretty easily; you can just hold a frame, drop out some music or sound, and let the moment hang, let time pass. In novels it's a bit harder, because unless you just leave thirty empty pages, you’ve got to explain and detail that dead air.
With comics, it fits somewhere in the middle. If you held a shot in comics, you’d end up with a single panel --- so you could break that moment down into a series of panels focusing on various things in a scene to draw out time, but then, by that design’s very nature, you start to shift the focus to different things.
Instead, what the creators do on this sequence is split it across a double page spread, offering you one moment on the left page, and one moment on the right page. You know it’s a double page spread because when you turn to these pages you see the middle row of panels run across both pages, so it’s on purpose that Gaydos and Bendis have left this negative space to the right of the top row and the left of the bottom. So you read left to right --- and on a normal double splash you’d expect to go all the way to the right-hand side of the second page, but here you’re just offered white space.
What does that white space mean? Time, the setting up of a ‘dream’ or ‘thought’ sequence, whatever; it means empty, dead air. And you have to look at it, and you have to acknowledge it, because it doesn’t appear elsewhere.
This is a pretty dense book in terms of panel count, and it’s also very, very dark --- both in theme and in a literal sense in the way Hollingsworth colors the pages. You don’t get to see a lot of bright colours or white in the panels. Even the white on Cap on that page is grey; it’s all subdued. So you have to take notice of these large white areas --- and Gaydos and Bendis know that.
It sets that middle row apart --- which it needs to, because it exists outside of reality --- and works like a bracket, fitting around it. Two spaces of white on a page, and it makes you think differently about what you’re being presented. It asks you a bit of a question about why --- but carries on moving the story.
It’s just another one of those little moments in mainstream comics that reminds you it doesn’t need to be just panel after panel; you can play around with this medium in a bunch of different ways, and they shouldn’t just be restricted to those working outside the "mainstream." There’s still an awful lot of fun to be had here.
In Strip Panel Naked, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou looks at elements of the art of visual storytelling on the comics page.