Does form induce narrative in comics?

David Bordwell suggests when we perceive and comprehend a narrative text, we tend to construct certain patterns among events. Film's syuzhet provides a basis for this activity. There are three principles relate the syuzhet to fabula: 
1) Narrative Logic (causal relations) 
2) Time (order, duration, frequency) 
3) Space (relative surroundings / positions and paths )

In comics, syuzhet is mainly created by the following tools :
(This part will be further investigated) 

  • Graphics (including the characters, sign and style etc)
  • Text and dialogue 
  • Panel
  • Page composition : The arrangement of the above on a surface 

Let's see the following example:

In the above case of Chris Ware' page in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, fabula is constructed through:

  • Identifying the characters (three of them, one kid, one grown up and an old man)
  • Identifying the reading path (from left to right, with the help of an arrow and text) 
  • Identifying the spatial relationship: 
    - The green color on the first tier indicate they are likely in the same room.
    - The red balloon across the first two panel further confirm they share the same space
    - The text balloon "koff" in panel 1 and 4 gives even more hints
    - The second tier, though with different color background, could still be understood they are staying in the same scene, probably the room inside - from the hints of the same red balloon.
  • Identifying the temporal relationship:
    - The time from the first to the second tiers are linear
    - The third tier seems presenting another space and time as the visual relationship with other panels are lacking
    - The different type of color and the look of the character indicates they are flashback. 
    - The two graphics (chicken and the meal) are without panel, they exist beyond the current space and time relationship. They may represent the inner thoughts of the old man. 

In the above process, fabula of that particular page is roughly constructed with a general understanding of space and time in a logical sense although not all the "riddles" are resolved. It also shows that the process of constructing fabula, or in other word, the syuzhet is very much connected to the language of the medium. Although according to Bordwell, the syuzhet patterning is independent of the medium (p.50), the specification of the medium does impose particular impact to the comprehension process. In comics, the juxtaposition of images allows (or encourage) the reader to flip through the pages in a non-linear way. The physical limitation of the medium, let's say the book form has forced the story to be divided into pages. The page-turning may only happen in a second but it gives the author an opportunity to arrange the plots into different sections and it becomes a useful tool to create the moment of suspense, surprise... and other effects. 

In the following, I would like to demonstrate how the format of comics could affects the syuzhet in two different scenarios: 

A) "Pre-defined Format" precedes Syuzhet
A lot of comics works, especially those being published regularly on periodicals such as newspaper or magazine, often use a pre-defined format. What I mean "pre-define" here, is that the format (e.g. dimension, shape, position) are specified before the work exist.  It is very common to see formats such as single-panel, 4-panel strips, Sunday comics... all being used in specific types of narratives according to their visual structure. If Syuzhet is the way how events are organised, we can say that such arrangement is very much limited or constrained by the form, in other words, the number of panel available.

Take single panel comics as an example: 
Single panel comics are often used in gag cartoons in order to make the reader laugh imminently. While single panel may not necessarily means a "single moment" as multiple dialogues are possible, it does mean "progression" in space and time is not allowed.  

1. 11_20-beeler-cagle.jpg

Due to the limited space, the punch line usually lies on the dialogue or simple gesture. The format indeed also has impact on the graphic style (if we see graphic style as part of syuzhet). The depiction of character or story background becomes more important as the views has to identify the character and the background straight away since there is also no room for "introduction".  (In the above case, one must recognise Trump and Hilter in order to get the idea).

Four-panel comics, on the other hand, allows more flexibility in syuzhet. It allows the traditional 3-act structure to be barely applied with the first panel to be used as the opening of the story whereas the second and third are used to depict the progression. The last panel usually features the twist and the conclusion of the story. Of course there are exceptions and indeed various patterns can also be found in a lot of 4-panel strips. For example: The peanuts comics sometimes uses a pattern with almost identical first three panels plus one final panel featuring the twist. 

While Peanut Sunday usually contains a general 3x3 panel gird, its syuzhet has more variety:

Comic strip artist tends to follow similar narrative pattern as a strategy to build up their own style and identity. As comic strips are short and simple, even with some possibilities to employ different strategies in syuzhet... 


B) Format as Syuzhet

Another scenario to understand the relationship between form and syuzhet is to see form as a narrative strategy. Unlike those works with pre-defined formats, the format of the works is designed or generated based on a narrative strategy, or the syuzhet. 

"Here" - by Richard McGuire

The first example is the book "Here" by Richard McGuire. It is a graphic novel depicting the story of the corner of a room, and its inhabitants, between the year 500,957,506,073 BC and 2313 AD. The work appears in a book form in which each spread is showing a drawing of the scene of that corner in the same perspective and position (with panels floating around). In this case, the decision of using a book form could emphasise the changes along the time. The thickness of the book becomes an evidence to portrait the time. The "rule" or "constraint" of showing the same space with the same perspective comes from the physicality of the book and it is part of th....


"Metronome" by Veronique Tanaka 

Metronome is an experimental work by Veronique Tanaka (a fictional name, the actual artist is indeed Bryan Talbot). The whole work has a strict format that all the pages are composed of 4x4 panel grid without any text. 

"It is sixty-four square pages, sixteen panels each page and is in 4/4 time, like music. And music is a theme. The man in the story is a composer. The individual panels often make designs over the whole page. The book is about one instant and about memories evoked in that instant. It begins where it ends and could be read again after, like a loop. It is a visual poem but there is a strong story under the surface." (Veronique Tanaka)

According to the author, the strict format of the book (i.e. square shape, 4x4 grid) is developed  based on the theme of the story (i.e. Music). If we see such decision as part of the syuzhet, the format itself is part of the narrative. The most interesting thing is, on each page, there are individual rules for each page (or spread). And all those rules are subordinate to the format of the 4x4 grid. 

For example, one rule across the whole book is, each tier on a page usually featuring a single object (or idea). In page 10, 4 objects, a fly, a plant, keyboard and the fan each occupy four panels in their own respective tier with slight motion / camera movement. 

 Page 10

Page 10

In this case, the number of panel required to portrait the fly is decided by the format instead of the movement of fly itself. In other words, if the format is 6x6, the movement of the fly has to be expanded to 6 with extra details. 

The gird format also allows ambiguity in the reading process. While we understand the reading path is from left to right, sometimes the author tries to confuse us by making connection among panels vertically. The example on P.7 shows the author's intention to create a transition using the first panel (the black one). One can actually read the work either horizontally or vertically. 


What I want to suggest here is, in this case, there are often two levels of rules that is affecting the syuzhet, one comes from the format of the work (which can also be part of syuzhet) and the other one is the rules that is developed subordinated to that format. be continued