Monday, March 11, 2013

This magic moment: Explaining the panel love

Comics are a sequential medium, all of the over-thought definitions are clear on that. The artistic beauty of the form is the way things flow between panels, and the way the human mind fills the gaps and gutters between the pictures.

So focusing on individual panels is a fool’s errand. You can’t sum up the appeal of an entire comic book or strip with a single panel. As one correspondent rightly asked me, without the back story, aren’t they just pretty pictures?

Well, yeah.

But sometimes that’s enough.

A perfect panel for Timothy Tankersley, the correspondent who got me thinking about all this context malarkey

Roy Lichtenstein figured it out ages ago, and made millions by shearing away all context and capturing tiny slices of pure action. An individual panel can still have power on its own merits, and the simpler you make it, the more universal it becomes.

Many of the panels I did choose to spotlight over the past couple of weeks are still dependent on their context. Batman on a horse only works because of the long and claustrophobic build-up, and Charley Bourne’s grief is just one example of tragedy in the character’s rich story.

But there is also something deeply appealing about the single image, standing all on its own. One thing that comics does better than any other medium is giving the reader control of the time flow, and it’s so easy to linger on single panels, and draw out these tiny moments, and to get the very most out of it.

A single second of comic time can last as long as the reader wants.

A perfect panel suggestion from Tam Ianiado, from Superman Confidential #3

And some of them are just beautiful fucking bits of art, y’know?

Kelly Sheehan's idea of a perfect panel: This moment from Tim Kidd's Came The Dawn, a work in progress. Kelly sez Tim is capable of great moments of stillness that stop you in your tracks and bind you to the moment.

The main inspiration for this recent focus on individual panels, at the cost of context, was The Comics Journal. I’ve been reading tonnes of back issues of the venerable mag, (and still have tonnes more to get through, with the latest issue/monolith showing up in the mail yesterday, courtesy of top bloke Matt Emery,) and it’s got to the point where I have my own ideas about the best editors in the magazine’s history, and definitely favour some periods over others.

But one thing that has been consistently rewarding - right throughout the Journal’s history – is the use of single images with the interviews and reviews. They are often brilliantly complimentary to the text, or highlight unnoticed moments in a comic, or even offer a tantalising glimpse of something unavailable.

After all, I’ve read a lot of Journal issues that featured these little slices of comic, without actually reading the relevant issue. The few panels of Animal Man #26 that showed up in the Grant Morrison interview in TCJ #176 were the only examples of that comic I could find in my part of the world, and it was like that for more than a decade, until they were finally collected in a trade, so no wonder those individual panels from the magazine have greater resonance.

No wonder one of them was my Perfect Panel. (There is at least one other one on that list that is really only on there because it was used in a Journal interview…)

A perfect panel for Matt Emery from 2000ad #9, one of the first 2000ads given to him by his father. Matt used to think a lot about poor Judge Diablo, still loves the retro appeal of Ron Turner's art and likes the Dredd of early 2000AD when he wasn't "steroided up".

As usual with lists like these, the embarrassment is all in the exclusions. I didn’t have any Eisner, or Kirby, or Crumb, or Kurtzman, but I still found room for some bloody Ultimates. There is no real defence here, just some brief shame that these were the first dozen or so panels that leapt to mind when I thought about it.

I just like some stylistic intensity in my fictions.

A monster learns to be a man in this panel from Fantastic Four #51. Because it wouldn't be a collection of perfect panels without some Kirby.

So, just for the record, these are 13 of my favourite panels. There are thousands more, so I’ll probably come back to the subject again, on days when I’ve got no ideas at all.

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