One of the things I love about comics is the control of time given to the creative team. There are great inventive ways we can play with time across a page. Sure, other media can do it – hell, if they’re smart, all media can do it – but no one can quite do it like comics does it.
LOST had that episode where Jin was running to the birth and we thought it was Sun’s birth but then it wasn’t because they were in different time periods. Genius.
MEMENTO is perfect. INCEPTION might not be perfect but damn it’s fun.
I’m trying to think of an example of prose using time well. I mean, MOBY DICK took ages to read, does that count? [caveat, I dug MOBY DICK, and if you edit out the didactic chapters it’s one hell of a tale – it was Stephen King’s CELL which I started and then stopped and then finished maybe a year later, begrudgingly, that is my greatest temporal prose trip].
Yet, when I think about comics and time I find a million thoughts splashing into my brain. And maybe that’s because I primarily write comics, and because I love messing with time. It’s like buying a new beanie and suddenly everyone everywhere is wearing that beanie, and you become beanie bros, but you didn’t want bros, you wanted to stand out, be individual, by buying your clothes at mass market stores, so maybe you did it wrong. But playing with time in comics, totally doing it right.
Anyway, I’ve finally been reading RONIN after wanting to for many years. I bought the HC a while back and held it off until I finished writing NEGATIVE SPACE. So with the final script of that dusted off my plate, I finally dove in and I’m digging this book. Early Frank Miller is my jam [but so is late Miller if I close one eye and can only see ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER and HOLY TERROR is blocked from all view]. Miller became a master of the form because he controlled the form, he used it to convey big ideas, broken people, and flat out have fun.
So I’m trucking through BOOK TWO in the HC and this page flattens me. Just absolutely floors me. I had to stop and soak it in because the use of panels/gutters/time here is superb.
Let’s look at the page and then I’ll describe what I love.
Yes, that is a crappy photo from my iPad, with the book on my lap. Sorry not sorry.
Besides my photog creds, did you read that page? It’s not spoilerific, though it’s shows off Miller’s bondage fetish nicely. It also shows off insanely high end time control.
The first panel sets up the scene, this Ronin has been accosted by a gang of superfreakthugs. That’s the scene, so the Ronin got down with some ultraviolence and now they have him from behind [I hope no one ends up on this site from searching those last seven words].
Panel Two shows this Sin City ex-pat closing in on the Ronin, he has a gun, the samurai has a stupid sword. What could happen next? So we have the establishing shot, now the tension builder.
Miller spreads the tension out across the next five panels. Panels all tightly zoomed in, panels all moving incredibly slowly through time. Y’see, there’s no way someone can be faster than a gun, they call it a speeding bullet for a reason, surely, but perhaps you can beat the shooter, not what they shoot.
The Ronin moves, a glance, he takes his opponent in – distance away, posture, size – all in a glance.
The superfreak’s finger is tightening on the trigger, gotta have a few pounds of pressure on it already.
Ronin lifts an arm – to what? Defend from the bullet, to hide? Not sure, read on.
The superfreak’s finger is now really tight – is he just slowly busting his cap, or is Miller showing us this all happening in slow mo? The Ronin is doing all this in the time it takes a trigger to be pulled. You’d be surprised how complex a concept this might be. It’s not intuitive to many but I’m sure most seasoned four colour vets got it straight away and ‘read’ it that way.
The Ronin now moves and does…something, we don’t see. But the next panel shows the superfreak’s hand dropping the gun, notice the finger on the trigger holds no pressure now. Something has happened and the fight is won.
We then rest on the final panel – and to me it looks like the sword cutting through superfreak’s neck [and I love this laser intense slice of orange where the sword connects with human tissue – almost like he’s using fire or lava to cut through this man]. But it could also be seen as a very small gutter showing where the impact occurred and the effect it all has on the neck area, separating it from the body. From memory, a comic recently used the gutter to show a bullet wound, but my memory fails me in remembering this specific example. It’s messing with my brain trying to remember it, argh.
My reason for highlighting the two options here on the page is that it all depends on the time. The panel before showed the moment where the Ronin has clearly already won, if the gun is being dropped, I’m assuming the superfreak already got sliced, yeah? But then we see the slice in the next panel. Is Miller taking us back in time a moment to revel in the gore? Or did the initial impact cause the gun to drop and microseconds later we cut to the sword just exiting the neck?
The fact Miller raises the tension while slowing the time in those 5 panels and then cuts to the release, the Ronin victory, and then we reveal the why tickles me to no end. There are a million ways you could draw that scene/moment. There are myriad ways you could present the timing of it. Imagine a caption stating “The Ronin moved faster than the superfreak could pull his trigger!” – it gives the same information but man is it not boss. Miller chose this way, and I think ending on that visceral image is the right choice.
Reading a page like this always makes me want to up my game. Am I telling my story boring? Is there something more interesting I can do, and not just for the sake of doing it, but because it will affect the reader in a more effective way. I mean, that’s our job, to handball a narrative into the collective faces of readers and hope we break some bones. If we constantly feed the rock to them in the same way then they’ll see it coming and suddenly know how to catch it and protect their precious easily-bled noses.
The idea that we can slow down time, or fracture it slightly to break reveals, or hold just that right moment forever in a perfect panel is glorious. This is comics. This is the temporal playdoh we use to lure in the people and then make them care.
This is the stuff that gets me excited. Every. Single. Time.