The passage of time is instrumental to a successful narrative. On a simplistic level, stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, together they represent the passage of time. What happens between the beginning and the end, and the duration of the situations is infinite but the physical passage of time for the narrative has to be there.
There are many ways to represent time passing and visual mediums like cinema and theatre have an advantage over a comic book in that they can actually show the physical passage of time: a single camera shot lasts for a given length of time and the image the camera captures exists for that same length of time. A figure walking down the street can be shown performing the physical act, in real time. A drawn or painted image becomes restricted by its very nature of being static. A photograph represents a moment in time: a single snapshot. To get the impression of moving forward, of time passing, a series of images are needed that develop the concept. In a comic, the scene of a figure walking down the street may need a number of images to represent the act. However, this doesn’t mean that creators are limited in their narrative because of this, in fact comic creators probably have a much wider range of tools to represent the passing of time and, the nature of the medium means that they can manipulate a reader with some very simple but effective techniques.
Fig 1: RoboCop Citizens Arrest, Issue 5, page 4
The most obvious progression of time, the one that we physically experience in every aspect of our lives, is direct linear movement. The straight forward movement from the ‘then’ to the ‘now’. As TV and Movie viewers we take the representation of this for granted as the process of ‘moving images’ portrays linear time almost as a default. Hundreds of still images strung together to represent a given moment of varying length.
The translation of this to the comic book however is not a simple as it may appear. There are a number of options available to a comic book creator regarding how they can visualise a linear movement.
The nature of the comics is that each panel on each page represents a specific moment in time almost, but not quite like a photograph. The length of this moment depends on two things; firstly, what the creators choose to put in the panel and secondly, how the reader perceives that moment. The later depends on a number of factors including the gutter, the space between one panel and the next. The job of the artists is to make that moment, in a single or sequence of panels, last as long as the narrative requires it to. If there is a slow build-up of tension in the story, each panel needs to slow the reader down so that they don’t rush to the end and lose any emotional connection with the narrative. Control over the pacing can be handled by the number of panels on a page, the amount of detail/text in a panel, or even the way that each panel is separated via the gutters.
In a recent interview for PanelxPanel magazine, artist Tradd Moore says: ‘removing gutters can act as an amplifier to that [the speed of scene]. ..removing gutters enables me to push panel compression and stretching to an extreme, which allows me to further augment the speed of a fast page, or the slowness of a slow page.’ ( PanelxPanel volume 2 issue 13 July 2018, page 9)
This highlights the importance the panels play in manipulating reading speed. Evenly sized panels, with even gutters gives a page a set tempo whereas the removal of the gutters doesn’t allow a reader time to breath before moving on to the next image. The pace of the page is increased, or decreased depending on the images themselves, and the reader is taken along for the ride with a less control.
But it is also possible to split a single image into numerous panels to give the impression of many actions in a short moment of time. Take the progression of action from a particular scene from RoboCop Citizens Arrest issue 5 (Fig 1). If you remove the gutters between each panel you are left with a single image of a family on a sofa with a number of characters getting shot in the background. As one image it would give the impression that each character is being shot by someone different, all at the same time, whereas splitting the panel, like Jorge Coelho does here, it illustrates that a single assailant is picking off those in the background. The fact that the family on the sofa don’t appear to have changed position shows the speed at which RoboCop is shooting. The gutters imply the passage of time and the image leads the reader to the conclusion that the moment is very minimal. Change the image, for example by having the family in different positions from seated calmly to diving for cover, and instantly the length of time depicted has altered. The gutters aren’t the only aspect of time control the creators have. The size and shape of the panels also play their part. And, of course, the contents of a panel greatly influence a reader’s perception of time. A good artist/writer team can push the boundaries of a reader’s expectation of linear time.
Fig 2: Watchmen, Issue 1, Page 1
Take, for example, the opening page of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (Fig 2). The 7 panel sequence is of a police inspector watching a man wash blood from the sidewalk. Gibbons adjusts the viewpoint of each panel so that it is further away from the street, giving the impression that the reader is slowly moving upwards, away from the figures. He also adds in a figure who walks from the top of the frame in panel 3 to the bottom of the frame in panel 5. These two aspects added together give the reader some impression of the time that passes from panel 1 to panel 7; it is very much ‘real time’ and a readers’ personal experience of walking along a pavement quantifies this.
However, an additional aspect is added to the first 6 panels that interferes with our natural sense of linear time: Rorschach’s journal entry. Moore’s script and Gibbons’ lettering forms a large part of each panel. There is a lot of text to read and the tone of the writing is grim and uncomfortable. It’s not easy reading and whether you are new to the work or have read it hundreds of times, the pace at which you read the journal entry is slow and steady. This is in contrast to the imagery. Suddenly the real time aspect of watching the man walk along the street becomes a macabre slow motion effect. The grimness of the journal is then reflected in the visual images creating a much more disturbing scene, allowing the reader the time to linger on the art work. This is made possible by the creators’ manipulation of the reader’s expectation of the passage of time.
In Abbott, published by Boom! Studios, written by Saladin Ahmen and illustrated by Sami Kivela, the creators control the passage of time through subtle movements of the characters in the panels. In a sequence where the titular character returns to her office (Fig 3), the background changes with changing signs and colour washes on the buildings, but the time is controlled by the fact that very little change has occurred to Abbott herself. Overlay this with smaller panels of Abbott lighting a cigarette and it gives the impression that she has quickly moved through the city to where she needs to be. Her walking speed, and in turn the reader’s impression of time passed, is laid out in the sequence of images and does not relay on any speech, captions, or text. Placement, positioning and panel contents all work together to manipulate the reader’s impression of linear time on a comic page. It’s a difficult balancing exercise and not everything can be taken into account but one thing is for certain, everyone involved with the production of the comic has their part to play from writer and artist to colourist and letterer. Each aspect has to be working from the same brief or that manipulation won’t have the desired effect.
Fig 3: Abbott, issue 1, page 9
One of the most important tools for a story teller is the ability to relate a character’s current experiences to those of their past: the flashback sequence. Stephen King use flashbacks to great effect in his novels to illustrate the growth, or often decline, of his characters. And at the end of movie Fight Club, David Fincher uses a quick succession of flashbacks to explain the very essence of the movie.
There are a number of ways to illustrate a flashback in the pages of a comic, depending on the purpose of the flashback and how obvious the creators want to be when drawing parallels in the narrative. The interjection can be applied in a simplistic, straight forward manor with captions leading the reader or more creative techniques can be applied.
One of the most common uses of the flashback is where a story opens with a gripping, action sequence which ends on a cliff-hanger or other overtly dramatic moment and then the narrative, and in most cases the rest of the issue, jumps back to tell the preceding story. This is an easy way of hooking a reader into a story: give them the drama at the beginning and hope they want to stick around to see how the story unfolds. It is a technique that is more successful with established characters and the majority of readers will already be emotional invested in them so detailing Captain America getting shot by a friend, for example, at the beginning of a story instantly creates a tense and mysterious narrative. There are however a number of more exciting and creative ways to employ a Flashback.
Fig 4: Avengers, Issue 7, Pages 13 and 16
In Avengers No. 7 May 2013 written by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver, the story revolves around the emergence of a new Starbrand and the comic actually contains examples of two different types of flashback. There is a very straight forward example of external analepsis, that is viewing a series of events that happened before the main story the reader is following. There are several pages each with a ‘number of hours earlier’ caption at the top (Fig 4). While the Avengers are doing what they do, the creators are introducing the readers to a number of different characters, building suspense and, although not immediately obvious, creating a mystery. These few pages, which follow a number of college students through their day to day interactions, also helps to increase the tragedy of the following events. The single page scenes give the narrative a human face which the reader relates to when the situation takes a turn for the worse.
But they also serve another purpose and this is a smarter use of a flashback sequence. The main narrative, with the Avengers, is leading the heroes towards the arrival of the new Starbrand. The interjections of the external analepsis lead the reader to believe that they are being introduced to the character in the past, which of course is true, but not in an obvious way. Towards the end of the issue there is a superb example of an Interior analepsis; where the narrative flashbacks to events which it has previously shown. The page is black and white for the most part with a single figure highlighted in gold (Fig 5). Each panel is a recreation of panels from previous pages with the important character, the new Starbrand, being the highlighted character. The twist is that it isn’t any of the central characters from those original flashbacks but a background character who is in each of the sequences. The combination of both of these flashback techniques allows the creators of the comic to play with the readers understanding of Superhero conventions. The introduction of a new character by a massive fan-fare, the explosion that levels the college, is contrasted with the fact that the character is just a face in the background. Easy to miss and easier to dismiss. Hickman and Co. build up the suspense through the comic and then slaps the reader in the face on the penultimate page with this reference to the ‘everyman’, which is a staple of Marvel’s Superhero Universe.
Fig 5: Avengers, Issue 7, Page 22
The flashback sequences in the Avengers example above are primarily there to progress the story but these narrative tricks can also be used for other purposes, such as emotional emphasis, as in J O’Barr’s seminal work The Crow.
The story is a violent, revenge fuelled drama with a touch of the supernatural. At the start of Book Four, there is a flashback sequence which explains the reason for Eric Draven’s return from the dead to exact revenge, however, previous chapters of the book have featured numerous flashback sequences whose sole purpose are to create an emotional link to the central character. Towards the end of Book Three Eric returns to his desolate home to dwell on his past life. He begins to self-harm, an act of anger and frustration, and O’Barr feeds in panels of Shelly, Eric’s lost lover (Fig 6). The artwork changes in style; it becomes softer focused with subtle shades of grey replacing the harsh, solid black inks of the present day. At first the images are melancholy as if Eric is staring into his past, watching it from afar. This sequence, broken by several panels reflecting Eric in the present, is more dreamlike, evoking sympathy for the central character but then the narrative becomes a direct flashback with no emotional bias from Eric. The art work is the same style as the present but is lighter, clearer. This reinforces the emotional impact of the dreamlike panels from the first few pages and illustrates Eric’s emotional distress. Flashbacks can serve the story in a multiple of ways; by enhancing the setting and the character, and by imparting information necessary for the reader to be able to understand and follow the narrative. The technique can be used to create tension or mystery within a story or provide a shocking twist which sheds new light on the narrative.
Fig 6: The Crow, Book 3
Sometimes the telling of a story involves unfurling two narratives at the same time which relate to the central concept of the story but are set in different time periods. This is similar to a flashback but the main difference is that this technique is usually a more sustained piece of story-telling which relates not only to what is happening in the ‘now’ but is also a contains a narrative in itself. A flashback would tell you how one character got from A to B but sometimes the creators want to juxtapose two stories to increase the emotional intensity. This highlights that there is a history involved in the modern day story line, a deeper relevance or larger stakes.
Take, for example, Quarry’s War from Titan Comics. The first issue tells the story of the central character at two periods of time in his life; the first set during his time as a soldier in Vietnam and the second as a mercenary set three years later. The two stories are seemingly unrelated however they both show Quarry in preparation for a job/mission and the execution of that job/mission. They are thematically linked and each enhances the characteristics on display in the other.
The beauty of Quarry’s War is the way that the two story lines are presented. Instead of featuring a scene from one story followed by a scene from another, they are presented side by side on opposing pages. The introduction page is split right down the middle with the figure of Quarry dressed half as a hit man and half as a soldier. From this point onwards, as the reader turns the pages they are greeted with one page, on the left, relating to the 1972 exploits and the other page, on the right, set in Vietnam. This pattern follows on every page of the comic (Fig 7).
This approach allows Max Allan Collins and Szymon Kudranski to contrast the story at every moment, showing how the one story has affected the character in the other. In this issue there is no link between these two stories other than the emotional one but this is enough. The cold hearted, suspicious Quarry of the ‘present’ is a bleak reflection of the hardened soldier in the Vietnam War. After the actions of the past it is easier to accept the detachment of the present. Without this comparison Quarry would so easily become a two dimensional James Bond type. However, Collins is able to give the reader a complex reading of the character with this page by page juxtaposition.
Fig 7: Quarry’s War, issue 1, pages 2 and 3
There are other approaches to presenting two story lines at the same time; some of these apply different techniques and artistic styles to differentiate between the narratives. Cry Havoc, a horror comic written by Simon Spurrier and art by Ryan Kelly, employs the use of multiple colourists on each time line.
The story evolves throughout the 6 issues by telling the story of the central character, Louise Canton, in three separate time periods, each feeding into the other. What makes this comic outstanding is the way that each colourist uses a single main colour to represent the time frame they are working on. The gutters of the panels are solid colours relating to the time period that the panel is set in and then the colour coding seeps into the panel itself. The ‘start’ of the story is set in Afghanistan and Matt Wilson gives it a military feel with an over-riding green wash. The London setting, coloured by Nick Filardi, has blue as it’s central colour, a wash which gives the panels a permanent twilight feel. And, finally, Lee Loughridge’s present setting is soaked in a violent red. The colour scheme not only helps to identify the time setting for each part of the narrative but also represents the theme of that portion of the story. Green for military action, Blue for the night where the werewolf transformation takes over and the Red for the final confrontation.
Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko employ a similar approach in their on-going political comic Invisible Republic. However, the colour work by Jordan Boyd is subtler than in Cry Havoc giving the ‘present’ a colder, greyer look compared to the past’s dream like colour palate. The soft yellows and muted greens give the past a nostalgic feel, as if the story teller is remembering a better time. This ultimately isn’t how the story plays out but it is the impression that is given at the start. How Hardman and Bechko’s work differs is that they use a number of different tells to show what time period the reader is currently in. The ‘present’ lacks boarders on the panels and on the speech balloons, the past by contrast has the standard black boarders (Fig 8). There is also a lead into the historical story, usually through the use of a memoir read by one of the characters which starts in a present panel and leads into the past.
Fig 8: Invisible Republic, Issue 1, pages 1 and 8
As discussed in this essay, there are a number of time frames that can appear in any comic and a variety of ways to depict these. Some are straight forward and others are more complex but all of them require an element of understanding from the reader to follow the shifts in time. In fact, the reader, to a greater or lesser degree, has some control over the passage of time and how they interpret this across the pages.
However, a clever writer/artist team can draw from the well of techniques on offer to actually manipulate the reader into believing one thing while something different is happening; it is the equivalent to a magician’s sleight of hand trick. A prime example of this is issue 5 of Days of Hate from Image Comics, written by Ales Kot, drawn by Danijel Zezelj, coloured by Jordie Bellaire and Lettered by Aditya Bidikar.
The creators of Days of Hate use a whole collection of comic books techniques to lead the reader through the narrative and it is in issue 5 where the culmination of these techniques come into their own, allowing Kot to surprise the reader with a dramatic ending. The narrative follows several characters as they move their own, individual way through a dystopian, not-too-distant future America. After the initial Splash Page, each following page is split into three equal sized panels, each one representing a character’s story as they begin to merge further down the line. In Kansas City Amanda is preparing to move out of her secret bolt hole; in Manhattan the political figure Freeman is arranging the capture of Amanda; and in Upstate New York Xing tries to connect with her mother while reflecting on her betrayal of Amanda. Or so it all appears to begin with.
Each of the characters is given their own colour palate by the outstanding colourist Jordie Bellaire. There is precedent set up in the earlier issues so it does not seem out of place here. The colour coding creates a sense of familiarity. As a reader, we are used to each of the characters having their own colour wash, when we see the yellowish panels we know that this part of the story revolves around Amanda. The same goes for the purple for Freeman and grey for Xing.
It also helps with the impression of time passing, especially in the middle third of the page where the narrative follows a SWAT team closing in on Amanda. In these panels it starts with the red/purplish colour associated with Freeman, they are after all his men, but the colour slowly changes, fades from Red to yellow as the SWAT team close in. The closer they get to Amanda’s position the more the colour matches. As a reader we get a visual representation of the two story elements meeting up. As the colour drains from one set of panels the tension of the comic is heightened. Will the hero be caught?
The layout of the entire issue is about building on this tension and leading the reader down a certain path. The opening splash page sets the scene and is referred to at several points over the following pages. Page 1 has a muted colour palate with a bright moon hung ominously over the scene. It is the peace before the storm. From this page it leads into a set format designed to make you think that each of the scenes is happening concurrently. Certain elements reinforce this, such as the dusk like setting behind Freeman and the reappearance of the Moon in Xing’s panels. From there the pages are split into three rectangle panels piled on top of each other. This simple, straight forward layout gives the reader the impression that each of the scenes depicted are happened at the same time, a concept reflected in the separate narratives.
The central panel narrative of each page is the one that feeds into the reading that all of these events are happening together. The reoccurrence of elements from the opening splash page, linking background images and the slow change in colour palates. The biggest hint that the reader is witnessing events unfolding together is the script. As Amanda is slowly covering her tracks, Freeman talks about knowing where she is and the limited time period they have. In conjunction with Xing’s conversation with her mother, which can be read as a self-justification for selling out her ex-wife, the narrative leads the reader to believe that Xing has told Freeman where Amanda is and it is all leading to a scene where Amanda is going to get caught; especially as she is still seen in the garage lock up as the SWAT team close in on her location.
Each of the first 24 pages of Days of Hate #5 want the reader to believe that Amanda is going to get caught because of Xing. But the final page switches everything that has been set up. The last three panels show Amanda getting away, an explosion engulfing the SWAT team, and a final, knowing look out of the page, at the reader, from Xing. All of the previous pages set up has been a deceit, with the readers understanding of time having being manipulated to create a false threat. It is a superb denouement to an excellently paced and crafted comic. It also highlights the ongoing themes of the 12 issue run of the title. At the heart of Days of Hate is misrepresentation of information, fake news, the manipulation of people, so it is fitting that this is exactly what the creators do in the penultimate issue for the first arc. They demonstrate through their own narrative how media, images and words can be used to manipulate understanding.
Fig 9: Days of Hate, Issue 5, Pages 1, 20 and 24
The representation of time in a narrative is a complex and important tool for the telling of a story. Whether a creator’s approach is simple or complex the way that ‘time’ is represented can change a readers understanding of the narrative or can be used to enhance the narrative, for example by giving the end of an issue a massive twist. I have primarily looked at American Style comic books for this essay, the subject becomes even more complex and varied when you take into account different social and geographical cultures. Manga and European comics have their own styles and techniques which broaden the visual lexicon, creating yet more ways to tell a story.
Bibliography PanelXPanel, volume 2, issue 13. Digital magazine published in July 2018. Understanding Comics The Invisible Art Written by Scott McCloud. Published by William Morrow (HarperCollins Publisher) in 1994. Comics and Sequential Art Written by Will Eisner. Published by Poorhouse Press in 1985. Cry Havoc Written by Simon Spurrier. Art by Ryan Kelly. Colours by Nick Filardi, Lee Loughridge, Matt Wilson. Lettering by Simon Bowland. Designed by Emma Price. Published by Image comics between January and June 2016. See additional comics listed in the Illustration List below. Illustration List Fig 1: Detail from Page 4 of RoboCop Citizens Arrest, issue 5. Published by Boom! Studios April 2018, written by Brian Wood and drawn by Jorge Coelho Fig 2: Page 1 of Wacthmen, issue 1. Published by DC Comics in September 1986, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons Fig 3: Detail from Page 9 of Abbott, issue 1. Published by Boom! Studios in January 2018, written by Saladin Ahmed and drawn by Sami Kivela Fig 4: Pages 13 and 16 of Avengers, issue 7. Published by Marvel Comics in May 2013, written by Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Dustin Weaver and coloured by Justin Ponsor Fig 5: Page 22 of Avengers, issue 7. See above Fig 6: Extracts from The Crow, book 3. From the collected edition Published by Kitchen Sink Press in 1994, written/drawn by J O’Barr Fig 7: Pages 2 and 3 of Quarry’s War, issue 1. Published by Titan Comics in December 2017, written by Max Allen Collins and drawn by Szymon Kudranski Fig 8: Pages 1 and 8 of Invisible Republic, issue 1. Published by Image Comics in February 2015, written by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko and drawn by Gabriel Hardman. Colours by Jordan Boyd Fig 9: Pages 1, 20 and 24 of Days of Hate, issue 5. Published by Image Comics in May 2018, written by Ales Kot, drawn by Danijel Zezelj, lettered by Aditya Bidikar, and coloured by Jordie Bellaire