Or breaking conventions to enhance storytelling in Sweet Tooth: Wild Game
By Jeff Lemire; Vertigo Comics.
One of the essential characteristics of comics is that they follow a series of rules. The story is broken into images that contain text in a number of formalized boxes and balloons. The sequence of images, for American comics, run from top left to bottom right, moving across the page and then down a row. The pages are arranged in an order that goes from front cover to back cover. The point of these conventions is that everyone, readers and creators all, understand the basic structure of the narrative so that readers can focus on the story itself instead of exerting effort trying to figure out how to read it. It means that you and me can read a comic and pay absolutely no attention to how the comic works and still get a really great story.
The thing is, sometimes the conventions are not the best way to tell a particular story or sequence of events. Sometimes more dramatic information or atmosphere can be conveyed by breaking the rules and making comics that present the sequence of events in unpredictable and interesting ways. Of course, the trick to doing this is to create unconventional comics that don't confuse the readers. Sweet Tooth: Wild Games has a couple great examples of breaking the rules to make interesting comics.
This post will contain *SPOILERS* for Sweet Tooth.
This page breaks the rules in a really simple, but effective way. The magic here is that instead of moving from the top left corner to the bottom right, the comics page has characters and events move from the bottom of the page to the top against the flow of conventions. This is pretty neat in that we literally get to travel up the ladder with the characters along a tall thin panel. The way this page leads readers through the unconventional ladder climb is pretty interesting too. Basically, this trick relies almost entirely on the speech balloons as a visual guide: in the bottom left panel, the speech balloon peaks into the tall middle panel which guides into the right starting point for the ladder climb. Then of course the speech bubbles along the climbing route keep everything on track. This sequence is rule breaking comics that elegantly enhances the moment, all while leading the reader through the page. It's simple, great comics.
This double page spread does something even more unconventional and dramatic. In short, a trap is sprung that sees a series of hidden explosives destroy an incoming militia convoy. The convention breaking razzle-dazzle to this spread is the fuse, which does some pretty cool things. Rather than have the fuse go from left to right into the page gap seam, the fuse goes right to left, travels up the page, and then left to right across the top of the page. This does three really cool things. First it drags out the moment: like a real fuse which races breathlessly to an explosive the fiery line depicted here is so long that it holds the readers focus for the length of a real fuse. Second, the fact the fuse line in the comic runs from its origin to the explosion actually lets the audience trace the path of the burning fuse, which imparts a sense of time and motion to the fuse which adds so much drama. It's like the comics equivalent of the camera panning along the burning fuse in a movie. Third, this approach makes the explosion itself much more dramatic: by taking the reader the long way to the next page, the fuse stops the reader from getting to the explosion too quickly. Moreover, the fact the fuse breaks rules and requires extra reader concentration helps make the explosion pay off more... it's like a form of delayed gratification. This is a really, really great rule breaking sequence that hugely improves the sequence depicted.
So there you have it two convention shattering sequences from Sweet Tooth: Wild Game that exemplify the value of breaking the rules sometimes and how to do so in way that keeps reader in the loop. It's great comics.