Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Deep Sequencing: Nameless and Speachless

Or a look at deliberate pause panels in The Nameless City
by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire; First Second Publishing

I recently listened to an interview podcast featuring Faith Erin Hicks talking about The Nameless City. (The Podcast was "Off Panel" and it's my favourite comics interview podcast right now.) While on this podcast Hicks remarked that she has "pages and pages of characters staring at each other", and that with her comics "you get about 50 pages of plot and 150 pages of people staring at each other." This is clearly an exaggeration, but I thought this was an interesting statement worth taking a look at. 

Upon an exhaustive review of The Nameless City the comic contains 1146 story panels and about 156 are what I would call "stare" panels (give or take a few). Which means that about 13% of comic panels in The Nameless City is devoted to "staring". Which isn't an insignificant amount of storytelling space, which makes me think this is a deliberate and important choice. And taking a look at it, it's pretty clear that Hicks is using these panels to shape storytelling and I think, to provide key characterization information to the reader. 

There may be *SPOILERS* for The Nameless City below.

The first, and I think most obvious role of the "stare" panels in The Nameless City is that it stretches moments. In comics panels are, among other things, units of time: each sequential panel marks a potential storytelling moment. The more panels a given action or situation is allotted, the longer that moment takes to read and the longer the moment feels to the reader. Straight forward, right? The inclusion of the "stare" panels can, and often does, function to add an extra moment to a given situation which can increase the perceived significance of the moment. Because in a comic, space is time is money and effort. It can also alter the flow of the story in significant ways. Like in the top situation the inclusion of the middle "stare" panel provides that awkward, queasy moment of silence and inaction that lends the declaration of cowardice some actual weight. Or, in the second selection, the inclusion of the middle "stare" panel creates an awkward pause that stretches the moment providing character information (the father and son don't really know each other) but also creates this great, awkward comedic beat. In both these cases removing the "stare" panel changes the pacing in a way that hurts the storytelling of the story.

Another important role of the "stare" panels is to inject emotion directly into the comic. The term "stare" panel is something of a misnomer, since the majority of them involve some pretty delightfully extreme emoting. Characters frown, or smirk, grimace, smile, horror, and make very nuanced, very particular expressions in these panels. These panels serve to blare emotions at the reader like in the above selection where Kai, the guy, is sending us WORRY/HORROR!. This gives us his emotional state of mind and sets the reader with the expectation that what Rat, the young woman, is doing is bad and a big deal. Other story media have the tenor of the actors voice or sound/music design to drive emotional context, and I think these emotive "stare" panels serve that same purpose in The Nameless City.

Beyond just being good storytelling, I think these "stare" panels do a lot to inform the reader about the characters of Kai and Rat. Specifically, I think the way these panels function as a pacing tool is important for Kai. Kai is a newcomer in a strange city who is inexperienced and a bit trepidatious about his new surroundings. He is also a thoughtful guy who seems to care about the consequences of his actions. What "stare" panels of him do is create these story pauses where we get to see Kai think. This means that when he is confronted with something new, rather than instinctually reacting to it, he stops and "stares" while he deliberates what to do next. Therefore the reader gets to experience the process of being Kai as he navigates his new home. This is the comic using a pacing tool to constantly demonstrate a fundamental aspect of one of the characters. Which is pretty cool.

(It's also maybe significant that the number of "stare"panels decreases sharply when Kai "does the thing" near the climax of the story. Resolution through layout.)


The "stare" panels are also really important for the character of Rat. In this case, I think the emoting aspect of these panels is super important for my conception of the character. Rat comports herself as a tough, streetwise person who is somewhat blasé about the feelings of others. But I get the sense that a lot of this is an act, a persona she puts on, and I get this sense largely from the emoting "stare" panels. These panels give this unguarded look at Rat as she reacts to hurting Kai's feelings, or having her prejudices confronted, or spotting a friend. It shows readers that despite the Rats tough persona, she does in fact care about those around her. Which means that my conception of Rat as a character is born out of the tension between what the character says about herself and how she emotes when no one but the reader is looking. Which is an extremely nuanced piece of storytelling that is achieved by "stare" panels.

Which is all, I think, a case for why "stare" panels comprise 13% of the comic panels.

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