Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Deep Sequencing: Talking About Talking

Or a look at the interaction of speech and sound in Black Widow #5, Island: Habitat, and Cerebus: High Society
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Simon Roy; and Dave Sim, respectively.

I've been thinking about word balloons lately. Specifically how they represent sound, and how sound is experienced by an audience. Listening to speech is an active process by an audience, they have to like, actually listen. I've been keeping my eye out for comics that play with this fact to create some interesting comics moments. And I have some examples for you!

There will be *SPOILERS* for Black Widow 5, Cerebus: High Society, and Island: Habitat.

The first example is from Black Widow #5. In this case the third panel in the bottom row has a cut off repeat of the speech bubble from the second panel. It is recognizably the same bubble of text, but it isn't actually fully legible in the panel. On the one hand, this little snippet of half seen text acts as a time stamp and makes sure the reader recognizes that panels 2 and 3 happen simultaneously. But, I think it's more than that. I think the fact the text is cutoff makes it... out of focus. It's like sound that is happening but not actually being listened to. I think is meant to show that the guy with the gun to his head isn't paying attention to what is being said and is instead thinking about something else. Which given the his following words and actions, makes me believe that this character is centring himself for what is about to happen in this panel. If you buy into this theory, the way this speech bubble is used here is very smart.

The next example is from Habitat, a comic that I originally read as part of the Island anthology. This comic portrays a damaged spaceship where the crew and interior has gone feral. So like, instead of a futuristic crew there are people wearing loin clothes and throwing spears organized into tribes based on their ancestors (I think) section specialization (security, engineering, etc). It's a comic that works because it creates a fully realized tactile world of human desperation in a huge, thoughtfully constructed world of wilderness and technology. I think this example of how speech is used is a great example of the kind of suspension of disbelief that makes this comic effective. In the above scene, one of the feral crewmen boards a battlemech type thing and is sealed in a cockpit. Outside the cockpit, overlaid by the green of the cockpit's glass is another feral crewman barking orders. This choice conveys the separation between in the cockpit and out, but it also really sells a sense of realism: there is muffled, tertiary sound. Which is a fascinating choice. Many comics make an effort to streamline narrative information and to use the readers focus. This is unrealistic, since in real life out of context people, events, and noises are always happening. So creating out of focus sound like this helps build a sense of a busy, populated world. And the use of glass here to create clarity and separation in this example is cleverly simple solution to making this work. 

I think my favourite example of the interaction between speech narration and an audience is this one from Cerebus: High Society. In this example a man is giving a speech to a crowd announcing who the next Prime Minister would be, but as soon as the crowd hears Cerebus' name announced they go bananas and sound of their celebration drowns out the rest of the speech. This is represented visually by the jubilant crowd's silhouette actually overlapping and blocking out the speech bubble. Which is just a wonderful graphical approach to this: it captures the emotion and action of the crowd and creates a clear, visual symbol of an audience over powering a speaker. It is a moment of very accomplished comics.

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