... and why Alan Moore is our group's avatar - it's not because he's angrily staring!
So there’s no such thing as a “natural” pace of things – the way we experience the passage of time is always a bit of a negotiation between us and whatever the object of our present interest happens to be. You don’t really have to be a philosopher to understand this – if you’re bored in French class, time crawls by, if you’re hanging out with your friends, it goes too fast. I’m not trying to be lamely poetic, I’m just making a point in order to get to a better one. When you’re dealing with works of art (and, for the sake of argument, let’s say you not only like them, but you care about understanding them on their own terms), the pace of your experience is going to be determined in large part by the materials you’re dealing with. There is a book called Laocoon by a German poet named G.E. Lessing, really central to aesthetics and one of the most important books of the eighteenth century, that discusses this in depth, comparing poetry (by which he means all verbal arts) to painting (by which he means all of the visual arts of his time, which mostly amounted to painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture). It’s not something that people in the art world worry about nowadays – not that they don’t read it and think it’s good, but what we find acceptable as “art” is so different from Lessing’s day that (unless you’re a dogmatic Lessingian) not much of what he says applies to it. Unless, of course, you’re a painter or a poet – or, a comic artist.
But the lessons of the Laocoon don’t fully apply to comics, either, they’re just a good starting point to talk about certain properties of comics as a specific medium. Lessing probably wouldn’t have liked comics all that much, since they’re kind of a bastard medium, meaning they combine poetry and painting (which, Lessing thought, was exactly what artists shouldn’t be doing – he had good grounds for this, but we can ignore them since this isn’t really about Lessing). Whatever his complains might have been, comics do combine painting and poetry in ways that are more compatible with their basic essence, or, at least the essence of what they were in the eighteenth century. We deal with pictorial representation, and we deal with narrative. But the ways we deal with them are often subject to misunderstanding, especially if you look at comics too much through the lenses of one or the other of the poetic or painterly arts. In the US, comics have tended to be dramatic (Stan Lee always thought about plays when he was writing). In other traditions, it’s some variation or other on this – French comics tend to read like novels, Japanese comics tend to be cinematic in their approach (albeit from the cinematic tradition that stems from novels). Etc.
Here’s where I get to my point – if you’re looking at a work of comic art as a whole, meaning you’re considering not only the writing, but the drawing and everything else, you’ll see much more than whatever we’ve derived from other arts. Only if you treat comics as primarily poetic will you think of their pacing as if it’s a matter of the storyline, and only if you treat them as primarily pictorial will you think composition can ignore the rhythmic relation of panels. In its purer forms – classical drama, lyric, epic – poetry’s pace is the pace of rhythmic speech: it stops and starts when spoken, and the way the story is told is keyed to that. Homer is a perfect example, since there’s very little in the way of allegory in his poems; the Iliad just unfolds in a temporal sequence, with one event following the other (there are occasional flashbacks, but they are also told at the same pace as words unfold). Comics have pictures, and it makes all the difference. But, despite that fact, they’re not movies either. Movies come closer to what we think of as the “natural” pace of experience because their basic material is paced by the natural movement of what’s filmed. But they’re also edited, and that requires artistic intervention that will change the natural pace of things so much it has to be reconstructed if we want “realism.” Think about The Departed – on the one hand, it seems more realistic when Scorsese, instead of just filming an action, quickens it by cutting it so that there are jumps between parts of its natural sequence, somehow making it feel so much more realistic than if we had just seen it happen in front of us; on the other, when he does time scenes according to the “objective” pace of the world, like in the elevator scene where Leonardo di Caprio’s character is shot, he had to reconstruct everything around the time the elevator would have taken to reach the bottom floor. Comics aren’t paced to sequential visual experiences, either – on any given page, we can see all panels, so there’s no reason to, say, begin with an establishing shot; you can put it in your last panel, since the information will be in front of your readers even if they haven’t gotten to the end of the scene yet.
I don’t think it’s entirely controversial to say that the two writers of mainstream comics (i.e. published by DC or Marvel) who are most often credited with being “literary” are Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. And I’m going to say that, based on much of what I just said, Alan Moore is the better comics writer. That’s not to say that he’s a better writer as such – maybe we could get a literary critic to say that Gaiman’s scripts are better than Moore’s, or something like that. That’s not the point. Moore gets comics more than Gaiman does because he doesn’t just treat them like they’re illustrated books, and that’s why I’m saying he’s a better writer (this is why he is our avatar!). If you study Moore’s books, you’ll find out some weird stuff about comics pacing. Moore has kooky ideas about time (although they’re kind of like Plato’s, so maybe I should keep my mouth shut) – he thinks everything in the universe is happening at once, and only the limits of our minds prevent our perceiving it as such. But he knows that we have to deal with those limits, and when he wants to express these ideas, he uses comics because comics can do that. I first saw what he was doing when I read Watchmen for the five thousandth time. After a while, you start to notice that the some pages have their whole compositions repeated in later chapters, words and images cross-reference (notice how many times “pyramid” shows up – whether it’s in script, on someone’s jacket, on a dollar, in a direct image…), etc. A lot of this can be credited to Dave Gibbons, but Moore ultimately pieced the whole thing together (and he’s famous for drawing thumbnails of pages for his artists). The famous chapter with Dr. Manhattan recalling the events of his life out of chronological order is just an amplification of what’s going on across the whole series; same thing with the cross-referencing between the story in the pirate comic and the main plotline. Moore has figured out a lot of ways to express this – another famous one is the really cool sequence in From Hell where Dr. Gull and his driver have made a perfect pentagram shape traversing the city of London (Moore had to organize the sequence of events – and therefore of pages and panels – according to the map of a static physical location, which says a lot about the simultaneity of events, since space is just stasis).
One or two examples isn’t going to prove my judgment, but the judgment isn’t really the point. It’s just to say that if you’re looking at writing comics from more than one angle, I think you should look at Moore before Gaiman. Gaiman’s comics could just as well have been regular fantasy novels and it wouldn’t have made much difference to the story (in fact, given how crappy so many of Sandman’s artists were, it might have made them better). With Moore, you can see that his works simply had to be comics, or else they would have been different works entirely (the great thing about so many awful movies being made out of Moore’s comics is that it proves my point – the From Hell movie was a disaster in large part because every special-to-comics trick that Moore used had to be taken out – no matter how many people think comics are just a springboard to working in the movies, movies aren’t comics and comics aren’t movies). Most of what he did was based on something comics, and only comics, could do – put within our purview a number of individual scenes all at once, and allow us to turn the pages back to them when our memories are triggered by later pages.