The Proper Use of Flipbook Fluctuations

Chris Ware practices a subtle form of storytelling.  It is only his total understanding of comics on its most molecular level that allows him to frequently employ a series of stock panel transitions that would be a bunch of lazy mistakes in others’ hands.  I am speaking of “flipbook transitions.”  You know the ones; they seem to come so naturally.  Same scene, same setup, same background, same distance, same framing, same lighting — slight movement of some body part or character.  “Talking heads” scenes, even when talking about buildings or food (ironically, Ben Katchor actually never falls prey to this), fit under this category as well.  These transitions lead to a very monotonous read and, typically, a visually wooden page.  If you find yourself constantly drawing these sorts of tiny movement, animation transitions, your story is probably being unnecessarily stretched and you’ve got visual fat you can trim.  Save the panels and the page space for the climactic action scene.  You can show me banality in one shot of the protagonist picking his nose, I don’t need every grusome detail: sniff, itchy finger wiggle, hand off leg, finger extends, finger probes — you get the hideous picture.  Even when it’s not something as childish as nosepicking, these stretches are just as miserable to the reader.  One wants to shout, “Get on with it!”  Variety is the spice of comics as well, and it’s a big hurdle to surmount if my eyes begin reading a panel with “God, haven’t I seen this before!  I didn’t like the framing of the table or the poorly drawn tree out the window any better when I saw it in the last shot.”

However, Chris Ware is aiming at depicting NOT the dull tiny moments of necessary mundanity we all know and ignore, but RATHER those tiny moments of beauty inside a day that we, and often his characters, miss.    He traces the progression of a sunbeam across a messy table.  Snow begins to fall.  A bird cocks its head on a city wire.  Or, most famously, a costumed man commits suicide in a one-two flipbook transition without a fall, seeming to suggest Ware believes none of us really deserve much fanfare when our time is up.  He also employs these second to second transitions to painfully demonstrate the social awkwardness of his cast.  Nervous ticks, like two panels of knuckle-cracking, coughing, or nervous laughter, take center stage to emphasize the absence of the speaking which should be occurring.  For Ware, God is in the details, and tiny movements are certainly best served by the animators approach.  Ware shoves these repetitions into neat little boxes, and given the consistency of their colors, this gives his overall page wonderful pattern-like sections.

BUT given the theme of today’s lesson, I’d rather not dwell on subtle exceptions just yet.  Ware’s beauty will one day fill this site.  The issue at hand is ACTION, and as Ang Lee’s terrible Hulk demonstrated, action has little need for subtlety.  Well, Chris can help us here too.  The man can really do anything.  You want action?  How’s severed head for action?

art: Chris Ware  book: Quimby Mouse  publisher: Fantagraphics Books  © F. Chris Ware

art: Chris Ware book: Quimby Mouse publisher: Fantagraphics Books © F. Chris Ware

And here’s a zoom-in of the crucial animal-abusing bit.  (Man, this has somehow become a theme.  Sorry Sean.)

art: Chris Ware  book: Quimby Mouse  publisher: Fantagraphics Books  © F. Chris Ware

art: Chris Ware book: Quimby Mouse publisher: Fantagraphics Books © F. Chris Ware

There is such a beautiful airiness to the way that severed cat’s head is flying through the ether.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more convincing illustration of a round object moving through space, and I’m not even being slightly facetious.  I know of few things artists hate to see in or put into their scripts than a thrown object.  That movement has so many pieces to it and so many considerations.  Do I show it leaving the hand (or in this case foot)?  How do I show how long it’s been in the air?  Can I even skip that and just show the result?  How do I make it look like it’s really whipping along?  Speedlines?  Background blur?  How many different backgrounds should I show it in front of to indicate the length of its journey?  A cartoony starburst when it hits?

Ware makes this all look effortless.  That head is clearly hurtling through space at a tremendous speed and hitting hard.  But there is no background at all.  No speedlines.  And he even gets all this motion against the direction of our read!  How does he get all that movement unto a page??!?

Because he realizes one simple fact.  Nothing is moving on a comic page.  Once he settles himself into the reality of that utterly profound truism, he takes a deep breath and does exactly the opposite of what anyone trying desperately to create energy would do: he eliminates all distractions, he finds the exact center of each panel, and he draws the head three times exactly the same but once facing left, next right, then down.


Seriously?  Why the heck should that work…?  That thing seems to be spinning and flying and hovering…  It’s just left, right, down?  That’s not movement!  That’s a Contra code!

Well, honestly, much of the movement comes from Ware’s placement of these panels on the page.  I’ve screwed with this on the zoom-in for the sake of space, but in the original you can see the kick comes at the extreme right of the page.  This means my head has to cross the entire distance of a wide page to get to the result of that kick.  The poor head is not just crossing an eighth-inch gutter, it’s been forced across the whole physical space of the page.  Also, this directional movement necessitates the aforementioned “problem” of the flight moving against the direction of our read.  Ware milks this for mileage.  He knew the opposing forces of actual eye movement and imagined severed head movement would create a sort of visual dissonance, the result being a rotated image that seems to hover and shimmer in a Newtonian struggle between balanced pushes and pulls.

Also, despite my previous talk of speed, the effect of these three panels is more a measured pause.  The speed comes abruptly with the impact of the hit and the successive cartoony spiral of the roll.  The contrast in these handlings is what gives the sequence its energy, and thus, speed.  Because to reiterate what we started with, flipbook transitions, which I will from this point forth refer to as “rhyming panels,” are made for tiny moments.  By employing them in an action scene, Ware slows down the hub-bub, which would quite literally just be a blur, so we can appreciate its component parts.  This heightens our involvement in the scene.

Wow, heavy stuff for a pretty stupid-looking scene.

Well, let’s have a look at an actually stupid scene so we can see these transitions employed smartly again, but a tad more simply.  And I can think of few more gleefully stupid (and offensive) books than Jason Pearson’s Body Bags.  (In America that is — Japan’s full of ’em, god bless their hearts.)

art: Jason Pearson  book: Body Bags  publisher: Dark Horse Comics  © Jason Pearson

art: Jason Pearson book: Body Bags publisher: Dark Horse Comics © Jason Pearson

Notice how Pearson uses two sets of rhyming panels over the course of two pages, and even finishes with the related “shared background” panel transition at the end.  This may seem like laziness or overkill, but in the context of these pages I can’t fault his choices at all.  Both sets of rhyming panels are perfectly employed and help punctuate and slow a scene that is bloated with action.

In the top tier of the first page, Pearson needs the frantic struggle of the man fighting to get into his locked car to be slowed by the literal shadow of impending doom.  Great place for a rhyming pair.  Notice the shots are framed exactly the same in equally sized panels, and have the same background, figure placement and colors.  All of this means his viewer can focus on the only thing that does change: the lighting on the character and his expression as he realizes why.  These flipbook panel transitions should be thought of as carefully planned scientific experiments.  Everything is controlled, that is kept the same, except what is being studied.  It is only in light of all this sameness that true distinctions will be noticed.  The subtle but extremely important shift in tone would not come across at all if we had a camera “move” between them, or even if the shapes or colors had changed, and all the humor and tension (really the same thing) would be lost.

The camera then makes some appropriately dramatic moves and pulls during the intense action that follows, but as soon as the action cools for a moment, Pearson is right back with another rows of rhymes at the top of the next page.  This time it is a larger series of three close-ups that cross the whole tier.  In some respects, this is the “talking heads” use of the trope I referred to earlier, but Pearson is too kinetic to bore us with dialogue-heavy scenes for even a moment.  Trust me, Body Bags does not rely on pages of heady conversations.  The talking head is a humorous pastiche here.  Pearson isn’t keeping the framing consistent here so we focus on the words, he wants us to catch every gruesome bit of the action!  The banal framing runs counter to the horror of the happenings, adding an appropriate irony to the proceedings.  The one-two-three nature of the plain Jane transitions emphasizes how secure the guy really thought he was here.  Just everyday business — OHMIGOD! And you thought the drawn out nose picking example was horrible.  Despite the awfullness, we can clearly see from the rhyming transitions only that the intent here is humor.  If our camera were zooming tighter and tighter in on the wound, we would be in the world of completely crass and exploitative gore that certain critics accused the supposedly stunted Pearson of making.  Hey!  It’s dumb, but it’s trying to be dumb!  And it is.  Which makes it smart.  And, according to art school, makes it okay.

The very last tier is a slight variation on our topic.  It’s the rhyming panel with a slight pan.  It’s accomplished by drawing two vertical lines on a single drawing with a detailed background, and erasing the stuff in between those lines.  This creates, naturally, a gutter, but it performs amazing tricks with time.  Miraculously, you have now added a millisecond of movement to a consistent, static scene.  I know I overuse this word, but seriously, Pearson does this brilliantly here.  There is movement within the panels already, even before the gutter-break.  Bullets are flying at split second intervals throughout.  Four bullets, to be exact.  In “reality,” they were all probably equally spaced time-wise, separated only by the infinitesimal time it takes the gun to get the next one into the chamber and eject it.  But here, three hit bam, bam, bam (or TOOM, TOOM, TOOM) in the first panel, from left to right, naturally, following our read of the sound effects.  They can hit in the rapid succession of intra-panel time because ultimately, they don’t matter.  Didn’t hit the hero, just screwed up the car.  But the fourth, ah, there’s a different story.  It’s going to hit that now perfectly framed gas cap with a TUNK and a slight pause.  And we’re going to need that dramatic pause, that freezing of time the gutter brings even across a single scene, to really drink in that image and the import of it.  Without that gutter, we’d be like the gleeful gas station smokers in Zoolander, not even considering the ramifications.  It’d just be one more bullet.  And with a different angle or framing, the pause would be far too long.  It is all really one action.

See, rhyming panels always punctuate those slight movements.  It’s always a one-two punch.  Or a boom-boom-boom.  Or, inevitably, a tic-tic–

art: Jason Pearson  book: Body Bags  publisher: Dark Horse Comics  © Jason Pearson

art: Jason Pearson book: Body Bags publisher: Dark Horse Comics © Jason Pearson