Gutters: The Invisible Messenger
If one were to look at a comic they would see empty space between the panels that contain the illustrations and dialogue of the text. This is an obvious observation that has not so obvious implications. In the comic world this space is known as the gutter. The gutter is essential for comics to be successful because it allows for closure to happen. Scott McCloud describes closure as, “Observing the parts, but perceiving the whole.” This is important within comics because they are a medium that do not allow for actions to take place in real time. The author can only draw a static picture so how are they supposed to convey the passage of time and movement? This is where the reader and gutters come in to play.
Here we see an example used by Scott McCloud that shows how the gutter stimulates time and motion when the reader uses closure.
In the first panel there is a man about to be attacked by another with an axe. In the next panel we simply see a deathly scream rising from a cityscape. It is left up to us to decide what exactly happened between these two scenes. How did the man die? Where did the axe fall? Could the man have been saved and the scream was coming from the axe bearer? This is left for you to decide.
Gutters act as an invisible messenger within comics in that they pass information but are simply an empty space. Comic artists need gutters as well as the reader’s participation in drawing conclusions from them in order for time and motion to take place. Even though the reader draws his or her own conclusions, the author can greatly influence which conclusions are draw. Authors do this by using different types of panel-to-panel transitions within the gutter.
McCloud describes six types of panel-to-panel transitions, each requiring a different degree of closure from the reader. The first, and most simple, is movement-to-movement. Movement-to-movement transitions show basic movements occurring.
Action-to-action transitions show a single subject progressing through a specific movement.
Subject-to-subject transitions stays within a specific scene or idea and call for more reader involvement.
Scene-to-scene transitions take place across significant distances within time and space.
Aspect-to-aspect is unique in that it shows different aspects occurring simultaneously within the same scene.
Non-sequitur provides no logical connection between panels.
McCloud explains how this categorization method is an “inexact science” but is useful in helping to understand the story telling process of authors. Within comics, action-to-action transitions are by far the most common with subject-to-subject being next and scene-to-scene after that. While moment-to-moment, aspect-to-aspect and non-sequitur are very uncommon. The story telling process is useful in explaining why this occurs. Action-to-action, subject-to-subject and scene-to-scene transitions are most common because these types of transitions show things happening in succinct ways. This drives the story forward in the most effective way. On the other hand, movement-to-movement transitions are not common because these transitions do what action-to-action transitions do but need more panels to do so. Aspect-to-aspect transitions are not very effective when it comes to progressing the story because they use multiple panels to show the same scene. Lastly, non-sequitur transitions can only be used in very unique situations because they use panels to show things that are completely unrelated. Though McCloud has provided a standard for the different types of transitions in Understanding Comics, it is not always easy for the reader to distinguish between these while reading a comic book. Here is a look at some unique ways in which authors use transitions from the texts covered in our course:
First is an example of an aspect-to-aspect transition from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Silver Surfer. The whole page is taken by one large transition showing the reactions of people when first seeing the Silver Surfer. This is an effective use of aspect-to-aspect because Lee and Kirby were trying to emphasis how various people would react to an alien life form. The transition works very well in accomplishing this goal because the reader can see how numerous people are reacting to the silver surfer.
Often used to show the passing of a large amount of time or space, Will Eisner takes advantage of a scene-to-scene transition in his work A Contract With God. To effectively communicate that Frimme Hersh took care of his daughter, Rachele, from the time she was a baby, Eisner uses scene-to-scene to show the growth of the child under Hersh’s care.
Jim Steranko is very clever in his use of an aspect-to-aspect transition in Red Tide. (WARNING: Spoiler Alert!) In the last face off between Chandler and Bramson Todd when Chandler has realized Todd has been the killer all along, Steranko draws a picture using four different panels with the characters crossing the gutters in an aspect-to-aspect transition. This type of gutter-crossing is not used commonly, making it so that when this does happen, the reader should be aware that an important scene is taking place. Steranko uses this to his full advantage by drawing attention to this scene which is the climax of Red Tide.
Tantrum by Jules Feiffer consists of almost all subject-to-subject transitions. Each panel crosses the same scene or idea while also developing the scene or idea as the story progresses. In these scenes Leo is entering the baby rally looking for like-minded infants, these transitions are a good example of how Feiffer displays progression throughout Tantrum.
Gene Day uses transitions and gutters in an extremely unique way in his work Future Day. Day intended for the reader to be able to read this comic many times over so there are many strange transitions, connections, and hidden messages throughout Future Day. Here is a look at one way in which Day uses a moment-to-moment transition across five pages. This transition occurs in a strange fashion in the border of the page and carries over five pages while not relating to the other material on each page.
Throughout Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight are many fight scenes between Batman and his foes in which action-to-action transitions are utilized. Here is an example from Batman’s final fight with the Mutant leader. Action-to-action transitions are widely used for fight scenes because they allow for details such as punches, kicks, and the use of weapons to be show cased.
Epileptic by David B. uses subject-to-subject transitions in a unique way by focusing on the transition of ideas. While describing intellectual Raymond Abellio, David B. draws scenes that describe the path of Abellio’s life. As the panels transition through Abellio’s life story, the peculiar drawings that abstractly describe his life continue to develop. The transitions are passing the reader through the ideas David B. has to describe the life of this man through art work.
Transitions and gutters are tools that comic book authors use to help progress the story, add certain effects, and convey specific ideas throughout the text. Though the author has the initial power while creating his or her work, the reader gets the final say in how they are going to use closer between panels to draw conclusions about what the author was trying to convey. This makes comic books a medium very much dependent on the participation of the reader and their interpretation of the invisible messenger that is the gutter and the transition which accompanies it.
Next: Abstract vs. Realistic