Thursday, September 29, 2011

Panel size and its relationship to time and memory:

Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, relates the size of the panels used within a comic to the temporal structure of the story. While Lynd Ward’s Vertigo may not be seen as a traditional comic in the eyes of many, I feel it employs this technique of using the size of the woodcuts to indicate the passage of time. While at times Ward uses the woodcut size to show an element of time within the story, at other times he also uses the inversely related amount of white space around the image to impress upon the reader the importance of the moment. It is this interesting dynamic that I wish to investigate here.

First, to see where Ward uses the frame size to indicate the amount of time contained within a page see the images related to the boy and the girl visiting a fortune teller in the chapter 1929. Here these three images are comparatively small, and when I read them I tend to look at both at once and feel as if this is a single moment in time. It is Ward’s use of the small frame size that makes one take the images in together as if they are occurring at a single moment. Next referring to the images toward the end of 1933, where the father is attempting to commit suicide, we again see small image size used when the gun goes off to indicate the instantaneity of the two pages. The timing is so quick that the daughter doesn’t even have to fully cross the room to stop her father. Finally I would like to point to the images of the board members in January of “An Elderly Gentleman”, here Ward is showing each person on the board on a separate page, but by using smaller sized frames the reader is clued into the fact that all of these woodcuts are within the same moment in time.

Now to investigate Wards other use of frame size. By necessity, the amount of whitespace around a woodcut is inversely related to the size of the woodcut itself. This implies that smaller woodcuts will have more whitespace associated with them. There are times in Vertigo where Ward uses these pages, with large amounts of whitespace, to emphasize the importance of what is occurring in the image. The large amount of white makes the image pop-out to the reader causing the mind to remember that image more easily than others. Take for example the fortuneteller images referred to before. I think Ward uses this whitespace technique here to make the reader remember these predictions throughout the novel, so that once we finish the book we can contrast the couple’s dream future with their actual future. Next to refer to the image on the first page of an elderly gentleman, again the whitespace makes the image jump out at the viewer, and this stark quality forces us to stop and take our time with dissecting this woodcut so that we can get a feel of the character of the man. Finally, the image where the gun goes off is another pivotal moment in the story that seals the fate of the girl. The small image among a sea of white stands out like the disbelief of the viewer as to the terrible event that it is depicting.

To be clear, not all instances in which Ward employs smaller frame sizes are cases where he is trying to maximize whitespace for emphasis. Take for example the board members. Here he is not impressing upon us an unforgettable moment of the plot but rather using the small frame size for its temporal meaning. This is also true of the woodcuts in “An Elderly Gentleman” in which the man is making phone calls, there also I feel Ward is just using the time aspect of this visual feature.

Yet while there are instances where Ward is just using the time aspect of frame size and others when he is just using the whitespace effect I don’t think that these are mutually conflicting objectives. In the places where he is using both woodcut size and amount of whitespace at the same time, he is highlighting a flashbulb moment of the story. These are, at the same time, key points to the plot as well as being very short moments of time. Ward uses many of these throughout Vertigo, and it is the combination of these two aspects, working as one, that make this visual technique so effective.


  1. Very strong opening paragraph.

    I really like what you say in the second paragraph about looking at the smaller pictures together as if they occur at the same time--I hadn't thought of it like that before you said it.

    You made a lot of good, strong points in the 3rd paragraph as well and I think it was really smart to discuss the negative space and how it makes the image "pop". I also thought you made a very interesting point when you said that the small images of the fortuneteller allows the reader to compare the couple's dream with their reality.

    Good clarification in the 4th paragraph and it was definitely a necessary note to make for the viewer.

    Your final paragraph doesn't do justice to the work you put into the rest of your essay. You said, "In the places where he is using both woodcut size and amount of whitespace at the same time..." but isn't there always white space with any size of woodcut? Maybe I'm just misinterpreting this but I think the rest of your essay was very interesting and strong and the conclusion leaves me a little confused.

  2. Regardless of how this essay progresses, I'm impressed by the precision and interest of the argument itself: "While at times Ward uses the woodcut size to show an element of time within the story, at other times he also uses the inversely related amount of white space around the image to impress upon the reader the importance of the moment." This is very promising, as I think Alison also recognized.

    I agree with Alison on the strength of the 2nd paragraph.

    What's going on in the 3rd paragraph? Is this an alternative explanation of the importance of small frames / large whitespace? Or is it another way of saying the same thing. I am not criticizing what you're saying - I think you make a strong case in both paragraphs - but I want to know how the two ideas relate. This will be crucial if/when you revise.

    In paragraph four, you seems to try to deal with the questions I raised above - but briefly and simplistically. If you revise, you want to deal in depth with these questions - how do you reconcile, and why does it matter, which "reading" to take of the meaning of frame size through the course of the book. Dealing with large as well as small might help here.

    Like Alison, I found your conclusion abrupt. I suspect that making the essay a little longer, and perhaps exploring another example (maybe of a larger frame?) would have helped you figure out what to do at the end.

    This begins well and ends somewhat poorly - revision to explore another image or two might help us figure out exactly how you integrate your seemingly opposite claims about what frames/whitespace mean.