Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, relates the size of the panels used within a comic to the temporal structure of the story (McCloud 100). While Lynd Ward’s Vertigo may not be seen as a traditional comic in the eyes of many, it employs this technique of using the small panels—in this case, woodcuts—to indicate brevity in the passage of time. While Ward does use the woodcut size to show an element of time within the story, he also uses the inversely related amount of white space around the image to impress upon the reader the importance of the moment. Using the same visual element—small frame size—to achieve these two separate objectives—indicating a short time frame and emphasizing the importance of the moment—may, at first, seem contradictory. However, these objectives are actually related due to the fact that they are both ways of sharpening the attention of the reader by limiting the scope of their perspective.
To first give substance and concreteness to the argument that Ward consciously chooses to use small frame sizes to indicate the short amount of time contained within a page as well as impart upon the reader the importance of the moment being presented, we explore some examples from the text of Vertigo. Referring first to the images related to the boy and the girl visiting a fortune-teller in the chapter 1929, we first notice that the small size of the frames makes the reader look at both images at once. This creates the feeling that these two images are occurring contemporaneously or, at the very least, in rapid succession. On the other hand, while the small frame size has a clear relationship with time, the reader cannot deny that these images stand out in our memory. I believe Ward uses this technique of maximizing whitespace 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.
Another example of this duality is in 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 time to fully cross the room to stop her father. Since the image is small, the whitespace, by definition, is huge. This is another pivotal moment in the story that ward wants to make “pop-out” at us; here is the moment 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.
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 of the elderly gentleman’s company 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. This is the pivotal moment in the story of the old man, as articulated by Michael Scott Joseph “The five small images formally impart the sense that the Elderly Gentleman reels under their combined onslaught, even finds their manners detestible. Thus his subsequent acts of iniquity are to be understood as his spiritual defeat, and deserving of some of the reader's pity.” (Joseph 1)
Now that we have established that there are quite a few cases in which Ward uses small frame size to both indicate a short timeframe as well as point out the importance of the events occurring, we must now deal with the apparent conflict between these two objectives. To do this, we must first introduce another concept: perspective. Perspective is a word, often used in architecture, that refers to a drawing technique defined by it’s characteristic of attempting to capture what the human eye would see if it literally looked upon the subject. ( Ching 35) It is in this spirit that I am adapting the term to refer to the story as reader actually, physically experiences it.
Authors, operating in the medium of traditional written word, have explicit control of the flow of time within a story. This flow of time and events gives the author explicit control over the perspective of the reader. The writer can spend a page focusing on a single second of time, or they can cover a year in a sentence. Clearly, an author desires to most impress upon the reader the important parts of the narrative, which can be achieved by limiting the reader’s perspective, i.e. shortening the “time-frame” of a part of the story. Slowing down the ratio between real time — the time it takes the reader to actually read the letters on the page — and the internal flow of time within the story sharpens the details of the events occurring. Giving the reader a smaller time interval is the author’s way of narrowing the reader’s perspective, thereby highlighting the importance of the moment. This is like looking through a metaphorical old looking glass; by limiting the field of vision of the reader; we actually increase the amount they see.
Applying this same logic to the work of Ward, we can interoperate both objectives, brevity of time and maximization of whitespace, achieved by using small-sized woodcuts as just two methods of accomplishing the same task: limiting perspective. Unlike the writer, who has explicate control over the flow of time due to the staunch linearity of written word, Ward does not have the same rigid structure to work within. The form of Vertigo requires the reader to infer much of the plot between pages. Since the structure of Vertigo gives much of the narrative control over to the reader, Ward must use other methods to control the perspective of the reader. Like the author of a traditional written novel, Ward uses the amount of time captured within a page as a way to limit perspective, albeit the lack of written words forces him to use the size of the frame to indicate this temporal quality rather than just explicitly stating it. The lack of this traditional rigid linear structure makes the control over the reader via the flow of time much less absolute, however this freedom allows Ward use the second aspect of the small frame size, large whitespace. It is here that Vertigo can limit perspective in both the literal and figurative senses. We literally have less to perceive, in a visual sense, as well as less perspective in the narrative sense that I defined above. By stripping away so much of the page, the reader’s eyes are forcibly focused onto the image, narrowing our gaze and bringing us back to the analogy of the looking glass that improves our sight by actually showing us less.
Vertigo is a very interesting work due to its unique form. Here we have explored one way in which this form both requires and allows Ward to use visual elements, i.e. small frame size, as actual tools with which to tell the narrative. The technique of choosing to use a smaller woodcut, as evidenced by the examples above, has two direct effects: indicating to the reader that the amount of time contained within a page is relatively short as well as maximizing whitespace to make the image pop-out to the reader. While these may seem like conflicting purposes, we have shown that actually they are achieving a common goal of limiting the perspective of the reader in order to emphasize aspects of the narrative.
 Ching, Frank. Architectural Graphics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.
 Joseph, Michael S. "An Exhibition and Discussion of the Dramatic and Rhetorical Use of Small Images With Scans Taken From the Original Woodblocks." Http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu. Jan. 2003. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.