In Defense Of The Traditional Comic Strip
There’s a lot to be said for traditional comic strips with three-to-four panel horizontal layouts.
New technologies and new art styles, not to mention a growing feeling amongst the cartooning world has lead to some incredibly groundbreaking work that pushes the limits of comic storytelling. And not just in the comic book format, but also in the individual strip format as well. And yet there’s something to be said for traditional types of strips that manage to wrap up a joke and or a plot point in four small panels.
The staple of TV is still the traditional half-hour sitcom, where jokes and storylines are wrapped up in 20 minutes or so. And we still have sitcoms going as a guarantee of weekday nights and daytime reruns on American TV. So why is the traditional comic strip, the newspaper staple, dying off?
Now I’m not disputing the need for artistic and creative freedoms in comics. I love being able to push the limits of the medium. In fact, the appeal of comics is that it’s such an easy format to be able to experiment with. However, just as literary canon is a standard of liberal arts education, so too should basic traditional cartooning and comic strips should be a part of basic comics and comic understanding.
A common saying in artistic industries is that while many craftsman and artists can create grand gigantic works, subtle, smaller, and more focused works are infinitely harder. Their size makes them seem easy, but in fact the limitations of the smaller and more “basic” medium are much much harder. Being able to tell a story in 10 pages is harder than 20, a single page is harder than 10, half a page is harder than a whole page, and a line of three to four panels is harder than half a page.
Go ahead, write a short story. Then, try to strip it down to something physically shorter. Then even shorter. If you’re an artist, try to draw something on a single sheet of paper, something not too complicated but not too simple either. It doesn’t have to tell a story, either. Now, try drawing the same thing, only on half the page. And so on and so on until you’re down to a panel a few inches tall and wide.
See what I mean? It’s pretty hard.
Take a look at this Stone Soup strip from 2002 by Jan Eliot. It not only is part of an overarching story, it also acts as an effective standalone comic strip, telling a simple joke about being on vacation, and as a parent being able to enjoy just not doing anything;
(ELIOT, JAN | AUGUST 21 2002)
What we have is four panels here. While the action/movement is relatively static (a frequent criticism of comic strips), it’s not entirely so. In fact inaction is part of the joke.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the “silent accomplice” of comic book reading, one whose own personalized interpretations of the passage of time has a huge influence on how a strip is read. That accomplice is the reader himself (68). The “gutters”, the space between comic panels, are meant to display unseen movement and action between the moments of each comic panel. McCloud’s argument is that the gutters are an area of indeterminate time passing. It’s entirely up to interpretation.
In the above strip, who knows how much time has passed between each moment. While the initial statement is presented as a single sentence broken down into several segments, the final 1/4th (“But, we’d have to move”) could have come at any time after “(O)r visit the interpretive center…”. It could even be an entirely new statement.
That’s the beauty of the strip and the format. It’s entirely up to you as the reader to determine how to read it, and in theory this short format of storytelling probably makes it as powerful as having the page space of a book to be able to space out time for a story yourself.
While the proliferation of the Web and web comics would seem to indicate that the strip format for comics is making a comeback, in actuality it’s probably the opposite. The flexible and almost infinite reach and format of the Web means in fact that it’s actually easier to experiment form-wise and style-wise with comics. While yeah, in the beginning of webcomics as a trend you did (and still do) see a lot of comics that were following the traditional format of newspaper comic strips, since then you have seen an evolution of layout, reading format, and style. An example that particularly stands out is the webcomic Spoilers by Kevin Czapiewski, a read-down format where pages are joined into a single continuous scroll that is read top to bottom, flowing with no real panel divisions or gutters.
With all that going on for it, what’s a traditional format to do?
Ironically enough, as the “death of print” and the decline of the print newspaper industry continues, 2010 has so far turned out to be odd in that a significant amount of new comic strip titles have launched in papers. Compared to the three that launched in 2009, there have been seven launches so far this year from all the major syndicates (Gardner, dailycartoonist.com 9/20/2010).
What to do, indeed.
Continue to thrive, perhaps?