Lying on the Floor: A Page From Seconds Under Formal Analysis – by Tyler Crissman
The title makes it pretty obvious: I’m going to be analyzing a single page by looking at the techniques of form that go into it. (For the uninitiated and uncertain, “form” and “formal” refer to the way the work is presented in its particular medium—in this case, comics—rather than the narrative or otherwise literal content of the work. Form and content can never be truly separated, but here I’ll be trying to look particularly at form, and its impact on the content.) But I’d be sorely remiss if I didn’t seize the opportunity to relevantly sidetrack things over to Snotgirl for a second. It’s the still-young and soon-to-resume series Bryan Lee O’Malley, the writer and artist of Seconds, is currently writing. If you’re reading this, you might (perhaps) know that I’ve written about O’Malley’s work in the past—the aforementioned Snotgirl and the more famous Scott Pilgrim. If you’ve read those, then you know I don’t hesitate to recommend Snotgirl (or any of O’Malley’s other books). With only five issues out so far, and the sixth coming out July 5, 2017 (just under a month, as of writing this), it’s both easy and worthwhile to catch up. I know this borders on tacky advertising spiel, but I’m just trying to be to the point, and I mean every word. (Also, I’m not getting paid. I mean, I’d take the money to promote the stuff, but that’s beside the point.) Anyway, let’s dive into Seconds and get a taste of just how good O’Malley is!
First, what kind of book is Seconds? It’s a single, self-contained graphic novel that follows a chef named Katie as she approaches the age of 30 and tries to start up a new restaurant wholly her own. So, the age range of the cast of characters has moved into a slightly older area than that of Scott Pilgrim, which probably reflects O’Malley being older himself and having more years to reflect on. “Wow,” you might say. “This sounds surprisingly boring coming from the guy who made a series full of youthful wit and a video game-style gauntlet of battles.”
Now. Hold. On. We’ve got magical realism. Oh, and the delightful O’Malley dialogue is still there. But about that magical realism: I won’t spoil too much, but I will say that Katie finds a mysterious notebook and a magical mushroom that allows one to alter the past to fix a mistake. Like many good premises, that gets taken up a notch. And like any good O’Malley-style supernatural spin, the everyday and interpersonal meld beautifully with the magical.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s look at…well, this page.
So, what’s the deal with page 124? There’s not a single word on it, and it’s only got three panels! Why such scant material for a formal analysis? Have I finally lost it? I can’t offer a definitive answer on that last one, but I can say that that a lack of verbiage and panel quantity don’t preclude formal depth. And besides, you could make some decent formal analysis out of probably just about any page in Seconds—partly because meticulous attention can wring analysis out of many seemingly plain things, but also because this book keeps things interesting and well-done.
Let’s start with the first panel. It’s obviously a big one, taking up a majority of the page. This can be read as an indication that the depicted moment lasts for a long or otherwise indeterminate period of time. This isn’t necessarily correct or incorrect, but since the comics medium represents time spatially, panel size can be used to indicate or manipulate a sense of time. You might also notice that the right side of the panel isn’t perpendicular to the bottom like you might expect from a typical box-style panel. (There’s nothing wrong with rectangles as a panel shape, of course.) If you read Seconds, you’ll come across many panels with sloping sides. So, this is no exceptional moment in the comic, but it is worth noting nonetheless (and it seems to operate a certain way here, but more on that later). The wide view in the panel allows the reader to see a decently large portion of the room, which helps implant a sense of space. It also dwarfs Katie (That’s Katie, by the way!), but you might notice your eye being drawn to her all the same. That’s a pretty obvious end result, of course—she’s the main character, and, well, it just seems obvious that she’s the main subject here, right? As true as that is, you do have to credit the composition of the panel for making paying attention to Katie not just obvious but also natural and aesthetically pleasing. Your eye just wants to rest at that center point, right? Oh, well, there I go spilling the beans. She’s at the center. I was going to pop quiz you, but…oh well. Yup, surprise, surprise, a central position is a good way to draw attention. You might also notice, though, that her red hair and green eyes also visually pop, enhancing the eye-draw. I also notice that the length of her body slopes down to the right, and while this is very subjective, it seems to me that she creates a line pointing toward the bottom right corner of the panel, which stands out because of its slantedness, and which the gutter space (the space between panels) seems to slant down toward (with the aid of right-to-left and top-to-bottom reading direction); and this seems, to me, to make her a natural focal point since the line she forms coincides so strongly with what I see as the general direction of the panel and the page as a whole.
Speaking of lines that draw the eye in certain directions, my are there many here! I’ve marked some of these effects in various colors.
For starters, note the white and black circle around the window. This bright point draws the eye, and may be where the eye tends to start before coming to a resting point. How it gets to that resting point, I think, is partly influenced by the light coming in from the window. Notice how the latticework of window grilles creates shadow lines in the light on the floor. I’ve marked a few of those lines with white arrows, picking out one of many possible paths to notice. They all seem to lead to Katie, going down and to the left, and then banking right. One might follow a particular path, or just the general inclination of the light. Now, theoretically one could trace the shadows and light in any which way, what with all their intersections and no inherent directionality. However, look at the green chair. It casts a shadow that turns what would be a parallelogram of light into an almost-L-shaped body of light. The L, as I see it, bends toward Katie.
From this point out, I want to look at the later panels and their interplay with the first. Let’s look at those bright green arrows. As I mentioned earlier, the grain of the floor creates a large presence of the same slope in the first panel. Given the right-to-left reading direction, and the fact that the second panel is up and to the right, these lines seem to go in that upward and rightward direction. On the left side of the panel, these lines, matching the furniture alignment, point toward Katie. But, as the lines continue, they pass Katie, and Katie herself, with her arms splayed out, adds a similar, but more upward-leaning, tilt to the mass of sloping lines. This all draws the eye to the second panel.
Then, in a subtly odd and clever move, the second panel presents a backwards directionality. The gaze of Lis (the person perched on the dresser) aims not just counter to the right-to-left reading direction and the previous slanting lines, but also counter to the time-space logic of comics. (This counter-direction is in light blue.) She is gazing at Katie, and from her position, she really is diegetically (that is, within the reality of the narrative) looking at Katie—where her eyes go is where Katie would be relative to her seat on the dresser. However, she is also looking at Katie extra-diegetically (that is, in a way that is outside of any reality the characters in the narrative can presumably perceive). Her eyes are on Katie in the previous panel. So, is she looking at Katie in both the past and the present? I won’t spoil much, but she does indeed appear spontaneously because of magical reasons, hence why she abruptly is where nothing was in the previous panel. She’s involved in the magical goings-on of the story. So, is her gaze not just a matter of smart composition and symbolism, but actually a literal matter? Is she gazing through the time-space continuum in a way we can’t quite imagine but can be presented visually through comics?
I don’t know, so let’s look at the dresser. You’ve, I’m sure, noticed a yellow ring around the dresser in its two appearances on the page. You know how I mentioned that Lis spontaneously appears on the dresser? Well, having the dresser, both pre- and post-Lis appearance, be adjacent to itself is an unusual and clever move. Having the initial dresser immediately there ensures that the reader is aware, without having to even put much (if any) conscious effort into checking, that Lis does indeed appear just then and hasn’t been there the whole time. Of course, time is rather ambiguous on this page (and time gets to be pretty complicated throughout the book), so it’s also impossible to really pinpoint how long Lis has been there. On that note of disorientation, the dresser’s side-by-side doubleness echoes the way that Lis messes with time and space by doubly looking at Katie. Although the dresser thing doesn’t defy normal comics logic, that extreme closeness of two different chronological iterations of the same thing smacks of time-space devilry in the context of this page and the book as a whole.
Finally, we get to panel three. In stark contrast to the weird cross-panel gaze earlier, now we get a specifically chronological shot-reverse-shot. This panel transition operates like film, which juxtaposes its images temporally rather than spatially, thus presenting a more “traditional” time-flow, which, at least after all the formal interplay from before, almost seems weirder now. To have Katie’s gaze not line up with any spatial arrangement on the page, but rather aim towards the reader in the imagined space where Lis is understood (but not literally shown) to reside, is not only disorienting but also highlights the artifice of the work. That is, not only does the sudden change of perspective and panel relation create a mildly befuddling effect, but it also reminds the reader that they are a reader and that this story is just images on a page. Now that Katie gazes off of the page in the reader’s direction, the disjunction between the reality of Seconds and the reader’s reality is made clearer. In this moment, perhaps the subtle time-space play of the across-panel gaze now seems odd and jumps out at the reader as more than just Lis diegetically looking at Katie. Less confusingly, this panel also uses more slanting lines to draw the eye. Of course, Katie’s red hair and her bold, black-and-white eyes (which had been green two panels ago…) pack a visual punch that pulls in the reader’s gaze. However, the slanting panel borders that create a slanting gutter help draw the eye down and to the right. Meanwhile, the first panel, with its dresser and open door positioned the way they are (marked with dark blue arrows), makes a sort of funnel that leads to the third panel. Katie’s body also seems to point in that direction. Plus, the darkness at the bottom of panel matches Katie’s tank top and creates an interesting almost-continuity that can perhaps draw the eye. So, even though inter-panel gazing is over, now we have the first panel possibly drawing the eye to the third panel. Time just doesn’t want to stop being weird here, now does it?
I admit readily that this is all subjective, but the more I look at this page, the more I notice about its directionality and the ways that panel interplay present a distorted sense of time and space. Oh, and did I mention that this happens in three panels? I also have to admit, I did not plan on writing this much for this one page. (How can I keep people’s attention when I only have two images, both of which are the same page?) Alright, well, if you haven’t read Seconds yet (or Snotgirl, for that matter), you’ve got some reading to do—some really darn good reading that goes by so fast you might swear you felt some time-space distortion yourself.