Wednesday, 21 September 2016

A Lovely Swiss Watch: one page of Watchmen, issue four

Meanwhile, over on his website, Scott Eric Kauffman is suggesting a strategy for analysising the first page of Watchmen, issue four. There is a lively discussion in the comments, often criticising Kauffmann for his desire to explain the panels, or his use of Scott McCloud as an authority. Like most 'below the line' commentary, it's often aggressive and ad hominem. Sigh.

Kauffman points out, using McCloud's definitions, that the first panel is 'duo-specific' - that is, the words and the image deliver the same information. The second panel, however, is 'word-specific', in which the image illustrates the words' information. There is movement between the panels - Dr Manhattan has dropped the photograph. This movement is emphasised by the words in the second panel... in twelve seconds time...

This is followed by a panel that represents a static figure: Manhattan lost in contemplation of the photograph. 

Panels One to Three: A Programmatic Strip

While such tight focus on a mere three panels (a third of a page, from twenty four pages in total) is hardly the usual way to read a comic book, it presents the first row of the issue as a self-contained sequence, the common size of a comic strip printed in newspapers. Here's a lovely and somewhat meta example.

Treating the three panels as a stand-alone sequence, the introduction to issue four imitates the pattern of a strip. Not only does it introduce several themes for the issue - time, Dr Manhattan's contemplation of time and the relationship between his current situation and his history - it provides a dialectic narrative. 

In panel one, the protagonist - Dr Manhattan - is introduced alongside his antagonist. The photograph is a symbol of his past (specifically, it was taken in 1959, before his transformation into the blue superpowered being). 

Panel two jumps to the conclusion: he drops the photograph. The antagonist has been overcome, left in the dirt. Between the two panels, the story has been completed. This is a programmatic sequence - issue four's narrative arc follows Manhattan's rejection of his past. The photograph, which pictures him with his first lover, symbolises his time as a human: issue four examines his rejection of the emotional ties he has to that identity.

The tension between the two panels is within Manhattan's mind, symbolised by his literal holding and dropping of the photograph. However, the punchline in panel three draws Manhattan back in time: he remains in silent contemplation of the image - setting up the rest of the page, in which he reflects on his memories of the photograph. He can never leave it behind, and he is 'still there' (panel four).

In short - and, frankly, this is reading a great deal into a tiny portion of the text - the movement of the story goes from 'a man and his past' (panel one) to the past abandoned, with the third panel announcing the impossibility of ever abandoning the past. There's a slight dramatic irony in the third panel, in which the reader is aware of the conclusion to the story even when observing the story in motion. This irony is complicated because Dr Manhattan is also aware of the conclusion, effectively sharing the experience with the reader.

Too much on too little? Look at the rest of the page...

Throughout the page, Moore and Gibbons play with the grid pattern of nine panels to set up a series of associations. The photograph is presented in close up at the very centre of the page (panel five), and the second panel is repeated (with different words) in the final panel nine. Panel two becomes a foreshadowing of the conclusion, and by placing the photograph in the centre, its importance is emphasised. Page one of issue four is 'the story of the photograph' and, while it continues to be programmatic of the issue's story arc, it is also a self-contained sequence. 

The First Page as a Self-Contained Narrative

Karin Kukkonen (Comics and Graphic Novels, 2013) suggests two models that can be used to define 'the minimal complete plot' (Todorov, 1969, cited by Kukkonen, page 36). Initially, there is Todorov's notion that it must 'begin with the disturbance of an equilibrium and ends with its re-establishment'. 

The first three panels perform this process: the words in panel one, due to their cold, dispassionate tone, establish the tension between the man and the object he is observing, while panel two shows the result of the disturbance - an abandoned photograph on the surface of Mars. Panel three resolves into the res-establishment of the equilibrium - by panning back to show the complete man and not just his hand.

However, Kukkonen offers a more detailed structure: Labov's 'six steps'. A narrative will progress through these stages, from abstract to coda. 

The abstract 'previews' the narrative - a function performed elegantly in the first three panels. Stage two, the orientation, which introduces the world of the story and the main characters, is enacted in the same sequence, with the addition of panel four (two locations - Mars and the Gila Flats - the protagonist Dr Manhattan and his memories, symbolised by the photograph, are all introduced).

The complicating action is in both the dropping of the photograph, Manhattan's memories of collecting it, and his reflections on its meaning. Evaluation, Labov's fourth step, both provides the words with their story and is at the heart of the page. This story is about evaluation. 

The resolution is Manhattan dropping the photograph and walking away (panels seven and eight), while the coda is in the ninth panel - the abandoned photograph, still existing and referring back to panel two. Within the tropes of comic book adventure stories, this final image echoes the final appearance of the antagonist, after their apparent defeat (usually promising a sequel).

Within the wider context of issue four, this page provides the abstract and the orientation, yet it is able to stand alone as Todorov's 'minimal complete plot'.

Page one: a programmatic sequence

Aside from standing as a simple narrative, the function of page one could be considered as programmatic. Containing both the abstract  and orientation, these nine panels set up the mood, atmosphere and themes of issue four, encouraging the reader to recognise certain key themes and the strategies of the creators.

When questioned about the intentions that drove him to write Watchmen, Alan Moore has repeatedly insisted that 'it was show off the things that comics could do' (All Time Greatest Comics, 2016). The conscious repetition of the nine panel grid on each page, for example, deliberately exposes the foundation of the sequential medium, relating Watchmen to earlier comic books which imposed a strict structure on the page. Jack Kirby's art for The Fantastic Four (1961 and following) made use of the clearly defined panel, even as he experimented with their number, size and shape.

This brief action sequence - starring the ever-popular Thing - shifts perspective and point of view repeatedly, but marks clear contrasts between each scene. This is in stark contrast to the work of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben on Swamp Thing (1985, written by Alan Moore).

Since Moore's Swamp Thing used a more fluid approach to panelling, the decision to revert to an earlier model is clearly aesthetic. Whether this further reflects his intention to 'show off' comics as a medium, it certainly lends an old-fashioned atmosphere, enables a clarity of story-telling and presents a measured rhythm to each page, almost establishing a consistence reading length to each page. 

It is not, however, usual - even in the Kirby examples - for the first page to be so carefully delineated. Indeed, most first pages are a 'splash page' - a single image, rather like the Bissette and Totleben above - which provide an abstract, as in the following examples from Kirby's Fantastic Four.

Watchmen dispenses with the title, the details of the creators and replaces the splash page with sequential panels - a change performed in every issue of Watchmen except the final, issue twelve. Scene-setting is performed in the style of the ongoing story, immediately immersing the reader in the rhythm of the issue. The turning of the page is a natural moment of transition - and one used by the traditional 'splash page' and Watchmen alike, in contrast to the practice of the traditional literary novel.

Page one is programmatic in that it trains the reader's eye to follow the narrative both sequential and as a field, as well as establishing the major themes. Each of the first six panels panel contains a reference to time: a specific date (1959) in panel one, a countdown in seconds in panels two, five and six, and 'twenty-seven hours' (in the past) in panels three and four. In the final two panels, Dr Manhattan reflects on the time taken by light from the stars 'to reach us'. And while the sequential reading of the nine panels appear to follow a lineal time, each panel is non-consecutive, jumping through time and space. The illustration below reorders each panel according to its sequential location, set alongside the published sequence. 

It is the captioning - Dr Manhattan's thoughts - that locate each panel's moment into a chronological sequence: the words are working against the flow of the images, imposing an order on a jumble of moments. The subsequent story uses this tension, as Dr Manhattan slowly recalls episodes in his life, attempting to piece together a sense of identity. Flashbacks are given a commentary, returning to Manhattan's 'present moment ' - a solitary stroll on Mars.

This use of panels 'make immediately clear (that) the rows and panels are meant to be read both next to another and all at once' (Baetens and Fry, pg 105/6 2015). The preoccupation of the words with time is echoed in the placement of the panels, disorientating the expected lineal progression.

However, the reordering also highlights the repetition of images: panel two and panel nine are the same - reordered to panels seven and nine. This strategy is repeated throughout issue four, with several images repeating throughout the chapter. This particular panel is also repeated on pages five, twenty four and twenty eight, and provides the cover image for the issue.  The standard checkerboard pattern of the panels is imitated by the repetition of specific images. 

Finally, the central image of the page - panel five - has a distinctive quality. It is a close-up of the photograph. Unlike the other panels, the image it contains does not exist in time, but is an image of an image. 

On the first page, the meaning of these patterns are not clear: the programmatic nature of the sequence merely draws attention to a way of reading, without disclosing its purpose or meaning. 

Tiers and Rows and Columns

Having recognised the flexibility of the panels, and their amenability to reordering, the potential of reading them in different sequences is suggested. For example, here are the panels presents as if read down rather than across the page.

While the clarity of the words' narrative is lost, the images alone provide a coherent narrative, with each column providing a three panel story, similar to the comic strip format. This does, however, disrupt the lineal narrative imposed on the images by the words, while retaining the dramatic relationship between the protagonist Dr Manhattan and the photograph. What is most obviously lost is the resolution of the final three panels: while the first six panels jump around in time, the bottom row complete a chronological and lineal sequence, with panels seven to nine following each other in time. 

This hints that the words might be carrying the narrative thrust. 

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