Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mind in the (Infinite) Gutter

gaze not into the abyss

Phil Sandifier entered the Webcomics Examiner fold in this latest issue with a take on James Kochalka's popular American Elf series called American Elf and The Infinite Gutter. I'm pretty new to American Elf (I just started reading it when it came up in discussion for the Artistic History of Webcomics also in this issue of the Examiner) but Phil seems to confirm my initial impression of the feel of the strip, and he explains it in a clever way to boot with his description of the infinite gutter effect.

I like the idea of the infinite gutter, especially as pertains to webcomics . Let me clumsily summarize: Form and display (design) of a given comic strip affect the reading experience in many ways. When a webcomic displays each installment on it's own page (rather than in the Manley-backed stacking method) then a temporal gulf is created between each strip. The space between one day's installment and the next, Sandifier argues, is effectively infinite. This infinite gulf can act just as a gutter does between panels. What Scott McCloud calls closure (remind me to share my thoughts on "closure" sometime) occurs here. This is the infinite gutter.

Now, McClouds idea of closure rests on the use of juxtaposition. If two successive moments are placed next to one another spatially then they are comics. Closure is your mind filling in the blanks between the two panels. So if it ain't juxtaposed it ain't comics, right? Well, I'm not so sure. This dependance on spatial relationship has not been sitting well with me lately.

Take the example of Ethan Persoff's The Recovery of Charlie Pickle. Like much of Persoff's work,Charlie pickle is presented on a page-by-page basis. Each page of Charlieis a single panel. Unlike American Elf there is no spatial juxtaposition on any given page. The images are clearly in a deliberate sequence and closure does occur, albeit between pages instead of in the gutters - the infinite gutter. The temporal gulf is smaller than in Elf, where the gap bridges an entire day instead of mere moments, but the principal is the same.

Charlie Pickle is precisely the kind of example Scott McCloud argues against in Reinventing Comics. Remove the aspect of juxtaposition, McCloud argues, and then it's not comics. But I think this clearly is not the case in Charlie Pickle and other one-panel-at-a-time webcomics.

I love panel-to-panel interplay. I love design and the effects design can have on multiple panel layouts. But I think dependance on spatial relationships between panels does not necessarily make or break "comics." Mr. Sandifier's idea of the infinite gutter only adds fire to this belief.


Phil Sandifer said...

I'm not sure I agree totally, actually. I think the infinite gutter is still a spatial relationship between panels - it's just a different spatial relationship between panels than the page or infinite canvas gives us. A point I've not yet made anywhere is that the webcomic, with its always-available archive, has a very different relationship with its past than print comics. Much of this is because the webcomic works very much like a book with an endlessly added last page - that is, that there's an imaginable spatial relation from comic to comic - separated by an infinite gutter in some cases, but still there. I think it's telling, then, that there basically aren't any Far Side webcomics - single panel unconnected webcomics - that is, comics that have no meaningful continual archive and that also have no juxtaposition within a comic.

Tymmi said...

A cyber-spatial relationship?

I would argue the opposite. When clicking through a given comics archive, each successive strip replaces the last in (most cases)exactly the same visual space. There is literally no spatial relationship between the strips whatsoever, only temporal (the time it takes to load the strip). Those click through arrows facing left and right can be misleading, as are the concepts "forward" and "back," which could be misread as physical directions. These concepts that have no bearing in the visual/spatial aspect of the comic. Any apparent spatial relationship is imaginary (or virtual). And while space equals time in comics, time does not necessarily equal space in webcomics.

I would go a step further and argue that in print, page breaks are not a spatial relationships either (except in a very broad, literal manner) and in fact are a limited version of your infinite gutter (or my version of your infinite gutter).

Now, if a webcomic displayed each new strip on it's own popup page that would be a different story (of course, then the infinite gutter would be gone)

Phil Sandifer said...

I admitted in the American Elf piece that the newspapers had some form of infinite gutter, though I wouldn't ultimately classify them as infinite gutter. (Largely because I think the ephemeral nature of the paper means that there is never anything other than the current strip - once the new paper arrives and the old one goes out to the trash, there is no longer a past strip. Which is a different relationship to time entirely). But I would have to, for most purposes, say that I don't consider the page to make an infinite gutter - there is, I think, too firm a spatial relationship based on the form of the book. I would say that breaks between issues of comic books are an infinite gutter, but they're ultimately, to my mind, a pretty simple one - the cliffhanger. So I do think there's something concretely different about the infinite gutter in webcomics - to the point where I would hesitate to apply the term back to things that exist before webcomics except in terms of a look at antecedents.

As for the spatial/temporal relationship, I think there is something to be said for the spatiality of a linear narrative. Ultimately, to my mind, a strip that starts with strip one and forms a continual narrative until the most recent strip is fundamentally a linear sequence of panels, some of which are separated by an infinite gutter, some of which are not. But I think that's very different from something like Calvin and Hobbes, which I would argue doesn't really have a narrative history. Two consecutive Calvin and Hobbes strips, to my mind, do not actually linearly follow one another - it adds nothing but inaccuracy to juxtapose them on a page as though it were a linear flowing narrative. (With an arguable exception when Calvin and Hobbes is doing a plot arc, but I think the point stands in that regard)

Tymmi said...

I think I see. We just have differing opinions on the concept of spatiality.

Yours, I think, is still verging on virtual rather than concrete space. I see your point about the linearity of continuous narrative but I still think it's a linearity of time and not space. Until someone actually arranges the strips to be prsented in one long line (like the Manley method) they do not have a literal spatial relationship.

Your concept of space seems to be more intuitive. This event occurs before the next so it's strip must also appear before the other. It makes sense but there is no direct evidence to the point, only what you intuit.

Mine is perceptive. I can't see the last strip when I look at the new one. I know it came before but there is no direct evidence. In my mind, what you see is what you get.

I'll concede the point on print books as there is an actual physical relationship there.

Phil Sandifer said...

Close, at least - I would argue that the linear narrative is a spatial conception of time - one that we do not actually experience. If you ask someone to tell you about their day, they often will not give it to you linearly, or will have to double back on themselves as they remember details. Thinking about our personal pasts is even more scattered - we do not remember things in chronological order. Linearity, or, more accurately, continuity is an imposition on time - not a natural aspect of it.

The problem is that a lot of webcomics do engage in that kind of continuity - the ones that are actively discontinuous are few and far between - American Elf, Penny Arcade, Count Your Sheep, Dinosaur Comics... those are the four that spring to mind immediately, though I'm sure there are others. But the other approach - the infinitely long graphic novel - is much more common. (Narbonic, Something Positive, Queen of Wands, Questionable Content, PvP, Digger, why am I listing these? It's most of the web.)

Tymmi said...

I'd love to argue the linearity of experience and memory and the difference between, but it's all beside the point. As for "story" I see your point on linear narrative/continuity. I don't disagree there.

We're still coming at this from different angles in regard to spatiality. Thinking of a story as "linear" at all gives a false impression of space. The very concept of "linear" is itself only borrowed from true concrete spatiality. My concept of space has no regard for the linearity of the narrative, only the physical juxtaposition of the visual elements (which admittedly aids in giving the impression of linearity...yadda, yadda...).

But anyway... what do you think of Joe's idea? Is there another article here? (point/counterpoint or whatever)

Phil Sandifer said...

I'm all for it, in any case. :)

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