What gathers in the gutter
Take a look at this image: a 1960s housewife, casually mopping up a pool of blood by the fridge. A severed arm and a shoe falling out of a sack on the floor.
This piece is from a book called Lady Killer, about a picture-perfect domestic housemaker/killer-for-hire.
Comic book storytelling exists in all aspects of the book, from front cover to back cover, and in a good comic, each page will work in synchronicity to pull in and hold onto readers.
Cover art is the first thing almost every reader sees of the book. And a good cover does two jobs: advertises some of the content of the issue, and stands alone as a small story in itself.
Here we have the Joker, head back in laughter, on a pile of grinning people as if they’re an armchair. Looking closer, we see he’s also crushing a tiny bat in his fist.
It hints at something that is about to happen when we open up the pages of this issue.
Comic books are a unique storytelling medium—one that is visual, and collaborative.
Similar to how poetry and prose can use the white space of a page to affect how a person reads the piece, comic books use the space between panels, otherwise known as “the gutter,” to direct pacing and readers’ experience of the story being told. There some stories that would be hard to translate to any other medium as effectively.
“Comics is a mono-sensory medium. It relies on only one of the senses to convey a world of experience,” Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. The presence or implication of every sense through only visuals is part of what makes reading a comic book so fantastic. So much can be evoked through the simple presence or absence of ink on paper.
In this page from Deadly Class #1, written by Rick Remender and drawn by Wes Craig, we can clearly follow the action. Craig uses angled panel lines to show forward movement, and the crossing of those white-lined gutters to show speed. We clearly see what comes before and after the character jumps from the motorcycle. The art takes forward charge here, making words unnecessary to tell this part of the story.
I’m interested in stories told in few words. Like blinking, the things we don’t see have still happened, still matter, and don’t have any less importance because we didn’t see every second of it.
The best writing happens when we have faith in our readers.
Low, which is also written by Rick Remender but drawn by Greg Tocchini, is a masterful example of how things stack next to each other. The majority of this story takes place underwater, in a far-distant future, when the sun has become so hot that living on the Earth’s surface is deemed impossible. Tocchini’s art so believably lives in this underwater world and speaks the language of Remender’s words that it’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s not actually a living, moving thing.
This, for instance:
From left to right, there’s a story, in one image, of an underwater, post-apocalyptic world.
“It blows my mind. I’m always worried that I’m going to run out of good comics to read, and I’m always proven wrong. I’m always like ah, man, that was such a good story arc, I’m not probably going to read anything like that ever again. And then… here it comes,” said Gabriel Valentin in a recent conversation. Gabe is a musician, frontman of the band Digital Lizards of Doom, and a long-time reader of comics.
“I use comics for almost everything. It’s just great storytelling. It’s probably the closest thing we have to American mythology, I think. If we’re still here thousands of years from now, I feel like people will totally think that DC and Marvel would be like American mythology.”
DC Comics is home to heavy-hitter superheroes such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Marvel houses such characters as Spider-man, X-Men, and The Avengers.
Over the past several years, independent comics have also gathered enormous momentum, thanks largely, I think, to Image Comics. DC and Marvel are still homes to some of the most important American superhero characters in existence, but creator-owned books add even more to this vast landscape.
Rick Remender is one of the few creators who’s been able to stop writing other peoples’ stories and make a living from the comics he’s created.
Books like Saints, written by Sean Lewis (who has also contributed to NPR’s This American Life), show that comics aren’t just for comic book nerds anymore. Though arguably, they never were.
“Some people actually think that people who like comic books think that those characters are real. And I never really got that. I’ve always heard people say ‘You know Superman’s not real, right?’ or stuff like that, and it’s like ‘well, duh. I’ve looked at a map before and I’ve never seen Metropolis or Gotham.’
“And it’s weird because it’s almost like that’s another reason why people write it off, because it’s not real.
“You can still believe in those things, though, so for me it’s kind of hard to comprehend how people can just shut it out, because I think those are still good things that people should try to strive towards even if we’re not there yet. That’s even more reason why we should try to strive for them. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Like, oh, we should just give up because it’s not reality? That makes absolutely no sense,” Gabe said.
The comic book shop is a hub and safe space for many. A physical space to return to, driven by story. New comics come out every Wednesday, and every Wednesday local comic shops are probably busy with people ready to talk about stories. You don’t find that at just any bookstore.
Reading is often a solo project, and I think even when people talk about novels that they’ve read, it’s unique to just be excited about that first. Of course there are still the ubiquitous “Comic Book Guys.” But, in my experience, it’s been far more common that a community forms built on legitimate excitement about a common interest.
Gabe has recently also started working at Villainous Lair, a comic book shop in Normal Heights, San Diego, and said he’s gotten “so many compliments from people saying ‘I just love Villainous Lair, it’s so friendly and nice.’ One thing that we do well here, is that we just treat everyone the same, and I think that stems from loving to see someone all nerded out on something—which is the best. No matter what it is. It’s just rad because I love seeing people stoked on stuff.”
Of course, it’s hard to be an expert in a field that has so many die-hard fans, so I only approach this topic knowing some of the intersections between different kinds of literature. From poetry, prose, and into comics, stories circle us like pelicans to fish. Wherever it is, wherever we are, we will find each other, in whatever form it comes.