Every week on “Sunday Page” an author has to choose a single page from a comic book. It could be for sentimental reasons o for a particular technical achievement. The conversation could lose itself in the open water of the comic book world but it will always start with the questione: «If you had to choose a page from a comic book you love, what would you choose and why?».
This Sunday I’m out with Nick Sousanis, scholar, art critic and cartoonist; he is the first person at Columbia University to write a dissertation entirely in a comic book format. The book, called Unflattening, was defined by The Paris Review as: «Herbert Marcuse radicalism meets Scott McCloud comics boosterism».
I chose We3 for my selection, drawn by Frank Quitely and written by Grant Morrison, specifically the two-page sequence stretching across pages 10 and 11 in issue 2. I could’ve chosen almost any page from this book, as I find Quitely’s use of composition to be brilliant and I am always inspired by the attention he pays to the smallest of elements. In fact, the term “Unflattening,” which became the title of my dissertation now book, came to me initially to refer to the way in which I felt comics could actually contain more information than the given space they were printed on. This is achieved through the meta-drawing of composition, the way that panels and other elements themselves convey meaning in addition to what is drawn within the spaces.
This extends to such things as how panels can be oriented and juxtaposed with each other, and seemingly stacked up in layers, such that the apparent simplicity and actual flatness of a comics page can be this amazingly dense and complex space to richly represent narrative and ideas. Quitely uses all kinds of techniques to achieves this, from frenetic overlapping panels (see pages 6 and 7 of this same issue for an amazing example) to taking advantage of the way we view a whole page at once – a simultaneous scene that stretches across multiple panels (a quite prominent feature in old Gasoline Alley Sunday full page comics for instance).
Pages 10 and 11 depict an intense and rather horrific sequence of the weaponized cat rapidly slaughtering a host of soldiers. The soldiers occupy a single continuous space, but the cat is in motion, moving in and out of each panel across the two-page spread. Quitely amplifies the effect by drawing the vertically oriented panels in perspective as if “turning” them sideways, so we see livers of what’s inside them as the cat leaps through. They serve as almost a series of portals – and it’s clear from what is seen of the soldiers and background that it is a continuous image of which we are only given a few glimpses. We could imagine Quitely taking more traditional approaches: what if he’d done this as a single panel with the cat drawn in various poses across the page (this has been a common technique in Nightwing comics, where the hero frequently appears in fast action, so we see him as multiples across a scene)? Or he might have drawn it as a series of 8 or 10 isolated panels (while there are 8 panel borders here, we see an aspect of the cat 10 times)? No doubt these could all work to convey what happened. But here, Quitely uses the fact that we do read comics sequentially even as we’re aware of the whole of the page (or in this case pages) to increase the speed that the cat is moving and perhaps contrast it with the relative slowness of the soldiers.
It’s a visual feat in the construction of the composition that mirrors the actions within the panels – we feel that fast beat that’s imprinted into his slivery panels as the quick slash/swipe of the cat in action. This is happening in a few blinks of an eye – which also resonates with the staccato arrangement of the panels and negative space between them. It’s fast, it’s intense, and despite the subject matter, I think really beautiful. The possibilities for composition of a comics page are quite limitless and it’s exciting to follow an artist like Quitely, who is constantly exploring new terrain to great effect.
Did you enjoy We3 as a whole?
I did, when it came out it was a clever, solid story – but I don’t think the story stayed with me much. I was mostly struck, maybe even blown away by it formally – as it’s just bursting with composition experimentation. The comic feels alive in that way. It’s stayed with me as I’ve been using excerpts from it in my classes to talk about possibilities in comics. But I guess not a story I’ve revisited so much as a reader.
We talked a lot about Quitely, but what about Morrison? In the special edition of the book, he talks about how they conceived the idea of the 3D space in the flat world of the page togheter, so I’m wondering where the separation line between writer and artist.
My feeling is Morrison is always trying to do something unique with time and space in his work, and when he teams up with Frank Quitely I find the results really resonate, the connection the two of them have seems to be extremely generative. Morrison-penned stories with other artists are a bit more hit and miss for me. I feel like the artists don’t quite know how to take these ideas to a higher plane, or the nature of producing a monthly book just doesn’t allow for the sorts of explorations that Quitely will delve into. I attributed a lot of my like for these pages on Quitely because of how much stronger i think Morrison is when they work together.
But that’s not necessarily the case – and it sounds like in fact it isn’t, that the two figure it out together. As someone who works mostly solo, I feel like the play of ideas, words, images, and composition takes me to really interesting places that is much harder if I’m working from someone else’s words. The best way to keep that sort of collaboration as lively I think is for the two to work in the same room, so they can think about visual aspects together.