Move the Unmoving

Comics Theory

When I was a kid I rarely came in contact with comics,[1] but I was surrounded by their influence (e.g. Batman, any other animated series about superheroes). One of the first English-language movies I watched over and over as a kid[2] was Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.[3] Those of you familiar with old school broadsheet comics will recognize the title as a bastardization of Winsor McCay’sLittle Nemo in Slumberland (later renamed In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, since McCay had apparently run out of imagination juice and couldn’t come up with a less crap name). The strip and movie, if you’re not familiar with them, are about a little boy named Nemo who has bonkers dreams where beds have legs and walk around.[4] And also how children aren’t constrained in their imaginations and are able to understand life through different means than adults do. McCay’s style echoes the surrealist art movement that was happening in Europe around this time, using surrealism’s proclivity for interior analysis to depict Nemo’s dreams. Or, like, whatever.

The movie was a kitschy interpretation of the comics: an attempt to translate McCay’s characters and plot structure into an easily digestible animated film. It worked, at least for me, and presumably for a number of other little kids. I didn’t know about the existence of the comics until many years after my obsession abated. But I returned to Nemo when I became seriously interested in comics, which led me to consider the differences between the film and comic strips as it related to their different media forms.

Obviously there are a number of stylistic differences between the film and the McCay’s strips. But much of the subject matter and the characters overlap, so the movie got across at least the most simple meaning of the comics (Kids have imaginations! Crazy!).[5]

For argument’s sake let’s say that stylistic discrepancies don’t matter. I hate those kind of situations–fuck you, Plato’s Republic–but it’s a good way to try and explore this up in the space that I have. Because the internet has a limit. Shut up. Let’s pretend condensing of plot in the movie doesn’t matter. Let’s pretend that everything is identical besides the medium. Why do we still perceive the works differently? That’s sort of simplistic, though, so: what is it about the differences in the constructions and constraints of movies versus those of comic strips that has such a big effect on the ways we read and interpret Nemo in either medium?


Comics panels, the boxes that each represent a change in narrative, are somewhat analogous to film frames. Frames, of course, move much faster than panels do and this speed is out of the viewer’s control.[6] Typical films give you the more “complete” experience through the pacing, editing, and juxtaposition (among other things). Comic books, on the other hand, allow the reader the freedom to manipulate the rate at which they move between panels (i.e., actions). Viewers can fill in the time gaps between panels at their own rate and take their time to understand/interpret what they are looking at. [7]

In our hypothetical world where there are no discrepancies between the comics and the movie (there are a lot outside of this article’s little pretend world) besides the time and effort necessary to understand actions, is it the pacing that makes a significant difference in the way we approach the different Nemo products?

[1] I don’t think it was intentional–my sister read comics when my family was in the process of immigrating to the US from the USSR (they had a 6 month stop in Italy). But she read them for the same reason that I watched English movies before I learned the language: partly to immerse ourselves in this foreign tongue (Italian in her case; English in mine), but mostly to find something that doesn’t necessarily require language to process. We couldn’t understand live action movies and written books but comics and animated movies gave us the exaggerated situations and facial expressions we needed to contextualize action in a world that we could not understand.

[2] Certainly bought from a garage sale, but I couldn’t have cared less that it and all of my toys came from other people’s discard piles.

[3] I insisted to my mother that his name was “Meemo,” and I think after a point she just gave up fighting, hoping that when I learned to read I’d figured it out myself.

[4] I can’t not mention this:

[5] Just like Garfield got to the core of the strips: Jon has a fat, douchey cat.

[6] Spiraling thoughts, quick! So, movies have panel transitions too, sort of: frame rates, or the number of frames [panels] that elapse per second. Most things nowadays use a framerate of 24 frames-per-second (lemme know, filmies, if this is wrong). This is a weird jump, but stay with me here: the more frame-filled a second, the more easily and quickly perceptible a situation becomes to a viewer. It becomes clearer and, I guess, more “real” feeling then. The more frames per second, the more people can get “lost” in a movie. Maybe the same can be said of the number of panels used to convey an action in comics, that jumping directly from one scene to the next requires more fill-in-the-blanks work by your visual cortex.[6a][6b]

[6a] That doesn’t mean that the more panels the better, or more realistic, the comic–just the way that being shot in HD doesn’t make a movie good, or even entertaining.

[6b] Media theorist Vilem Flusser, in  “Towards a New Philosophy of Photography” had a great deal to say on the transition from text to film.

[7] People do that anyway, not just in narrative/visual/written/whatever media. Every time you blink your brain fills in the blanks, quickly assuming the continuity of the actions from one blink to another and sewing those missing pieces into what came before and after.

Recommended reading:

Scott McCloud, “Understanding Comics”–he has a lot to say in general, but I recommend looking into the panel transition section in order to understand better the different types of image shifts used in McCay’s comics (it’s the same as those in the movies: what McCloud calls action-to-action)

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