Comics are a visual medium, but so often criticism of the medium hinges on narrative, ignoring or minimizing the visual storytelling and unique structures that make comics so different from cinema and photography. We’ve decided to change that up with a feature that we’re calling Anatomy of a Page, in which we explore pages and panels that showcase the language of comics and how the best visual storytellers maximize the freedom of comics in order to tell stories that can’t be told anywhere else. Today we examine a recurring visual motif Owen Gieni utilizes in Negative Space #1, as scripted by Ryan K. Lindsay, with a cup of coffee symbolizing the growth of a relationship.
It’s my pleasure to bring the Anatomy of a Page column back from the dead with one of my favorite single issues of 2015 so far, Negative Space #1. Rather than talk about a single page, however, I want to focus on a particular thread of individual panels that tell a story on several different pages. We’ll call it, Anatomy of the Higher-Order Syntax which Comprises Pictorial Narratives. You know what, that isn’t as catchy as I hoped it would be. Let’s just play fast and loose with the original title.
In my review of Negative Space #1, I prattle on a bit about small artistic touches that pierce through the steady, thick, dreary, but effective narrative that makes up the issue. What I was referring to was the love story within the issue, told in a handful of disparate panels. Though some involve Guy and Woody talking, the most intimate ones, and the only ones that are really necessary, follow a very specific little theme: hands and coffee. Check it out:
I didn’t think much of this panel when I first saw it because it’s just Woody handing Guy a ton of caffeine (he gave him a triple!). There’s some intimacy to this moment, of course, because hands are intimate and Woody is suggesting Guy write something for him. And that moment has a little extra oomph because this implies Guy would be forestalling his death for Woody (which is also stupidly-well-executed foreshadowing).
Later, though, the intimacy of the previous moment is amplified by the outright intimacy of the following panel:
I loved this panel the moment I saw it, for all of the obvious reasons. It’s intimate, it’s beautiful, the lettering is wonderfully placed, the words dance in perfect harmony with the image itself– it’s good comics. But it was only on my second read-through that I saw how this paralleled the earlier image. The coffee is in the image as well, and that’s sort of a big deal.
This image didn’t need coffee in it. It’s not an image about coffee. It’s an image about a relationship, about passion, about love and friendship all tied up. It’s about the constant beckoning of the hope that springs from being a human among humans. And the coffee doesn’t need to be there for context either: I know where they’re sitting. I don’t need a reminder.
This image is a callback to the earlier image. It’s only about the coffee insofar as the coffee is no longer between their hands. There is nothing between them. Before, Guy is guarded and scared. This panel signals Guy beginning to open up to the world through Woody. These panels are sign posts as to where Guy is emotionally. Moreover, this panel serves as a cue for the final panels of the issue, where Guy explicitly calls back to Woody’s words in his internal monologue.
That’s a big deal. It’s not just that Guy calls back to these particular words, but it’s also important that those particular words happen in these particular panels. This is a visual medium. Lindsay and Gieni could have placed these crucially important words anywhere in the exchange between Guy and Woody. But they placed them in a particularly intimate panel which had other important narrative aspects. That’s good comics.
Austin Lanari spends most of his time justifying his multiple Philosophy degrees to people who hate their jobs. When not tied up with that, he enjoys writing a monthly webcomic, teaching, playing Eve Online, and crying about stacks of unread comics. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinLanari