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, Austin Lanari takes a look at Rich Tommaso’s use of match cuts in Dark Corridor. Though match cuts began as a film convention, Lanari argues they’re especially effective in comics, where they can hold the viewer’s focus for longer and express the passing of time more efficiently.
Let’s keep it simple this week with two words: match cut.
Take a moment before we begin to enjoy writer/artist Rich Tommaso’s cartooning, especially his ability to make retro cars the star of absolutely any situation.
Okay, so just in case you don’t know what a match cut is, it’s a movie term for when the shot cuts from an image of one thing to another thing which is visually analogous. It works especially well in the juxtaposition of film because the new shot fills the exact same space where you were just looking. Contrast this with the example above: comics are spatially juxtaposed rather than temporally juxtaposed like film, so the analogous images here are physically adjacent, occupying separate spaces. So, visually, I think using this technique in comics is less impactful; but, narratively, it’s ultimately very similar.
This comic begins nine years and six months in the past and uses a mirroring match cut to transition into the present day. See the white space between the busted up heads?
As your eyes traverse that white space, nine years and six months of time elapse. In the majority of comics you read, time elapses between panels, but it’s sort of ambiguous as to how much. It’s usually little bits here and there, with some added time elapsing within panels in which dialog occurs. Of course, looking at the two beady-eyed panels on their own, it’s ambiguous as to how much time (albeit any) passes between these two shots. The next panel, with its “Present Day” caption disambiguates this. I’m trying hard not to completely nerd out about the holistic nature of the meanings of individual pictures in a comics narrative here, but hopefully blood running through the gutters across time is as cool as I think it is.
You see, the subject of the first part of this issue of Dark Corridor is Carter the ex-crooked-cop, and he is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. What better way to show Carter’s absolute shit luck than by making the focal point of a transition be two more-or-less identical moments in the history of Carter’s criminal mischief?
Not only does Tommaso make a great choice in focusing in on what makes this Carter fellow such a tragic character (we’ve just transitioned out of his jail stay to his freedom only to see he’s in the same situation again), but he also sets up the entire issue with the rest of the page. After transitioning, he zooms out a bit to make the top row of the page a four-panel mirror-match-cut. Now, he could just jump from the fourth panel to the sixth, but by adding that fifth panel he emphasizes the fact that the car isn’t starting and adds a beat of narrative pacing that makes the page feel like you’re really zooming out and not just cutting in between shots.
Tommaso has two more match cuts in this issue, the second of which occurs on the next page.
The very first panel of page six continues the aforementioned zoom-out feel while also solidly establishing that this dude was outside of a strip club. The nice part about this move is that if you were reading this comic and dropped dead at the end of page five, you would already know about the strip club theme: page six further sets up the scene, while also making the signage star more prominently in order for the second match cut to the car dealership to have an extra layer of similarity. Page six’s match cut stars the car in two very different situations; but, it also stars the sleazy signage of a strip club juxtaposed with the perhaps sleazier signage of a used car dealership.
If you were reading a prose book telling Carter’s story, I imagine the author might begin by saying some things like, “Carter has bad luck. Okay, Carter has really bad luck. Sometimes, things look like they’re going to be okay, but then…” etc. etc. That sort of clunky omnipotent expositional stuff is contained entirely in Tommaso’s clever use of match cut transitions which speak for themselves.
Austin Lanari is a recovering philosopher who can never catch up with any of the goddamn anime he wants to watch. He disgorges comicy thoughts and criticism for Comic Bastards and on his own blog. You can read those thoughts and less on Twitter @AustinLanari.