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 in Loser City 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. Continuing today’s love affair with Study Group Comics, we’ve decided to explore the seventh page of part two of Reid Psaltis’ fascinating comic Kingdom/Order.
A basically dialogue free exploration of man vs. nature, Reid Psaltis’ Kingdom/Order is a difficult work to accurately describe. Psaltis’ style in the comic is part Black Hole-era Charles Burns, part Tom Kaczynski’s Beta Testing the Apocalypse and utterly transfixing. Psaltis masterfully details the forest environment the work is set in with a passionate but accurate eye, flooding the scenery with menacing shadows and sharp intrusions of foliage that hint at the nightmares of prey everywhere, but the artist goes more abstract in the speech bubbles of his animal and human characters. Where those white spaces would be filled with dialogue, Psaltis instead crafts shadowy, abstract shapes that are nonetheless immediately clear. Part two of the story finds a regular office drone lost in the woods with only a rabbit for a guide; though the man and the rabbit come from vastly different places and have entirely unique perspectives, they both understand the need to get away from the creatures that would do them harm and minor glances tell them all they need to know.
On this page, Psaltis bookends the “dialogue” exchange in the middle panels with a top tier panel introducing the rabbit and the man to each other and a bottom tier panel introducing the reader to the threat that looms over both of them. The top panel has the rabbit speaking its intent in the form of an abstract representation of the thorn bush it hopes to run into which the man is inconveniently blocking. The middle panels are static and have a bookend of their own, as the man’s expressions flank the rabbit’s look of concerned surprise. In that moment, which is frozen in a way that is basically unique to comic storytelling, the reader is forced to flip between those expressions the man makes while the rabbit’s puzzled face anchors our view, forcing that confusion to be front and center in our minds as we translate the man’s facial language.
That frozen time technique also allows the reader to move from those middle expressions to the relative calm of the top panel and the menace that is promised in the shadowy figure of the wolf lurking dead center at the bottom. As readers we have the benefit of drinking in all the scenery and enjoying the dangerous calm Psaltis has created, but we’re also immediately aware of the threat poised by the wolf and what it means for the rabbit in particular but also for the man. Films are able to create drama through a lack of sound and video games are able to artfully craft moments of frozen time where one can think of what to do next, but neither medium is able to quite capture shifting perspectives and landscapes as efficiently as Psaltis is able to with his comic or to utilize such an abstract yet readable form of communication. Psaltis’ work on Kingdom/Order is an utterly unique and beautiful representation of how comics can be so simple and complex at once, how they’re able to communicate with such emotion and intensity but also be completely clear and understandable without the burden of written language.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover