Inspired by Frank Bramlett’s satisfyingly rich 1/23/14 PencilPanelPage post, “How do Comics Artists use Speech Balloons?” (which is the first in Frank’s promised and promising series on the representation of talk in comics), I, too, have decided to embark on a two- or three-part exploration of a discrete comics element utilizing a theoretical framework with some application to particular comics. My focus is time, and I will use this first part to sketch some of the concepts I will be drawing from, and invite readers to share their insights into how time works in comics that have caught their eye. Five weeks from now, part two will explore a few select panels and pages that—in my opinion—do interesting things with the representation of time.

Never yet having engaged in sustained exploration of the representation of time, it has nevertheless often been a component of what I explore when I think about comics. Sometimes it is simply the nifty nature of dual time possible in a panel; consider, for example, a graphic memoir like Fun Home, in which the speech balloons emerge from the drawn child while a narrative voiceover in the captions presents an adult “take” on the scene below. There is also the type of narrative time that gets built as a comics reader moves around a comic, returning to panels on previous pages, picking up threads that were dropped and resumed, or making connections between and amongst instances of action, events, characters (Scott McCloud does justice to this movement in Understanding Comics, of course, as he also brings the gutter into this consideration, reminding us that we continue playing out the scene via imagination each time we hit a gutter, and thus extend narrative time in interesting and highly subjective ways).

Thierry Groensteen’s exploration, in his System of Comics, of reader actions with non-contiguous panels and the work s/he does to connect disparate moments spread through a full-length comic, adds an additional dimension to this expansion of time (yes, and space, which is hard to decouple from time). Via what he terms a system of “arthrology” (the anatomical reference here is to joints and jointedness), the reader collects information from across the comic, interweaving (he uses the term “braiding”) elements large and small to make meaning, and though he does not discuss this primarily in terms of time, can we not see it as a novel challenge to the linear nature of narrative time? If we generally think of readers pulled from first page to last in a linear progression from start of text to end of text, it is both refreshing and liberating to think of the comics reader becoming adroit at stopping and starting time at will, hitting the pause button in a sense, and then rewinding and fast forwarding in a very individual search for meaning and alternate forms of continuity. This can be quite literal: think of the moments you held your finger on a page in anything by Chris Ware, and returned back to an earlier page to tease out a connection…then toggled between them to establish an artificially created, but viable, contiguity between panels that are (no longer) separated by page distance?

In “Duration in Comics,” an engaging article published in the Winter, 2012 (Volume 5, Number 2) issue of European Comic Art, Sebastien Conard and Tom Lambeens bring several concepts of narrative time to comics, attempting to find language to talk about the layering of multiple types of time in both single panels and works as a whole. Conard and Lambeens plumb philosophical concepts of time, such as Henri Bergson’s notion of duration, which refers not to clock time, but rather “…time as felt or experienced, not time as thought or measured.” (96) They consider other forms of subjective time, including Gilles Deleuze’s exploration of how memory alters time (and time memory) (97)—you can apply this both to a character or narrator’s memory as its shapes the showing and telling of events, experiences, etc. as well as to the reader’s memories and their impact on such things as “reading” time, i.e. how long it takes to make one’s way through a given work. Ultimately, Conard and Lambeens are interested in the multiplicity of time in comics—that there are often many different kinds of time operating both objectively (in the panels, pages and words of a comic), and subjectively (in the mind of a reader).

Can you offer a particularly deft representation or enactment of time in a comic, or do you have some thoughts – general or specific—on the topic of time in sequential narrative? I’ll be continuing this thread in part two, and will provide some provocative examples, but I’m eager to hear from others on the subject while I gather this evidence for you.


from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen

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