Critical debates about the definitive features of the comics form have, perhaps thankfully, been on the wane in recent years. Without wishing to reignite the scholarly conversation about precisely what makes comics comics, I would like here to address a feature of the form that has always seemed the most compelling and least problematic of the various proposed ‘vital ingredients’ (Harvey 109) of the medium. Narrative breakdown – the dispersal of content into discrete, interdependently interwoven units – has few parallels in other media. Unlike sequential progression (shared by all narrative forms) or visual-verbal blending (a common feature of newspapers, advertising, and the internet to name very few), which are far more frequently suggested as the essential elements of comics, narrative breakdown has few comparators. Perhaps the closest formal similarity would be the film shot, but unlike the static panel on the printed page, the pace at which the narrative is consumed in film is mechanically controlled; furthermore, the diegetic action of film (usually) matches the viewing time of a specific shot, while in comics the relationship between reading time and story time is complex and highly variable.
Shane Simmon’s masterwork, The Long and Unlearned Life of Roland Gethers , persuasively demonstrates just how central narrative breakdown is to the comics reading experience. This deliciously idiosyncratic take on the form all but dispenses with pictorial content, which is also often claimed to be a defining feature of the medium, and an essential vehicle for narrative content (see Meskin 369). Reducing characters to indistinguishable dots and relying almost entirely on text, narrative breakdown is exploited in such a way as to produce a reading experience that could never be replicated with prose alone: the separation of narrative content across panels results in pauses, pacing, turns, and shifts in the verbal text that are in fact dependent on, and highly specific to, the structural demarcations of the comics form. The text, described as ‘an epic comedy about a lowly coalminer and his stumbling passage through 89 years of British history, from 1860 to 1949’ , is impishly amusing, mixing grandeur and blandness, the epic and the everyday. Kierkegaard located the essence of comedy in disparity between what is expected and what is experienced, and Simmons’ mock-epic exploits the junctures and collisions that characterise narrative breakdown to create just the kinds of contradiction and incongruity in which humour lies.
I have written elsewhere (Miodrag 2010, Miodrag 2012) about the ways narrative breakdown can pace reading in order to inscribe comic timing into textual content, and Simmons is gifted in utilising panel gaps in order to set up punchlines in this way. An exemplary gag is to be found in the section below (Fig. 1), in which Roland’s father mourns the passing of Roland’s mother during his birth. Now the widowed father of a dozen sons (the Gethers’ Catholicism, and in particular their associated abundant progeny, is a source of much drollery), his poetical lament ‘Never a daughter will I have’ is wickedly undercut by the follow-on observation, ‘And who, I ask you, will do the laundry?’ The pause created by the panel gap is instrumental in setting up the bathetic effect, and the reader is served a second comically disruptive shift in the next panel, with his friend’s earnest response, ‘I can feel your grief.’ It is in particular the gaps between panels, the sense of colliding sentiments in these neatly segregated units, that maximises the comic disparity.
It has been said that ‘the visibility of the interframe space makes rhythm more salient’ (Miller 109) in comics than in prose literature, and it is certainly the case that Simmons’ verbally-based humour is amplified by the tempo created by panel divisions. The insertion of pause-generating breaks is never incidental, and is exploited not only to manipulate linguistic rhythms, but also to drip-feed story information in ways that similarly subverts expectations and generates comic incongruities. The text’s opening pages provide a case in point (Fig. 2), with the bellows of the labouring Martha Gethers apparently quietly withheld throughout two panels of routine salutary chit-chat, before being jarringly unleashed in order to underline the absurdity of this measured conversation. Panels once again meet at a disruptive juncture.
The humdrum pace of workaday working-class life is often thrown into sharp relief by the harsh realities the text irreverently deals in. On hearing of a cave-in at the mine where his father and brothers work, Roland begs for some unscheduled time away from his own job as an apprentice-apprentice in an accountant’s firm (where, despite the two whole years of education necessary to get him the position, his chief task is sweeping, and a promotion entails the gift of a dustpan to go with his broom), tentatively asking ‘Couldn’t I have a little time off?’, quantifying in the next panel ‘Just enough to run down to the mines’, before carefully clarifying ‘…and see if anyone I’m related to has been crushed to death?’ (p.9). That the patiently well-formed final phrase, pregnant with a drama its measured pace elides, is deferred over several panels manages to extract comic build-up from the pedestrian rhythms of quotidian life. Here, the panel gaps create pauses that temper the conversation – which seems jarringly inappropriate given the drastic tragedy at hand. The same technique wonderfully wrong-foots the reader during the subsequent conversation in which Roland tentatively suggests to his trapped father that he might nourish himself on the flesh of the already-deceased miners, whilst awaiting the rescue diggers: after gently admonishing his son that he ‘couldn’t do that’, that this is ‘just not Christian’, and that it’s ‘for savages, that is’, Gethers Snr. further explains ‘besides, I’ve been trying for days’, ‘…and can’t reach any of them, pinned as I am’ (p.10). In this example too, there is a comic clash between build-up and denouement, which the measured spacing across panels and visible seam of the panel gap both help to magnify.
The text’s diminutive panels (each page contains eight rows of ten panels; not for nothing did Simmons christen his self-publishing concern Eyestrain Productions) necessitate the use of small snippets of text. Despite the minimalist nature of the ‘picture’ content, there is simply not room for more than a few words per panel but this apparent constraint is adroitly used to space out the bathetic build-ups and punchlines described above. Simmons also manages to wring maximum effect from blank panels, with pauses frequently exaggerating the impact of those comic climaxes. The silent panel between Roland’s rejection of the family mining tradition, in favour of accountancy, and his father’s response ‘I’ve raised a wild man, I have’ (p.7) is instrumental in heightening the sense of incongruity. Roland’s inauspicious start in life is given similar treatment in the section below (Fig. 3), with its meandering extemporising on the difficulties of baby-rearing, apparent dip into melancholy recollection, and the final turn, the impact of which is amplified by the seemingly contemplative panel that precedes it.
It has sometimes been claimed that diegetic time is locked into panels according to how long it takes the reader to consume their content or, more specifically, their dialogue (Screech 102, Abbott 162). The question of precisely how we judge the amount of fictive time represented by a silent panel is surely an unanswerable one, but it seems that the point raised previously, regarding the rhythmic function of narrative breakdown, provides a more useful way of approaching such panels. Silent panels insert the classic pregnant pause, more so even than the slight pause created by the gutter, enlarging and thus intensifying the set-up before the inevitable punchline. The question of narrative duration is also relevant to the final aspect of narrative breakdown examined here: the utilisation of intertitles. Mimicking the practice used in silent films, the use of intertitles in Roland Gethers is illustrative of ways that panel divisions lie at the heart of comics reading, and highly representative of the comic clashes and contradictions for which Simmons exploits narrative breakdown.
Intertitle panels here serve a kind of leapfrog function, pitching the action forward from one homespun conversation to another. More than a caption, which explicitly locates a depicted scene, these panels act as gateways and the narrative information they present proves fertile ground for the text’s mischievous humour. At their most straightforward, these panels merely position the reader ‘Back home’ (p.16) or in ‘The recruitment office’ (p.17), but they are additionally used for wry narratorial commentary, often imparting information that is made sufficiently obvious by the surrounding content, but with a detached solemnity that becomes dryly sardonic. The unembroidered observations that ‘The interviews did not go well’ (p.16) and that ‘The mines remained hazardous’ (p.17) clash with the all too human travails concerned. It is once again the contrast between the laconic tone of this narrative chorus and personal struggles they denote that produces a thoroughly deadpan wit. At its peak, the intertitle device is used not so much to march the story forward as dramatically punctuate the artlessly naïve bickerings of Roland and his over-the-hill 21-year-old fiancé, Una. Two rows of arguing are repeatedly interrupted with declamations that ‘The wedding was off’, before an unworldly reconciliation and the news ‘The wedding was back on’ (p.13). This pseudo-melodrama receives a comic echo in the subsequent plot-driving panel informing the reader that ‘The wedding was modest’ (p.14). As with the analyses above, the humour lies in the juxtaposition of contrasting elements, in the collision of demarcated units that wrong-foot expectations, create breaks, turns, and subversions. In Simmons’ hands, narrative breakdown gives panels other panels to riff off.
The minimalist visuals, and heavy reliance on text that is artfully segregated across panels, produces in Roland Gethers a work which is ripe with comic incongruities. The mix of humdrum colloquy and the vast scope of the text (taking in births, deaths, marriages, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the effects of these on several generations of the same family) creates a parallel clash between high and low, between the dramatic and the everyday. In describing the humour thus generated, I have had recourse to the term ‘bathos’, but as well as producing jokey plunges into triviality, the banal homeliness that co-exists with the drama, trauma, and profundity of ordinary human existence adds a genuine layer of pathos. There isn’t room here to ponder the various connections proposed between comedy and tragedy, but the particular admixture that drives so much of Roland Gethers’ humour seems to play on precisely this clash. Exploring happy and sad, epic and everyday, Simmons employs the meeting of panel and panel that lies at the heart of the comics form to create a text which is profoundly comical in its clashes, contrasts, and subversions of expectation – and which it is not too much of a stretch to suggest is also, potentially, comically profound.
Lawrence L. Abbot, ‘Comic Art: Characteristics and Potentialities of a Narrative Medium’ in Journal of Popular Culture, 19.4 (1986): 155-176
Robert C. Harvey, The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996)
Aaron Meskin, ‘Defining Comics?’ in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64.4 (2007): 369-379
Ann Miller, Reading Bande Desinée: Critical Approaches to French-language Comic Strip (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007)
Hannah Miodrag, ‘Narrative, language, and comics-as-literature’, Studies in Comics, 2.2 (2012): 263-279
Hannah Miodrag, ‘Fragmented Text: The Spatial Arrangement of Words in Comics’, International Journal of Comic Art, 12:2/3 (2010): 309-327
Matthew Screech, ‘Jean Giraud/Moebius: Nouveau Réalisme and Science Fiction’, in Charles Forsdick, Laurence Grove, Libbie McQuillan (eds.), The Francophone Bande Desinée (NY: Editions Rodopi B.V., 2005), pp.97-113
Shane Simmons, The Long and Unlearned Life of Roland Gethers (Augsburg, MerloVerlag, 2000)
Hannah Miodrag completed her doctoral thesis in 2012, at the University of Leicester, where she is currently a Teaching Fellow. Her research examined the ways language and linguistic theory has been understood and used within Anglophone comics criticism, challenging the accepted orthodoxies around the ways comics use, and are structured like, verbal language. Her work has been published in the International Journal of Comic Art, and Studies in Comics, and she has a monograph due for publication by the University Press of Mississippi in 2013.
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