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.
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