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Points of Impact – Week 24: Making the Time

| September 10, 2012


1st Disclaimer: Points of Impact contains so many spoilers it can practically replace reading your comics. Know what that means? Read your comics first!

2nd Disclaimer: For the sake of simplicity and since it’s impossible for me to know exactly who did what for the specific elements I usually examine, unless the creators come forward themselves to set me straight, from now on I’ll assume that everything in the comic stems from a joint decision by both the artist and the writer. I figure I’ll get it right most of the time if I give each 50% of the credit. I apologize in advance if I’m off from time to time, but I’d rather give too much credit than not enough where it’s due.

The time manipulation techniques used in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s HAWKEYE #2

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: David Aja
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Editors: Axel Alonso, Sana Amanat, Tom Brennan and Stephen Wacker

Time, as well as the myriad ways it’s represented in comics, is one of my favorite subjects of discussion. If you’ll permit the easy pun, I’ve touched upon it time and time again in this very column. Perhaps it’s because it’s a concept that should be eminently difficult to convey in a completely static medium – unlike in film or animation – but I suspect it’s mostly because I love finding myself shocked by the genius of certain creators finding novel techniques for representing its passage and manipulating its flow.

Truly, for a medium that’s comprised of pictures on a page, it sometimes treats us to ingenious displays that could be more likened to the cutting edge functionality of engineering than to the powerful but vague power of art.

At the foremost of my thoughts these days when it comes to these technical feats are Matt Fraction and David Aja since they seem able to come up with ways to reinvent comics with every new issue, even though they’ve only got two done as of yet.

HAWKEYE #2 brings us another adventure of Clint Barton – called by his titular moniker once this time – as we’re once more shown what he’s up to “when he’s not being an Avenger”. I have to say that, in my opinion, the stuff he does off the clock seems a lot more interesting. But apart from this sympathetic and down-to-earth representation of the character, it’s these little tricks that mostly catch my eye, these little mechanisms that Fraction and Aja put in place in order to play with the flow of time itself.

Classic beginning, HAWKEYE #2 opens in media res as Clint and an unknown for now costumed ally are diving into a pool to escape a hail of automatic fire.

As we can see, the whole page could be considered a splash with overlaid inset panels, although ones that are connected to the frame in a way that makes them seem more like regular sequential panels. However, apart from maybe the very last panel in the bottom right corner, all of these show actions or events that are occurring at the same time as the main action shown in the splash page: the firing guns, the bystanders getting cut down, the ejected casings, the floating body – all of these are but parts of a larger picture. They’re showing different views of the same moment, as if the reader’s viewpoint was multiplied in order to let him see several aspects of the scene, which a single panel couldn’t show in its allotted block of time.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Fraction and Aja are using aspect-to-aspect transitions to cut down the time/panels needed to show the whole scene. Indeed, consider the regular way to represent action in comics: each subsequent panel contains a single moment in time, each one a bit further down the timeline than the previous one. However, as we’ve seen before, this type of transition can be used to decompose a scene into various visual snapshots that are essentially representing the same moment from different viewpoints. As such, in this page, aspect-to-aspect transitions are used to stop time, just so we can experience a more complete picture of the scene.

Moreover, the peculiar layout of the page clues us in that the mosaic-like arrangement of panels calls for a different interpretation, further ensuring a proper “reading” of the technique used here.

Our next example is from a scene that actually occurs before the one we’ve just studied but is placed after it in the book. Thus the first page constitutes an excellent example of a flash-forward*, another time-manipulating technique – but not the one we’re going to be discussing now. What we’ll look into instead is the introduction of the character of Kate Bishop.

*A flash-forward is a technique in which the reader is shown a scene that doesn’t occur well before later in the narrative, essentially offering a sneak peek of the story ahead and letting  us wonder how that event comes to be rather than if it’s going to be, as it’s usually  the case.

Both panels show the exact same image with two major differences. First, all color has been taken out of the second panel, leaving it as a high-threshold black-and-white version of the first one. Once again, we see how Matt Hollingsworth is essential to the team pulling off these tricks! Second, there is no spoken dialogue in the second panel, only Clint’s narration in caption boxes.

The implication here is that time is stopped during the second panel. By repeating the same image and essentially “cutting out the sound”, Fraction and Aja have reproduced in a comic the cinematic technique known as a freeze-frame. In film as in comics, it’s a technique that calls to the front the inherent artificiality of the medium, since halting time irrevocably breaks the semblance of reality that is normally established as part of the effort for suspension of disbelief.

By using this technique, Fraction and Aja are able to insert expository information that would otherwise have to be passed along to the reader through dialogue. Since the characters in the scene are already familiar with each other, it would be unseemly to have them rehash information they both already know in a perfect demonstration of butler-maiding*. Interestingly enough, the reader will more readily accept a realism-shattering device like the freeze-frame than butler-maiding, if only because the former at least suggests a certain respect for the public’s intelligence which the latter lacks.

*Here’s another one for you: butler-maiding is when characters discuss information they both already know for the sole unspoken benefit of the reader. The name originates from the practice in old-fashion theatre to have plays begin with the butler and the maid talking about their masters’ current situation, thus quickly setting up the context for the spectator and allowing the story to move more quickly into the action. The most egregious examples would even take refuge in audacity by typically having the first line start with “As you know…”

Up to now, we’ve only seen examples where time was halted. The same scene however also provides us with another type of manipulation as Clint does a bit of flashy practice archery.

The sequence of panels in which Clint prepares to shoot is framed above and beneath by two series of very small panels in black-and-white showing Kate Bishop’s face. Under each of these “micro-panels” is a letter which, when read in sequence with the others, forms a spoken line of dialogue for Kate: “Well that’s cool.”

This particular arrangement first implies that the series of regular panels and the series of micro-panels are meant to be simultaneous. The second implication is that time moves a lot faster as Clint readies his shot than as Kate says her line. Indeed, Clint has the time to go through complex mental checks by the time his partner speaks no more than three words. Thus, by placing that sequence side-by-side with the stretched out dialogue in the micro-panels, Fraction and Aja accelerate time without having to modify the panels showing the sped up action in any way.

The alternative would have been to use other more invasive technique like an abundance of speed lines or ghosting, the result of which would run the risk of looking dirty and maybe even confuse the reader. On the contrary, by placing the speeding device outside of the panels, they leave us with crisp clean art and room enough for dialogue. It then becomes possible to show a much more complex sequence because regular panels can now be used for their representation.

And once more, the art serves at underlining the special purpose of the affected panels, this time again with different coloring. That’s three in three as of yet!

Before we let that one go, anyone notice that the micro-panels form a series of extreme moment-to moment transitions? See, you should really brush up on your Scott McCloud before reading this column.

Next comes an example that blends the notions of time and space for a interesting-looking result. Let’s see how Clint and Kate are doing as they infiltrate a hotel filled with bad guys.

Again, Fraction and Aja use inset panels to decompose a panel into smaller components. This time, these panels aren’t used to show different aspect of a single moment but rather to show different moments of a single scene. As you can see, the larger panel represents the reception hall packed with all of the bad guys who are making Clint so nervous. Each inset circumscribes – physically in the panel – one moment in Clint and Kate’s trajectory through the crowd. As such, the technique they use here lets them reduce multiple panels to insets in a larger one, not really saving space – as the large panels easily takes up half the page – but saving gutters. Thanks to the use of insets rather than regular panels, they eliminate a couple of these usually necessary transitions and offer a smoother reading of the scene.

Also and more importantly, Fraction and Aja condense time by showing multiple consecutive moments inside the same panel. The natural left-to-right moving of the reader’s eyes across the panel is used as a replacement for the moving forward of time usually accomplished by the gutters. The framing of the inset panels acts only as a highlighting device since they could be taken out and the panel could still easily be understood as a series of consecutive actions. It’s the same principle at work in ghosting, applied to a conversation rather than a physical sequence like a fight scene or acrobatics.

You’ll also notice that the colors for every character but Clint and Kate are muted inside the inset panels, thus further setting these apart from the framing panel. More kudos for Hollingsworth!

Our final example is located near the end of the book, as Clint and Kate try to escape their Cirque du Nuit pursuers. (By the way, “Cirque du Nuit” is horrible, HORRIBLE French. I’ve said it once and I’m saying it again: you need some French in your comic, call me. I’ll do it for free!)

It’s a sequence of three panels first showing Kate having her thigh grazed by a bullet, then she’s picked up by Clint and finally he’s running away as she fires back at their pursuers; three panels, three actions. However, if we take into account the other characters as well as the trajectory of the bullets fired through the lot, we can see that these are consistent throughout the sequence. The bad guy getting shot in the first panel falls through the gutter into the second one. Similarly, the body on the floor in the second panel spills out into the third one. And all through this, the path of the bullets is clearly traced passing through all three panels. The main characters however never cross under the gutters: even when they would normally spill out – like Clint’s foot should in the last panel – they remain firmly entrenched in the panels where they’re shown acting.

Essentially, it’s the same principle at work here than what we had in the last example. Here however, we have a sequence of regular panels instead of insets. Another major difference, the effect is the opposite: instead of time getting condensed, it’s rather getting stretched out, thus allowing the reader to take in a sequence of very quick actions by presenting them in a row of regular panels. The rapidity of these actions is further enhanced not only by the consistent background but also by the fact that they’re all executed by the time bullets cross the distance between the first and last panel.

As we can see, all four of these techniques serve to alter the perception of time in the comic. Of interesting note is the fact that all of the manipulations are based on the use of certain panel configurations: insets, parallel sequences and shared backgrounds. It should come as no surprise however as the individual panel in comics is the basic unit of time.

Each new panel is generally perceived by the reader as another moment. Time even moves forward inside the panels themselves. Fundamentally, this is what happens whenever a character speaks a line: time passes as he enunciates the dialogue. If time flows constantly, gutters then become simple arbitrary ticks around the clock – visual representations that help us better set the borders of each moment, but never stop them dead in their tracks.

Thus, in comics, manipulating time naturally implies manipulating panels. This is a basic truth that Fraction and Aja have obviously mastered. By using the techniques I’ve discussed here, they show us that you can do more with the panels you have than just relate your story. You can twist time to suit your storytelling needs.

You can make the time.

Thus, for their inventive use of panels to manipulate the flow of time, Matt Fraction and David Aja score a BULLSEYE for HAWKEYE #2!

Lesson Learned

Despite the static nature of the medium, time is a constant factor in comics. That doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to lining up panels one after another in a simple chronological sequence; there are techniques you can use to manipulate the flow of time and thus make your narrative more engaging for your reader. You can first stop time, either by using aspect-to-aspect transitions to decompose a moment into several simultaneous viewpoints, or by using a freeze-frame to pause the action at one point. Second, you can speed it up by juxtaposing two separate sequences of panels and applying an extreme form of moment-to-moment transitions to one in order to give the impression that the other is moving faster. Finally, time can be slowed down with the use of shared background elements through a sequence of panels each showing one step in a series of actions.

A final word of warning: don’t make a drinking game out of counting the number of times I say the word “time” in this article.

Time, time, time!

And that’s all the time we have this week! See you… whoa! Next Saturday already! That’s coming up fast! Time sure does fly!

Okay, that was the last time

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Category: Columns, Points Of Impact

About the Author ()

Yannick Morin is a comic writer, editor and vivisector hailing from the frozen reaches of Quebec City. You’ve just caught him with all of his endeavors being drawn by artists right now. You will however soon see his work in IC Geek Publishing’s JOURNEYMEN: A MASTER WORK anthology (summer 2012) as well as in ComixTribe’s OXYMORON anthology (fall 2012). Of course he also has a few other projects on the side but it’s all very hush-hush at this point as you can imagine. Apart from complaining about running out of time for writing, Yannick also acts as ComixTribe’s Community Relations Manager, making sure the Tribe doesn't erupt into riots on the forum. For more of what spills out of his brain, have a look at his blog Decrypting the Scripting. You can also feed his ravenous ego by following him on Facebook and Twitter (@Moryannick).

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