I’ve been trying to branch out more with comics in the last few months now that I have a commute again, which has led to me reading a weird amalgamation of stories that I’ve meant to for years like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, cult classics like Lone Wolf And Cub, and indie outings like the fantastic Alex And Ada. If there’s any quality that connects these disparate stories, it’s a disconnect between what is implied and what is in the panels.
The League of Extraordinary Gentleman can best be described as Justice League starring characters from all across literature through the lens of Alan Moore. It’s easily his second most well-known work after Watchmen, and it shares his fondness for creating universes through implication of a broader world than what is seen. In Watchmen, every scene is filled with grunge and darkness that permeated late-80s postmodern art and media. Even when the story shows something like a dead dog or a man committing suicide with cyanide, the world around these scenes breathes with life and realism. This is much more apparent in League of Extraordinary Gentleman. At least in the first volume, it feels like almost half of the story is establishing shots and splash pages. And even though these scenes show the scale and scope of the novel’s many settings, they are drawn in such a way that each splash page tells a story. In one, the heroes sneak through a street of the homeless and ill, masking their faces so as to avoid detection. But what’s more interesting is what isn’t shown; the children of these homeless people, how they got there, and where our heroes came from. In this way, the establishing shots become about not what is, but what isn’t seen. These little details fill in the background of the world, and use a single page or two to tell an elegant, broad story.
If League tells its story through gaps and false framing of scenes, then Lone Wolf and Cub depicts the repetitiveness of violence exclusively using its context clues and the assumptions that the reader brings. The 1970s Japanese samurai story about a samurai assassin and his precocious baby son relies heavily on the classic “Exposition, fight scene, moral, repeat” formula for most of the early-goings. With every battle that Ogami Ittō gets into, the swipes and slashes of swords are represented by the same five or six frames of gore and mutilation. It’s a weirdly gruesome type of scene in a mostly slow, measured comic. However, since it’s almost the same series of frames every time, one would think the artist got lazy and didn’t want to draw new fights. However, this seemed to me like a deliberate choice. Even though the fighters and setting are always different, the battle itself is relatively the same. It’s the context from earlier scenes and past reader experience that envigorate these fights. When Ogami Ittō fights female samurai warriors, it looks the same as when he fights the bulky bodyguard character or vile bandits. However, when one realizes that these women are being treated as equals in Shogun-era Japan (at least in combat), the narrative is reframed to almost be about feminism and the way that these women use their weapons as much as their bodies to fight. And, like a good horror film, the implication of violence between frames is much more horrifying and brutal than what is ever shown.
There’s something almost false and deceiving about the way that comic book art is used to tell stories. Half a hand in one frame can represent an entire body, and word bubbles symbolize speech and action. But even the writing can hint at a greater world than what is shown in each panel. Alex and Ada, a new comic from the Luna Brothers (writer and artist combo that did indie horror masterpiece Girls) focuses on the relationship between 20-something Alex and his synthetic android Ada. For such a small-scale story, the implications of the universe around these characters is massive and detailed. The first example of this is a news report recounting a classic “supposedly subservient robots turn sentient and kill their masters” factory incident. The specific details of this story, like who created the androids and how they gained sentience are slowly explained to the reader and Alex through the story. As the world around him unravels, so does the pace of the story. Early issues spend a lot of time explaining this strange future, but as it grows more comfortable with its universe, Alex and Ada uses subtle, unspoken drama and pathos for world building. Nobody sits down and explains the virtual reality Internet that people browse;it is simply shown as is. This suggests that the world has been the way it is for years, and nobody within it needs to function as a reader stand-in.
Scott McCloud spends an entire chapter of his famous graphic art book Understanding Comics on the idea of storytelling happening off the panels. This is not only a well-known technique discussed in comics, but a staple of classic works in the medium. However, not many people view the panels themselves as a selectively permeable veil; See this, ignore this. Like a cell membrane, the art hides what needs to stay out, and shows what needs to be seen. But sometimes, it’s the stuff that doesn’t make it in that develops the world the best.