Time Paradox:

Sound in Comics

Comics are unique in that it is the only medium where sound is seen, rather than heard by its audience.  My previous discussion on this topic focused on some visual devices used in comics to imply sound.  Yet representing sound implies the presence of another thing absent from static pictorial art: time.  Sound is something that can only exist in time, so the existence of the former includes the existence of the latter.  And just as sound takes on new and complex properties to exist in a strictly visual medium, so does time.

First, a brief overview of the fundamentals of how time functions in comics.  Like other static image mediums, time doesn’t actually exist in comics.  A single pictorial image appears timeless to the human eye.  It is through the juxtaposition of multiple static images and the reader needing to imagine the “missing” panels in between, that creates the illusion of time and motion.

If a single panel captures a specific moment in time, then it follows that stringing together such moments is how comics convey the passage of time.

Or does it? Examine this sequence from Alias of Jessica Jones and Scott Lang engaging in conversation.

At first glance, the assumption of “single panel equates to single moment” appears to hold up, especially in the fourth panel where Scott falls silent.  Yet consider the length of time needed for the characters to realistically vocalize their dialogue.  There is a subtle but distinct distortion of time happening in each panel.  For a better illustration of this, look at this next exchange between Jessica and Scott.

It’s difficult to imagine a conversation of this length happening under a minute, let alone the single instant in time a solitary panel would imply.  The assumption of “single panel equates to single moment” fails to hold true when sound is introduced because no sound can exist without an accompanying measure of time.  Therefore, injecting sound into a comic is another way to create the illusion of time.

Another effect of sound is that its inclusion radically alters the temporal context of a scene.  Let’s look at this “silent” panel of a busy family gathering from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.  It appears at first to depict disparate, connected actions occurring simultaneously within a single moment.

Then look at it when dialogue is introduced:

Several things become apparent.  First, It’s clear this scene plays out over a protected period of time.  Not only that, there is a clear chain of events stretched starting from the camera flash on the left, with each character reacting accordingly.  Without altering any of the other visual elements in this one panel, the presence of dialogue alters the scene into a visual?some would say temporal?paradox: the depiction of multiple, successive instances of time as one single moment.

How is this possible? Again, time doesn’t exist in comics and what the reader sees is only artifice.  The flow of time is more malleable than it is in other mediums and can be more easily manipulated to serve the narrative.   McCloud puts forth the idea of thinking of time as a rope moving through a panel, with the speech bubbles marking time’s path for the reader to follow.

With the understanding that dialogue snippet is a sound anchored in its own specific time slot, we “read” the dialogue and matching figures in the sequence the artist intended.  If we apply some gutters to the panel, the time sequence becomes clearer, though at the cost of cluttering the scene.

Using this temporal property of sound allows one panel do the work of several panels in a visual elegant and economical manner.  An excellent example of this effect at work is in Dave Gibbons’s usage of polyptychs in Watchmen.  A technique defined by McCloud where “a moving figure or figures is imposed over a continuous background,” this panel layout layers multiple instances of time on top of each other.  With such a severe distortion of time, the placement of dialogue is critical to showing the reader the temporally “correct” way to follow the scene.

While sound always exists in time, in comics, it also exists spatially, meaning time does as well.  While time and space are already linked in the form of panels, sound takes it to the next level in that it’s closest thing to visualizing time itself.  The word balloon is a subtle, almost invisible example, but as Lilli Carre shows in her graphic novel, The Lagoon, it can be overt.

She turns the polyptych on its head, showing the image of a song as a single, continuous image moving across multiple distinct backgrounds.  The “time as a rope” concept becomes visible, almost literal, in how it’s used to guide the reader’s eye through the scene.  Whereas dialogue or sound effects is anchored in specific moments, dividing time as invisible gutters, time flows without cessation in the form of a song, instead becoming a unifying visual and temporal element of these three disparate scenes.

A supreme example of pure spatial experimentation with sound and time is seen in the openings pages of Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder as another example of a reversed polyptych.

There are multiple sequences of time operating not just on multiple axises, but multiple progressions. The layout of the panels suggests a top to bottom reading order, but then the reader is confronted with the visual of a radio song in the last panel drifting up and through the preceding panels.  This particular rope of time runs counter to the established temporal sequence, and in a sense, flowing against the narrative.  A literal interpretation of this makes no sense, but as a visual metaphor, it works well to make the song timeless.  Being removed from the temporal context of the panels remakes the song into a wistful background element, putting the reader into the protagonist’s mindset of being lost in thought, almost oblivious to the passage of time.  This stretching of the boundaries of space and time would be difficult, perhaps impossible to replicate in other mediums, but is possible in comics because only in comics are sound and time represented visually.

As said in my first article, there’s more to sound than meets the eye.  Its relationship to sound is already an intricate one, and only becomes more complex existing in a visual medium of comics.  Unraveling those paradoxes is no small effort, but is essential to developing a greater understanding of not just comics, but the fabric of time and space.

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Eric Wong is a high school speech and debate coach, aspiring comics scholar, and struggling writer. He graduated in 2010 from the Johnston Center of Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands, with an emphasis titled "Creative Writing and Sequential Art." For his senior project, he and a close friend developed and taught a course on comics titled "Seduction of the Innocent." He is currently applying to grad school with the goal of obtaining an MFA in comic studies. If you're still interested in his ramblings, you can check out his Tumblr and his podcast where his co-hosts dissect a new comic every episode.

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