Monday, February 18, 2008

The Art of the Comic Strip Narrative, Part 2

Yesterday's post comparing two different ways of presenting the same comic strip continuity generated some insightful commentary from readers. From the same sources here're two other examples placed next to each other.

The comic strip on the top was drawn by Frank McGlaughlin, the official artist for Gil Thorp, and was published a few months ago. The bottom strip is a tryout by Steve Bryant, created at the request of the Chicago Tribune.

Unlike yesterday's example, there are strong storytelling elements in both versions. The script requires three different speakers and a scene change. McGlaughlin starts out the reader in the team bus, showing us the two coaches in a discussion.

If you haven't been reading throughout the week, it may take a moment to figure out where they are. Bryant shows us the bus in transit, clearly setting the stage, but there's a trade-off. We don't know who's speaking (unless we've been reading the continuity throughout the week).

(To be fair, Bryant used the text supplied by the Syndicate. Had he been the actual artist working with the writer, it's possible that the dialogue could have been slightly tweaked so that Kaz and Gil mention each other by name.)

In McGlaughlin's version, panel 2 has Gregory sitting in the back of the bus, his pose showing he's not been humbled at all by the talking-to referred to in panel 1. He's also looking up as if seeing himself on an imaginary pedestal. His two teammates seem less than impressed.

Bryant has Gregory address the reader directly (while seeming to talk to someone off-panel). How big is Gregory's ego? Big enough to break the fourth wall! On the downside, the way Gregory and his fellow passenger are dressed give us no indication that they're members of a high school basketball team. McGlaughlin's choice of varsity jackets did the narrative a greater service in that respect.

For the third panel, we have Gregory's ex-girlfriend (Maureen Monte, right) and her friend Anne Mayers (left) talking about his ego. Notice the nice arc the story provides. We start with the coaches talking about how they hope Gregory's attitude is under control, the middle panel Gregory refutes that assumption, and in the last two other people provide additional evidence to show just how conceited he really is.

McGlaughlin gives us a clear change of scene by filling in the background and showing us a girl's bedroom. The two girls, albeit drawn somewhat awkwardly, are in poses typical of teenagers lounging. Although the setting is clear, the cell phone with exhibit A (the texted scores) is kind of difficult to make out.

Bryant's far more economical in his scene change. The first two panels have frames, the last one doesn't. By drawing the girls closer in, he can show the cell phone. McGlaughlin has the girls staring off into space, which doesn't help. Are they engaged in conversation or is Anne just thinking out loud? Bryant has both girls' attention focussed on the phone, which draws our eyes to it, too.

Plus, by having the brunette dressed in a light-colored top, the phone stands out in contrast. McGlaughlin chooses to draw a black phone in front of a black sweater.

The downside to Byrant's portrayal is that we're not sure where the girls are. They could even be on another part of the bus, for that matter (letter jackets in panel 2 would have helped that somewhat). On the plus side, he breaks up Anne's lines into two connected word balloons. As mentioned yesterday, it suggests a pause in the delivery, and the second balloon's position over Maureen's head indicates that the comment came after Anne was shown the text message.

If I had to choose, I would say that Bryant's the better artist overall -- and his website shows that he's well-steeped in the comics tradition. Still, continuity strips with their many constraints present a unique set of challenges to the graphic storyteller who usually has a whole page to play with.

I'd almost call this one a draw. No pun intended.

- Ralph

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