This week in Editorial Edits I want to talk about something that we don’t see very often in comics: changing the page orientation from horizontal to vertical. Again this particular trick isn’t used all that frequently (though I did just see it in Infinite Vacation #4), but it’s still an interesting artistic move that I think has both strengths and weaknesses that drastically influence both the narrative and the reader’s level of immersion.
My favorite example of this type of transition comes from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #34.
Here Abby has consumed a piece of fruit from Swamp Thing’s body. It contains a fraction of his elemental consciousness and opens Abby’s mind to the astounding interplay of energy, life, and death in the natural world. Moore and co. invite us to join Abby on her psychotropic journey.
Notice how panels two, three, four, and five gently guide the reader into this new vertical orientation? It’s subtle but calculated, mirroring what Abby herself is going through as the fruit does its work. Huge vertical panels follow, depicting images that simply wouldn’t work in the standard comics format. But more than that, it serves to take us deeper into Abby’s trip in the heart of the swamp. The narrative strangeness for the character becomes physical strangeness for the readers.
What’s even more awesome is that Moore, Bissette, and Totleben guide us back to reality, back to the standard comic format, the same way we started, a subtle, gradual, but calculated return to normalcy for both Abby and the reader.
Here Gaiman transports this young lady to the Dreaming, where she meet Cain and Abel and their Houses of Mysteries and Secrets. The second, third, and fourth panels work the same way as in the Swamp Thing example, gently guiding the reader to the new orientation, which again leads to some brilliant spreads that make the citadel of Morpheous seem even more hauntingly beautiful and grandiose.
I didn’t have a chance to scan the pages where the young lady awakens, but it’s just one small narration box that says something like, “Wake up dear, we’re here.” The box is written as though the comic were being read normally, so the reader has to switch back to the standard format to read it comfortably, and when they flip the page they’re suddenly transported back to the waking world, just as if they’d been rudely awoken from a dream.
I think the strength of these transitions comes from forcing the reader to physically reorient themselves as the character goes through their change. There’s a deeper connectedness inherent there that maybe we don’t even notice. That and the vertical pages allow for some totally awesome images that you couldn’t do normally. It allows for higher vistas, towering scenes only limited by the artists’ imagination.
I think that the major weaknesses of this method come from the physical turning of the book as well. Regardless of how well you guide the reader into the change they’re still going to be flipping the comic, not just turning a page. That’s new and different, so while it may mirror the narrative, it’s strange and unfamiliar and if not done well, it absolutely kills the immersion and all you’ve done is reminded your reader that they are in fact, reading a comic book.
I wish I had a good example of an occasion where it’s not done well, but there were some X-Men comics from the 90’s that have you reading along normally and then BOOM, no buffer, no sign whatsoever indicating that we might go vertical and then you turn the page and you have to turn the book. I remember the first time it happened and I was just… I was just so annoyed. There was no reason for this to happen, one minute characters are talking to each other, the next they’re doing it rotated 90 degrees to the right.
That’s doing it wrong, when there’s simply no reason for it to happen.
I think if the horizontal to vertical transitions is done well it can lead to one of the most gratifying experiences in comics, but even so it will always cause a break in the narrative. The sheer strangeness of actually flipping the comic pulls the reader out of the story and back into the real world. The change must be facilitated with grace and subtlety to achieve its full potential.
Also, it must fit the story! Swamp Thing and Sandman are two titles rife with the supernatural and are no strangers to odd twists of perspective. Weird things happen and I think these types of transitions work well simply from a genre perspective. That’s not to say it can’t be used elsewhere, but it has to be done for a reason and done right.
I think that’s all I have for you guys. Hope you enjoyed and come back for more