One of the most powerful elements in a comic is by far the least obvious. The gutter is simply the space between panels. The nature of the gutter reflects the nature of our brain, which in a lot of ways makes educated (visual) guesses of our surroundings. The inferences function as “gutters”, since we are creating a larger picture based on our fairly limited conception of what is around us.
Visually, the reader moves from one visual element to another within every panel, completing the action both in time and space. When observing a picture, we more our eyes from its focal points to the outskirts. Consequently, our eyes are in constant motion, scanning and jumping from one element to another, while our brain tries to create sequences of meaning. Coincidently, when we open and close our eyelids, we further (re)create a sequential pattern that our brain transforms into “live” movement. The effect of this kind of illusory transformation is best observed in film (moving pictures), where we see static, digital imagery (traditionally 24 frames per second) as factual, temporal action. Promptly called apparent motion, the ability to perceive a sequence of imagery as a constant stream is at the heart of reading comics, especially through the connections the reader makes between the panels and the gutter, between what we see and what we do not see … or is rather either implied or intentionally left open-ended.
In close connection to the gutter we must mention the aspect of closure, which is the ability to connect panels into a meaningful whole (more about that in future posts). You cannot have one without another. But how can empty space play such a powerful role in the perception and reading of comics? If we compare it to the space between two sentences in linguistic terms, this for the most part seems quite inconsequential. Gutter is in fact anything but arbitrary. “Not only the shape of objects, but also that of the intervals between them, is dynamic.” (Arnheim 1997: 429) This dynamic force is a visual/spatial/temporal separator of the narrative process, so the gap between two pictures is the key to understanding their sequence and interrelation. Obviously, the connections between panels vary from example to example and from quite obvious representations to extremely obscure, where connection per se is actually not necessarily too overt.
Consequently, even Daoist and Buddhist teachings stress the importance of emptiness and empty space; consequently, it is the very empty space inside a vase for example which is its essential part, since without that “nothingness”, the vase would lose its pragmatic use and could only have a decorative function (not to say that being ornamental is not enough).
While the authors create the sequence of panels for the readers to interpret, the readers need to participate and use their imagination to connect the dots and create the complete picture in their minds and adhering to the principle of apparent motion in the process. (It should be clear, that the illusion of apparent motion within panels can be most (or rather solely) noticeable through the moment-to-moment transitions between the panels, where the sequences are intended to directly reflect a straightforward, continuous flow of information.) This might seem like an obvious statement, since the same can be said about any sequential medium; however, the spacing between panels in comics is more complex. The size and color of the gutter can have powerful connotations and can affect the perception of the scene. Two large overlapping panels carry a different meaning that two smaller panels separated by an (seemingly) untypically-large gap.
While writing for example employs gutters of sorts between sentences, they are one-dimensional, while those in comics are two and even “three-dimensional,” if the subject matter is related on a meta-level such as in McCloud’s work, where gutter is given a life of its own. Just as panel reading, order and shape, font size and word color carry specific meanings in comics, the gutter is a narrative tool that is not only strongly present in a given comic page, but it (literally) becomes the background upon which the panels of central meanings (or pages as a whole) are placed for the readers to interpret.
If we take a quick example, Picture 5 shows a simple but powerful use of the gutter separating the first two panels… and the two speakers in the process. This division reflects the dualities and contrasts that are the bread and butter of storytelling in Asterios Polyp, a comics masterpiece where this page is taken from. The choice of lettering and balloons, the philosophies on life of the two characters, their appearances, postures and even the level of their drinks clearly reflect and (through multiplicity) further strengthen the dual aspects expressed on this page. The gutter comes into play in the bottom panel as well, where the separating boarder is visually abandoned, as the characters metaphorically find more common ground. The gutter in Picture 5 actually plays a very minute role, because the other visual elements take center stage, but its background presence (pun intended) establishes and guides the visual oppositions forward.
On the other hand, Picture 6 literally or rather pictorially extends the use of the gutter. The silhouettes of fleeing tenants down the stairs are pictorially an extension of the gutter of the first panel, which is already at an angle to symbolize the (dynamic) urgency of the events or rather the threat of fire. Since Asterios’ trousers are of the same color as the gutter, he gets symbolically engulfed by it, while the background almost stuns you with its size, as it nearly acts like a large buffer or the (visual) silence before the storm of the impending danger.
All in all, the mere fact the David Mazzucchelli managed to create powerful contrasts with relatively simple color schemes, is further proof of both his talent and the power of the principle of less is more.
Finally, in mythic terms, a gutter is thus the primordial chaos that is neither empty nor arbitrary, but in fact a connecting force brimming with possibilities (of the reader’s own subconscious). I’ll have more to say about the ideology, psychology and pervasiveness of mythic elements in future posts.
Arnheim, R. (1997). Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Heer, J., & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2009). A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Mazzucchelli, D. (2009). Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon Books.
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial.
McCloud, S. (2006). Making Comics. New York: Harper Perennial.
Talon, D. S. (2007). Panel Discussions: Design In Sequential Art Storytelling. Raleigh, North Carolina: TwoMorrows Publishing.
Vishton, P. M. (2011). Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses.
Wolk, D. (2007). Reading Comics. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …