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Gothic for GirlsMisty and British Comics$

Julia Round

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781496824455

Published to University Press of Mississippi: May 2020

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781496824455.001.0001

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Visceral Visuals

Visceral Visuals

Chapter:
(p.83) Chapter 4 Visceral Visuals
Source:
Gothic for Girls
Author(s):

Julia Round

Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi
DOI:10.14325/mississippi/9781496824455.003.0005

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores Misty’s artistry and layout in more detail, using close analysis of a randomized sample of ten issues. It performs quantitative analysis, noting the appearance of page features such as borders, tiers, panel shapes, and so forth. Its aims are to (1) explore the use of artistic layout in Misty; (2) investigate the sufficiency and usefulness of existing comics theorists’ taxonomies of page layouts; and (3) consider the usefulness of Gothic theory in understanding aspects of page layout. It finds that Misty’s stories play with aesthetic and medium by using dramatic layouts and non-standard panelling. The pages seldom adhere to standard models taken from established comics theory (Groensteen, Peeters, Cohn) such as grids, tiers and so forth. They do however fit well with definitions of Gothic aesthetic (Farber, Spoonre) such as exaggerated shadows/chiaroscuro; distorted proportions; skewed angles; asymmetry; baroque or intricate ornamentation; and motifs of age or decay.

Keywords:   Gothic aesthetic, Panels, Pages, Layout, Quantitative analysis

With gripping stories supported by a wealth of artistic talent and a seductive, ethereal cover girl, Misty was a truly striking comic. This was backed up by the insanity of its interior page designs, some of which pushed the principles of comics layouts to the limit. In this chapter, I look more closely at the ways in which Misty’s editorial and artistic team developed and exploited the visual conventions of British comics to enhance its storytelling. My discussion here draws on quantitative analysis of a random sample of ten Misty issues to explore the idiosyncrasies of its style, research that was conducted by Paul Fisher Davies and supported by Bournemouth University’s Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community. This quantitative analysis is complemented by qualitative readings of how these visual features work in practice to enhance a story. Finally, I reflect on these research findings using comics theory and Gothic theory, with particular focus on techniques of transgression and excess.

Experiments with layout in British comics go back to Frank Bellamy’s work on Eagle in the 1960s (which contained dynamic and varied panel shapes and sizes) and are characteristic of many titles. DC Thomson’s Warlord (1974–86) was a particularly important comic in this regard: it “tore up the rule book” by having longer stories, bigger images, and “punchier” layouts and artwork (Roach 2016). When 2000AD launched in 1977, it adopted a similar approach, which Pat Mills attributes to the vision of art editor Doug Church. Mills (2016a) gives Church credit for the “impact and energy” that characterized 2000AD’s pages, explaining that Doug would critique scripts and suggest more dynamic images, often leading to rewrites. This visual legacy continued in the comic’s run: David Roach joined 2000AD in 1988 and recalls artists being told to “make it punchier” and to have “one big panel per page” (Roach 2016). Bodging was often used to deliver this, and in particular on the work of some artists—Roach (2016) names Guirado and Busom, among others.

This type of visual dynamism can also be seen in Misty. Figures 1.1, 3.3 and 6.1 all show pages that use a large opening panel to launch a story, which was common in the comic. Mills (2016a) argues that the visuals of “The Cult of the (p.84) Cat” and “The Black Widow” (both written by Bill Harrington and illustrated by Homero) in particular owe something to Doug Church, saying: “There is clearly a 2000AD influence there. … All that incredible Ancient Egypt. … They are trying to get that 2000AD sense of spectacle.” Mills goes on to suggest that Misty is “copycatting” here and that its stories often use size and spectacle unwittingly, bringing in exciting visuals without an overall sense of artistry.

While there is no doubt that the pages of Misty were confrontational and dramatic, I want to respond to this claim by exploring how the comic uses its visuals and arguing that in fact a Gothic aesthetic structures the page. While I had initially hoped to identify the characteristics of particular artists, the discovery that panel shapes, borders, and sizes were often bodged by the editorial staff led me to revise my research questions and instead analyze the Misty “house” style. My aims were to (1) explore the use of artistic layout in Misty; (2) investigate the sufficiency and usefulness of existing comics theorists’ taxonomies of page layouts; and (3) consider the usefulness of Gothic theory in understanding aspects of page layout. These aims map onto the following objectives: (1) identify formal page features through inductive cataloging and use quantitative and qualitative analysis to draw conclusions about their significance; (2) apply established comics theories to the findings and reflect on their value; and (3) reinterpret and reflect on the findings through the lens of Gothic theory.

The methodology took the form of quantifiable analysis of a random sample of pages, tagging elements such as panel borders and tiering, and supplementary layout features such as arrows and depth. This was complemented by close qualitative readings of tagged examples that explored the use and impact of these features. Bournemouth University’s Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community provided support for this small-scale research project, which also produced some of the data discussed in chapter 7. I am indebted here to my research assistant Paul Fisher Davies, who coded and tagged these common image features using Scrivener software.1 To do this, a random sample of ten issues was generated, using a random-number generator to select a nonrepeating list of tens and units so as to avoid clumping. The total data sample collected thus comprised 320 pages, of which 70 were nonstory pages, 8 were “Miss T,” and 1 was “Wendy the Witch.” Discounting these pages of prose features and the comedy series as nonrepresentative left 241 pages of story, which made up the narrative sample. Impactful features of these pages were then manually identified and tagged, with the list of tags increasing as the study continued. These tags included panel features such as angled borders, round borders, open borders, jagged borders, and so forth, along with page layout features such as arrows, color, inset panels, and splash pages. The pages were also categorized in terms of their relationship to a standard “grid” (p.85)

Visceral Visuals

Figure 4.1. “Midnight Masquerader” (Misty #40).

Art by Brian Delaney, writer unknown. Reproduced with permission of Misty™ Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd.; copyright © Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd., all rights reserved.

or number of tiers.2 It should be noted that pages can include many features, and the following figures must be considered in light of this. So, for example, one might suspect that a number of particularly dynamic pages affected the figures given. However, my meta-analysis of the findings confirms that this is not the case, and the features tagged are spread across the entire sample. That is to say, there are no pages that received no tags; even those that appear simple and perpendicular still have at least one dynamic feature, such as an open panel border or staggered tier. For example, Homero’s work on “Day of the Dragon” (fig. 3.2) is one of the more static layouts but contains many semiborderless panels and transgressed panel borders. Similarly, María Barrera Castell’s work in figure 3.4 appears straightforward at a glance but in fact contains a split tier, a staggered panel arrangement, a semiopen border, and transgressed panel borders.

Figure 4.1 shows the tagging possible on an individual page. This extract from “Midnight Masquerader” contains a number of different panel border (p.86) features, including semiopen edges, shared borders, a representational border (the candle smoke), and a torn or misty border (e.g., along the bottom edge of panel 1). The page also has a dynamic selection of panel shapes, including a circular panel that is emboldened (although its contents are not especially significant). As a result of the varied panel sizes and shapes, the tiering on this page is ambiguous; it is hard to fit it into a grid layout.

Aim 1: Explore The Use of Artistic Layout In Misty

Panel borders are one of the primary features of the comics page and are the material by which layout is most easily and materially identified. A wide range of nonstandard borders were identified and tagged in Misty, as shown in table 4.1.

The data indicate that by far the most common panel border idiosyncrasy is the borderless panel (which is either entirely open or lacking one or more sides), which appears on the majority of the pages analyzed. This effect is generally achieved either by using blank space to create an implied border or by overlaying consecutive images so that they appear contiguous. Unpanelized sequences (which appear less often) are a similar category that overlaps with this, referring to instances where several distinct events or time periods are rendered within the same panel. For example, this might include the visual strategy known in comics as the De Luca effect, where a character is repeated in the same panel to indicate movement (Gravett 2008). Borderless (and semibordered) panels and unpanelized sequences appear in many of the figures included in this book. The analysis also found that while these types of open panels appear quite often, they are not used consistently in support of modalized images. To be clear: this means that a lack of border often has no significance to the narrative events and is generally simply decorative. The frequency with which this device appears might indicate that it is a historically or culturally situated method, or simply (as Cunningham suggests) that panel borders were often removed by editorial to give a sense of free movement.

The category of angled sides appears on nearly one-third of the pages studied and refers to “vertical” panel borders that are angled other than 90 degrees. Although these are sometimes used for action panels, again this is by no means consistent, and this type of border is often used simply to create visual dynamism on the page. A similar tendency is found in emboldened panels, which sometimes mark significant events but in the main are decorative. Circular panels, when used, often appear centrally, framing faces, but have no other significance. Curved borders are also predominantly decorative, other than in (p.87)

Table 4.1. Panel border types in Misty.

Border Type

Pages

Open border/borderless

138 (57%)

Semiopen border

133 (55%)

Angled sides

78 (32%)

Circular panel

43 (18%)

Emboldened panel

39 (16%)

Shared border

23 (10%)

Overlapping border

21 (9%)

Torn or misty border

17 (7%)

Curved border

10 (4%)

Unpanelized sequence

10 (4%)

Representational border

9 (4%)

Jagged border

8 (3%)

Modalized border

5 (2%)

Rounded border edges

3 (1%)

Nested enclosure

1 (<1%)

one instance where they signify hypnotic music being played (“The Jukebox,” #28), and the same can be said of rounded border edges, which are rare.

Modalized borders are defined as instances where the border has an explicit relationship with the narrative events (e.g., a cloud shape to indicate a dream or memory). A particular type of modalized border overlapping with this category is the representational border, which has a clear pictorial quality, for example, shaped like a cat, candle smoke, or a crystal ball. However, many of the foregoing categories are sometimes used as more subtle modalizing features. For example, jagged borders with sharp angles are normally used in comics to indicate a split, as in a telephone conversation or similar. In Misty they instead often indicate a startled character or a change of consciousness. A further modification of this type of line that may be unique to this comic is the torn or misty border, which encloses the panel with a meandering line reminiscent of smoke or mist. Both types are sometimes diegetically motivated or modalizing but are often simply decorative.

Some additional page features were also identified. These were largely found to be marginal: arrows to indicate reading direction appear just once (<1 percent); and inset panels appear on thirty-four pages (14 percent), although I should note that this is a slippery category, as often the circular panel border (p.88) noted earlier shares this feature. Splash pages appear twelve times (5 percent), always as the first page of a story. They are often ambiguous and merge story logo and content: for example, “The Loving Cup” incorporates a large panel of the cup itself into the first page of every episode. These elaborate story logos are not limited to the serials: all the Misty stories have a visually marked title. Sometimes this is text only and conveyed in an oversized or elaborate font (“Date with Death,” #76) or accompanied by an image from the story (“The Fetch,” #2). But at other points these are elaborate bookplate-style panels that might contain a unique image (as in the cameo of Rachel in “Hush, Hush, Sweet Rachel”) or intricate border (“The Body Snatchers,” fig. 3.4). While the title fonts of the serials are consistent, the accompanying images can change (as in “Paint It Black”). So it seems that even Misty’s paratextual elements such as story logos are attention grabbing, experimental, and inconstant.

Perhaps the most significant of the page feature categories that were analyzed is transgression, where character limbs or other objects break an enclosing panel border or other spatial container, which occurs on ninety-three pages (39 percent). I have argued in other work (Round 2017) that these instances of aesthetic transgression reflect the comic’s themes: uncanny and uncontained, focusing on rule breaking and its consequences. The more extensive analysis carried out for this project reveals that aesthetic transgression can have a modalizing function, as in panel 1 of figure 4.1, where Elizabeth’s hand is perhaps reaching out to push open the door or simply to lean on a wall. However, such transgressions are also often just decorative (as in fig. 3.2, where Dave’s and Gayle’s hands break the panel borders).

These quantitative and qualitative analyses demonstrate that Misty’s visual devices tend toward the experimental and dynamic. However, they are most often used simply for ornamentation. This is particularly apparent in the treatment of panel borders and the use of emboldened lines or nonstandard shapes. When modalizing features appear, they tend toward the emotional and symbolic rather than the prosaic—for example, indicating heightened emotion (jagged border) or reinforcing the central motifs of the story (representational border).

Aim 2: Investigate the Sufficiency and Usefulness of Existing Comics Theorists’ Taxonomies of Page Layouts

The inductive nature of the tags that emerged during the research was complemented by the application of comics scholarship. Two key theoretical influences informed the approach to tagging the page layouts. The first is the notion of the “tier,” which is an important organizational principle of the comics page (p.89)

Table 4.2. Tiering in Misty page layouts.

Number of Tiers

Pages

3 tiers

155 (64%)

2 tiers

38 (16%)

Ambiguous

27 (11%)

4 tiers

18 (7%)

1 tier (splash page)

13 (5%)

and is prominent in francophone discussion of bandes dessinées (as bandes, or “strips,” are integral to the French name for the medium). The work of Benoît Peeters (1991), Thierry Groensteen (2009, 2012), and Renaud Chavanne (2010) supports the search for tiered patterns as a principle in the Misty layouts. However, this project found that while tiers do seem to be an organizing principle for most Misty pages, they are not always clean and at times can be highly ambiguous. Pages were tagged according to their number of identifiable tiers, with ambiguous tiering also noted (this category is nonexclusive). In general, sequences of panels follow the upper edge of the page, often with a ragged or staggered lower border, and a similar tier runs across the lower edge of the page with a ragged or staggered upper border. This creates a third tier across the middle of the page, formed by loose or damaged borders shared with the top and bottom tiers.

Although table 4.2 demonstrates that the tier system underpins the majority of pages, this seldom takes the form of a straightforward grid. Variations such as staggering (where the upper and lower edges of panels in sequence do not line up) and tilting (where the baseline that defines reading progression is at an angle rather than horizontal) are common. Staggered tiers appear on ninety-six pages (40 percent), and tilted tiers are found on eighty-nine pages (37 percent) (see figs. 3.3, 3.4). These appearances are not limited to pages tagged as “ambiguous,” although staggering and tilting do often feature here.

The second theoretical model is taken from the work of Neil Cohn (2014), who argues that one feature of comics page layouts that guides the reader is “blockage,” whereby the reading path is negotiated every time the reader abuts against a border “T” junction and must thus read downward rather than across. Using data from a study in which he asked participants to describe how they would read a page of blank panels (Cohn 2014), Cohn argues that experienced comics readers confronted with blockage will depart from the traditional “Z” reading path. However, the Misty pages analyzed call into question Cohn’s methodology and the validity of his definition. “Blockage” seldom appears in Misty, where just three pages of the sample (1 percent) contain clear examples. (p.90) By contrast, staggered, ragged, or tilted tiers (where the upper and lower edges of sequential panels do not line up) appear much more frequently. But while these do create some sense of “blockage,” the panel content requires the reader to continue along the “Z” reading path.

The foregoing quantitative analysis demonstrates that, based on this sample, none of the Misty pages feature clean, enclosed, perpendicular panel layouts, and regular gridding is generally absent. While the three-tier structure is frequent, these tiers are generally rough and improvised runs that emerge out of the page space (i.e., following the top and bottom page edges), rather than being created from straight, regular lines. This use of angularity and variability places Misty much closer to 2000AD than to other girls’ comics such as Mandy and Judy, which both favor four-tier structures and tend more to perpendicular panelization (although variations in borders are still frequent in the small sample of these titles that was considered). Misty does not look like the American postwar comics or like its contemporaries.

Returning to the findings from a qualitative perspective, Thierry Groensteen’s “system of comics” provides some backing for the dramatic and dynamic nature of the page layouts and even an explanation for their apparently arbitrary nature. Groensteen’s formal investigation of comics argues that comics are made up of iconic solidarity: that is, comic book pages and images have multiple various relationships of interdependence. He identifies two main components to this: the spatio-topia (which deals with spaces and places on the page), and the concept of arthrology (which deals with the way one image is related to another, either linearly [restricted arthrology] or as a network [general arthrology]). In his investigation of the spatio-topia, Groensteen (2009, 48) describes the work of Guido Crepax as using “diffracted layouts, where the panel’s frames do not have two parallel borders and are not square, [so] the page has been subjected to the empire of obliques, of points, and of apparently arbitrary cuts.” He draws on the work of Bruno Lecigne to analyze these “destabilising grids,” whose reading argues that they coincide with eroticism or violence. In Lecigne’s parsing of Crepax’s art: “The page seeks to circumscribe the limits of pleasure through formalization. It must enclose (signify) the inexpressible. … [As a] voyeur, the reader is equally constrained to interiorize with this constant laceration of space the processes of sadism itself” (Lecigne 1982, 23). Groensteen extends this analysis of “unstable layouts, baroque frames” (2009, 48) to the work of other artists such as Andreas. However, he argues further that although it is common to relate the frame’s structuring function to its expressive function when its form is dynamic and attention grabbing, these choices always have an expressive value. He proceeds to analyze the diminishing (rectangular) panels of Bill Griffith’s “The Plot Thickens” (1980); pointing (p.91) out that here it is the panels’ relative size (or area) that reinforces the ironic and paradoxical message of this comic, rather than their shape (or form). Essentially Groensteen is saying that square, regular panels do not lack expressive qualities. They can be affective when one considers the entirety of the page’s spatio-topia and takes into account other features like panel area and site. He continues to suggest that this is true of all contemporary comics where page layout has been deliberately chosen rather than imposed.

This discussion helps illuminate the variable use of dynamic layouts in Misty. Lecigne’s notion of a “laceration of space” (a phrase with Gothic and violent connotations) certainly has relevance to the form and site of Misty’s panels, apparent in their angular shapes and staggered positioning. Panel area also comes into play as the varied panel sizes and inclusion of splash pages also speak to Misty’s themes of transformation and transgression in the manner identified by Groensteen. Further, the discovery of an editorial policy that added these features explains their indiscriminate use on the page.

Aim 3: Consider the Relevance of Gothic Theory to Our Understanding of Aspects of Page Layout

In previous work, I have compared the way in which Misty and Spellbound use a Gothic aesthetic by applying Farber’s (1972) early definition of cinematic Gothic. Farber defines Gothic films as “sharing arresting distortions in mood and cinematic technique … often in the setting of lush, ominous decay … a very distinctive kind of baroque and self-conscious expressionism, relying on unusually over-ripe, even violent visual exaggerations and refractions” (1972, 95). He draws attention to key visual components that include black costumes and settings, “weird” lighting and unsettling camera angles, exaggerated shadows, and large, asymmetrical settings and composition (Wheatley 2006, 9). Writing more than forty-five years later, Spooner (2017, 49) offers the following definition of twenty-first-century Gothic style, which she acknowledges is varied but “can be recognized by a combination of features including intensive chiaroscuro; crowded space; intricate detailing; an emphasis on line; distorted proportions; a saturated color palette or combinations of black, white and red; ornate fonts; and deliberately retro or archaic styling.” Spooner’s definition crosses media, referring to a wide range of contemporary texts, products, and brands, such as the films of Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton, Chris Riddell’s illustrations, or Emily the Strange merchandise and products. Spooner later applies similar terms to an analysis of the castle in Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990), describing

(p.92) vast rooms seemingly composed according to Horace Walpole’s concept of “sharawaggi” or lack of symmetry. This architecture is apparently constructed without right angles: the few straight lines are broken and jagged; windowpanes are irregularly spaced; the curving lines of the staircase and windows are suggestive of organic forms. The overall effect is both stark and overelaborate, creating a distinctive sense of timelessness, in which the architecture evokes Gothic precedents but cannot be matched to any specific historical style.

(Spooner 2017, 63)

Taking the two definitions in combination produces a list of Gothic visual features that include exaggerated shadows or chiaroscuro; distorted proportions; skewed angles; asymmetry; baroque or intricate ornamentation; and motifs of age or decay. Of this list, those that relate to the page’s formal properties (Groensteen’s spatio-topia) rather than panel content (such as shadows or motifs of age) are all present in the pages analyzed from Misty. The comic uses panel sizes that vary from splash pages to small proportions, creating an effect that is nonregular and resulting in distorted proportions. Acute and oblique angles appear on one-third of the pages examined, resulting in asymmetrical layouts that are further emphasized by varied border shapes and patterns (the different panel borders also contribute to the “emphasis on line” that Spooner notes). Particular features such as the torn or misty border or curved or circular edges also emphasize sharawaggi—creating an asymmetrical organic effect and avoiding rigid lines. Varied tiering also contributes to the asymmetry and is so dramatic that one-tenth of the pages cannot be clearly defined or classified. The page layout as a whole thus becomes intricate and baroque in its excess.

Therefore, many of the common features found in these pages contain Gothic overtones. In other work (Round 2019), I explore the presence of formal transgression in comics, arguing that comics narratology is inclined toward breaking its own rules and boundaries, thus challenging reader identity. Botting (1996) has written of Gothic’s characteristic formal “transgression” and “excess,” and Wolfreys also argues that “to transgress is to appeal to a Gothic sensibility” (2008, 98). Comics’ particular methods of breaking boundaries, such as transgressing panel borders or removing these containers entirely, thus directly speak to the Gothic. Wolfreys (2008, 98) argues that Gothic form and content “[present] us with narratives … in imminent threat or crisis. … The narrative drive presents the threat to space and identity, ontology or being.” In Misty the space of each storyworld is under constant threat by the breaking of panel boundaries, just as the story content interrogates identity, as I explore in the next chapter.

One might argue that the conflicting drives on the page are also characteristic of Gothic, as they create a set of paradoxes. For example, asymmetry and sharawaggi are defined as organic effects, and the round edges, circular panels, (p.93) and open edges seen on the Misty pages also conjure this sense. By contrast, the panels that tend toward acute angles and the use of features such as jagged edges go against this, conveying dramatic and deliberate lacerations. A similar dialectic might be identified in the relationship between surface and depth. The elaborate borders and frames of the comics page create an appearance of baroque excess that draws attention to its surface, juxtaposing this against the depth that is apparent in the panels’ content. If, as I have suggested, Gothic is an affective and structural paradox, such tensions and contradictions seem integral.

In Misty the page is consistently transgressive. Panel borders are varied and experimental in form: they are often angled, liminal, or indeterminate (ragged, misty) or broken in some way. This dynamic variation is constant: every page of the sample analyzed contains one or more examples. These exciting formats are most often used for a purely decorative purpose with no clear narrative meaning, although in some instances they are modalizing and have ties to the story content. However, it does not necessarily follow that they have no sense of artistry. Perhaps they are best read as reflecting the overall sense of Misty and Gothic and comics: as transgressive and excessive.

Notes:

(1.) While this quantitative analysis aims to be objective, I should note that having just one individual doing the tagging is necessarily subjective. Such subjectivity is an ongoing problem with any attempt to quantify comics material, which by its nature is not made up of discrete minimum units.

(2.) The selection and organization of these tags and categories are credited entirely to Paul Fisher Davies.