Sunday, January 18, 2009

Theory and Practice: Fell

Last week in the Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar, we had a very productive discussion of the first three issues of Fell (collected in Fell:Feral City) by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith. Having read some introductory comics theory (including material from Scott McCloud's Making Comics and Understanding Comics, Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, and Durwin Talon's Panel Discussions), we spent a long time discussing how Ellis and Templesmith use the comics medium to introduce and develop both Snowtown and Richard Fell in the first issue. The discussion ranged from the connotations and intertexts of the names Snowtown and Fell to the muted colour palette that links specific colours to specific locales within Snowtown to the ubiquitous Snowtown tag. We talked about Fell's physical appearance, including his golden halo of hair, about the sequence in which Fell demonstrates his powers of observation in Mayko's bar, about the panels that map the relationships between locales in Snowtown, and about the way that not even the gutters of the comic are pristine. Finally, we talked at length about how Fell and Snowtown are linked both visually and linguistically in the final panel of the issue and how this issue and this culminating panel set up much of what happens in the subsequent issues. Fell worked well as a text through which students could begin to think about how meaning is created within the comics medium, especially through the lenses of the theories they have begun to read.

This week we're going to be talking more about Fell, but this time we will be using multimodality and Thierry Groensteen's ideas (as developed in The System of Comics) as our theoretical lenses. For Groensteen, the panel is the smallest unit in the system of comics and his theories force us to think about the relations between the panels (arthrology), both in sequence and as they form a network within the page and within the work as a whole. For example, we make sense of panel 4 in the above page both as it occurs in sequence (restrained arthrology), but also in relation to the Snowtown tags we have seen marking the city throughout the first issue of the series (general arthrology). It acts as a transition from the interior of Fell's apartment to the exterior of Snowtown. In this panel, the brown of the apartment becomes the brown of Fell's skin which has been physically marked by the Snowtown brand (courtesy of Mayko). The next panel (panel 5) pulls back to reveal a headshot of Fell as he examines this brand, but the colour (including the hue of Fell's skin) has changed to the grey that has been associated with Snowtown's exteriors throughout the issue (as it will be throughout the series). Panel 5 is, then, linked to the subsequent panels because of the grey colour, to the transitional panel that precedes it because of the Snowtown brand, and to the previous panels in the issue because of both the Snowtown tag and the grey colour associated with Snowtown exteriors.

The final panel, whose meaning in multimodal terms is created through a combination of linguistic, visual, gestural, and spatial elements, derives its impact because of its relation to the panels that precede it on the page and in the issue as a whole. In terms of Groensteen's spatio-topia, the panel stands out from the others on the page because it is different from the other panels on the page in form (a horizontal rather than vertical rectangle) and size (three times the size of the standard panel in Fell), and because it occupies a privileged reading position in the lower right corner of the page. These factors make us pay attention to this panel, linger on it, and consider it in relation to the panels that have preceded it in the issue. In this way, various theories give us a number of ways to consider comics texts as we think about how they create meaning.

No comments: