One of my favorite comic book series was called Planetary. It’s still called Planetary, I’m just having issues with tenses.
Warren Ellis took a world that started with century babies, people born in 1900 with extraordinary abilities, and riffed on the Fantastic Four, martial arts movies, Godzilla, and a dozen other artifacts from my childhood. How could I not love it?
Illustrated by the incredible John Cassaday (just pick up a copy and you will understand), one sequence changed the way I looked at space availability.
In this sequence, a character has to convey a chunk of information via monologue. Usually, as in a Shakespearean (or any kind of) play, the actor will talk a bit and maybe move around onstage. In a movie, maybe they are waving a gun. In real life, you get told “sit down!” as you try to move around while your parental unit monologues about that thing you totally swore you were going to do. And didn’t. Anyway, in this scene, the character finds a camera on the table, takes a selfie, sticks the photo to his forehead and turns around to face the audience and his in-panel listeners.
Every time someone had attempted to tell little-me about art, they went on about background and mid-ground and foreground. Every time it went in one ear and out the other. Here, finally, I got it. In comic books, there were three spaces available to tell parts of the story. Background for small characters or something the characters were reacting to, mid-ground for main characters to be speaking, and foreground for small, immediate actions.
These spaces were not interchangeable, but shifting the focus of the space or rotating the camera, would change the meanings of what was happening. The background side story becomes foreshadowing becomes main focus. The foreground small throwaway action is a character trait illustration, or perhaps a hidden action for the audience of the comic but not the other participants on the page.
In terms of dialogue, there were three spaces as well. The character monologues to us in the midground. He performs a small movement in the foreground that illustrates his character. And his audience stares gobsmacked outside of the panel until the very last cell where the view changes and we see them having watched him the entire time. The third space is off the page – what we call breaking the fourth wall – but without the character slyly acknowledging us the audience, that third space is simply the space left for the reader.
Most of the drafts of my first novel type project had all things happening on the foreground. Background information, secret histories, side conversations; everybody knew everything. There was no sense of mystery or in-jokes, or the sense that anyone existed outside of a capital letter at one end and a period at the other.
When I applied forcible separation via spacing, I got something different entirely. I didn’t have the visual space of a comic book. I couldn’t show someone meeting with a suspicious looking character while another oblivious character went about their day. I needed to allude to a shared past, foreshadow danger, and stop making characters so darn helpful. I needed most dialog to be understood in different ways by all characters present in the conversation. Finally, my villains got creepier, my protagonist faced great consternation, and my allies took time and effort to win over. You know, conflict.