This week’s new episode of Doctor Who has a gimmick: called “42”, it tells the events of 42 minutes on board a spaceship, unfolded in real time over the 42 minutes of the episode. Presumably, it is no coincidence that “42” is 24 backwards.
Comics’ big recent experiment with real-time storytelling was DC’s series 52, each weekly issue portraying what happened in one week in the DC Universe. The writers found that this placed them under certain constraints (no “man at the door with a gun” cliffhangers, for example) and sometimes they fluffed it (such as the police taking several weeks to turn up to arrest Lex Luthor), but they did have the advantage that readers were tied to the real-time framework too, receiving only a week’s worth of story every week.
Within a single issue, it is harder to regulate the speed at which the reader reads. There is a battery of devices comics creators can use to simulate the flow of time: the number and size of the panels on a page, for example; their proportions (wide panels seem to take more time to read – Frank Quitely uses them for this purpose in All-Star Superman); the density of the images and amount of text to read in each panel; the width of gutters; and the use of images that explicitly indicate the passage of time such as changes in the angle and intensity of daylight.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns gives us a clearcut example of some techniques for controlling the flow of time in comics. Most pages are built of a large number of small panels (on an underlying sixteen-panel grid), each containing a simple, quickly read image, with a consistent number words. As a result, these pages tick by rapidly, but then Miller will throw in a full-page splash, and time seems to stand still.
Bullet time, right there on the comics page. But techniques like this only affect the relative speed at which time seems to pass. Is it possible for a single-issue single narrative to simulate the absolute passage of a particular amount of time, an in particular the time it takes to read?
Will Eisner had a go. In The Spirit section for September 11 1949, Eisner told the story of an attempted robbery, killing, and failed flight that took just “Ten Minutes”.
The most obvious technique that Eisner uses to try to regulate time across his seven pages is to read a watch for us at the start of each one. This is less crude than it might seem. Since we know from the start that the lead character, Freddy, will die after ten minutes, the marked passage of time also builds up the tension.
The illusion of the regular passage of time is maintained by the panel progressions. With only two exceptions, each panel follows directly on from the previous one, with no cutting away from Freddy. In general, any given area of any page contains the same amount of imagery and words for the eye to read, although Eisner does not use an identical panel grid on each page.
One of the exceptions is telling. The events of the first two-thirds of page 4, in which two customers discover the dead shop-keeper, seem to pass quickly. Then we get this panel, with no panel boundaries and lots of empty space, which works like those Frank Miller splashes, taking us out of the regular time-scheme. Unlike the Miller example, Eisner brings us back into the story not immediately, but about a minute later.
After the dramatic events of killing, discovery and flight, Eisner reminds us of how short a period of time has passed by bringing back the little girl from page 1, still working through her chant.
Only after this does Eisner bring in the Spirit himself, bringing his story to its tragic denouement, as Freddy is killed by a subway train.
Does it work? Not entirely. It took me four-and-a-half minutes to read this story through, not ten. Some of the pacing also seems a cheat. On page 6, Freddy is hailed by Dolan from a police car (Dolan is asking for directions, unaware of Freddy’s role in the crime that he has been called to); Freddy then walks – casually, hands in pocket – into a subway station, asks for a ticket, drops his change, has it picked up by the Spirit and passes through a turnstile. According the page-top watch, this is all supposed to take just a minute. It doesn’t match.
But I only noticed that when I went back to work out what Eisner was doing. And no-one in their right mind (unless preparing a blog entry, of course) sits down with a stopwatch to time how long it takes to read a comic strip. While reading it, Eisner’s story successfully maintains the illusion of the sustained passage of events in real time. It also tells an effective story pitched somewhere between film noir and O Henry. So, yes, it works.
Let’s see how Doctor Who does, in a rather easier medium for this sort of thing.
Batman “Hunt the Dark Knight” by Frank Miller (story, pencils, inks), Klaus Janson (inks), Lynn Varley (colours and visual effects), John Constanza (letters), DC Comics, 1986, reprinted in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Titan Books, 1986
The Spirit “Ten Minutes” by Will Eisner and his studio, The Spirit Section, September 11 1949, reprinted in The Spirit Archives Volume 19, DC Comics, 2006