Strip Panel Naked: Batman's Rigid Time
Tom King, Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson and Derron Bennett do a lovely job in Batman #21. Regardless of thoughts or feelings about linking Watchmen into the DC Universe or anything else, from a pure point of structure, it's an interestingly told story.

I've talked about King's use of the 9-panel grid on an episode of the YouTube series here , and I've discussed his work a couple of times both on this Patreon and for ComicsAlliance. So why not jump in again? 

Firstly it's worth noting that the whole issue deals almost exclusively with time as a concept. The theme running through nearly every page is time passing, or waiting for time to pass. Take the early example of the two pages that sit side-by-side with the 9 panel grid, and Batman rolling the badge over his fingers. Time is specifically slowed down as we watch the badge roll over each finger, balance across the knuckle, then roll onto the next finger. It takes two full pages, and 17 panels to get that badge across the knuckles on one hand and back into the palm. That's a hell of a long time, visually, in a comic. Especially in a superhero book. Alongside that we've got a fight that's taking place between two hockey players. 

What were being given here is a waiting game. Early in the issue we've established these hockey players are going to kill each other, as told by another character, and so we're watching something play out that we already know will happen, and we're watching it very, very slowly. Fabok patiently zooms in on the hockey players, going from a wide shot to being right up in the action -- though interestingly still keeping the distance by leaving the frame of the monitor we're watching it on in shot. 

I don't think that's accidental, or at least it's not accidental that we keep it all in the Batcave and don't cut to live in the arena. It seems to make it mean less, it feels less real, and the constant cross cutting to the rolling badge gives us the sense that while this is important, it's too far away to create a real sense of fear. The casual actions of Batman directly contrasts with that brutality to create that effect.

It wouldn't work as strongly not in that many panels. If you did to in three panels each, for example, you'd lose the sense of time passing. That's one of the toughest things in comics, because sometimes to create the real effect of actually feeling time, you need to keep an action going for a really long time. 

A classic example is always cutting to a clock, cutting to an action, cutting back to the clock but the time is later, and now the character is just finishing up their action. That shows that time has passed... But do we really feel that time as an audience? Or are we just aware that for that character in the story time has been passing? 

But it also comes back to the regulated grid format. By keeping everything the same size, within the same sized panels, nothing starts to mean more, or take on more emphasis. The time for each panel is more evenly regulated, and it does start to feel like a ticking click through the page, keeping pace.

Which links in nicely to the other example I wanted to talk about, with the pages later in the story that literally have a countdown timer on them. There's king and Fabok building an inevitability to this story. We know the outcome -- Flash will be turning up. And now we know exactly when it'll happen. It's incredibly regulated, each panel giving the passing time of one second, as denoted by Bennet's captions. Again, it's a clever effect that gives the story a pulse, pushing forward with a very specific rhythm, and it imbues each subsequent panel with a little more urgency than the previous one. Each new panel now, by the nature of the design, is driving us a little closer to that inevitable climax. Fabok and King pull that off without needing to change panel sizes or shapes or do anything particularly dramatic with layout -- it's all done through a small caption in the bottom right and a regulated time structure.

You'll see 9 panel grids being used often as a way to condense story into a small amount of pages, but King is pretty consistent with his use of the grid as a way to accelerate themes that he's imbuing into the stories he's writing, and the artists he works with often step up to the plate and hit it out the park. Here Fabok does exactly that, and together this creative team delivers something incredibly interesting, formally, in a monthly superhero book.


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