26 Rethinking The Format

I tried an unusual experiment on the top tier of panels on page 128. While talking to Toland, Ginger is expressing her unacknowledged anger by playing willfully sour notes on her guitar, which Toland finds distracting and disorienting. In composing this scene I attempted to suggest to the reader Toland's feeling of being on shaky footing by intentionally making these three adjoining panels difficult to read.

Notice that the distribution of the five successive word balloons at the top of these panels differs from the distribution of the five narration blocks that run along the bottom. The procedure to which most comics readers have become habituated is: first you read what's at the top of a panel, then you read what's below that. Having completed your interaction with the mix of words and pictures in that panel, you then move on to the next panel over. But in this case the reader's attention is tugged in several directions at once. The connecting links that join four of the narration blocks entice the eyes to absorb the string of narration as a unit before looking elsewhere, even though the series straddles the gutters separating some of the panels. Meanwhile, even if readers try to hop back and forth between dialogue and narration as they normally would, it's hard to tell if Narration Block Two belongs more to Panel One or to Panel Two. There are comparable mixed cues surrounding Narration Block Four. So there's no good way to tell in what order all the words in these pictures are intended to be read.

It's pretty much impossible, I suspect, for readers to negotiate this tier of images comfortably. I certainly did what I could to erect hurdles! Visual dissonance interferes and intrudes on the moment, just as Ginger's sour notes do. Toland is ill at ease, and for a moment I want my readers to be ill at ease along with him.

LETTER TO MIKE FRIEDRICH (June 6, 1993)

Yesterday I had a meeting at DC with Andy [Helfer] at which I turned in chapter 15. … One of my motivations for asking for a meeting was a desire to talk about the format issues that have been floating around. Since Andy has raised the issue of shrinking the page size of Stuck Rubber Baby, for reasons that are not without merit, I’ve prepared the enclosed visual aids so that all of us can discuss the subject with real images in front of us rather than fevered imaginings in our heads. …

The art holds up surprisingly well, though there's a clear loss of visual expansiveness. The real issue is: to what extend is the reading experience hurt by having the lettering reduced?

In the abstract I thought the reduction would be out of the question, but when I saw the actual test pages, my response was less clear-cut. The larger size is obviously better, but it virtually guarantees that the book will never find a place in the fiction section of most bookstores, whose shelves often cannot accommodate books of a greater height than 9-1/4"; but if it’s placed in the humor section next to Garfield, browsers for fiction will never discover it.

Martha Thomases was adamantly opposed to the smaller size prior to seeing the mockups. But when she saw them, she had the same reaction I did: "Well, you know, it’s not really as bad as I thought it would be!" …