January (or the New Year) is the traditional time in my culture (and most of yours I imagine) to reevaluate. Looking back over the eight columns I wrote last year, by far my favorite is the close reading I did of the first page of Jaime Hernandez's "Flies on the Ceiling." I believe this type of close reading is a great way to get at the workings of comics on a level that one rarely considers during a normal reading. While much of what we find is an internalized part of the comics reading process or is communicated without the reader being conscious of it, by digging deeper into individual panels, pages, or sequences we can gain not only a better understanding and appreciation of a specific work but also of comics in general. In that light, my goal for the year is to spent more time looking at individual comics or parts thereof. The hardest issue to deal with is showing the images themselves. For legal reasons I cannot just scan and upload the whole story (ideal), so I will have to focus on specific sequences and panels to share, filling in the rest with summary. While, I'm sure something could be said for every panel, some are more important for the story, more visually interesting, or just serve some relevant function that is worth discussing.
I stumbled upon the following story while paging through the Greg Sadowski edited volume B. Krigstein: Comics (Fantagraphics, 2004) which collects 34 short comics drawn by Krigstein for a variety of publishers in a variety of genres. It is a 6 page comic titled "Murder Dream" which first appeared in a 1954 issue of Tales from the Crypt.
The story itself is not spectacular, a crime/horror story that relies on a bait and switch tactic concerning the identity of the narrator. The end result of the comic, suspense/surprise, relies upon convincing the reader the narrator is one person and then revealing the true identity at the climax of the story. For the most part, the overwritten narration by Carl Wessler maintains this ambiguity. Krigstein must skirt around the issue in his images, both hiding and hinting at the final reveal of the narrator's identity. Not only does he maintain the ambiguity, but he delivers some amazing imagery throughout, including some fascinating dream images.
Let's take it one page at a time.
One can't ignore the large title "Murder Dream" that splays across the top of the page. The title leads us to expect murder and dreams but is ambiguous enough that we don't know if the murder is real or just in a dream. The dream/reality divide is another ambiguity that is maintained through the story and revealed at the climax.
This page sets-up a narrator who fears going to sleep because of some horrible dream he keeps having. He wanders London until he can barely stand, returns to his hotel room, and falls asleep. A dream starts where he is returning to a "cottage" from London and hear's "Cathy screaming".
Unlike most of the stories in this volume (and most classic comics of this type) this story does not begin with a large splash panel. Rather, Krigstein begins with a tier of four increasingly narrow panels. The story starts in a cramped enclosed space despite two opening panels that take place outside in London. The narrowing of the panels coincides with the narrator moving inside and to his bed. This is really the only unusual use of panel layouts in this story. For the rest of the pages, Krigstein sticks to pages with three tiers of two or three panels each. The figure himself (we assume a male from the coat and hat) is concealed as much as possible but in a way that is not overt. Showing a figure from behind walking down the street or opening a door is not unusual, and when one would expect a frontal view of the man on his bed Krigstein takes a cue from the narration, "leaving my clothes where they fell", to show only the narrator's feet with clothes strewn on the floor. This visual concealment of the narrator's identity is maintained throughout the story (until the last page) through a variety of devices, including: viewing the character from behind in a semi-subjective method, hands covering the face as a dramatic pose of despair or tiredness, and liberal use of shadows (many of the images take place in a darkened bedroom).
The lightest parts are the most prominent elements of the panels and work to move the composition across the page. The blue fog (which certainly doesn't look like the "dense choking fog" of the narration) crosses the first panel horizontally, meeting the figure. The higher strand of the fog continues directly across into the second panel and towards the round light of the third panel. Similarly the yellow lights are repeated across the first three panels. These visual elements combine the panels visually, perhaps as a way to create the sense of a larger splash panel.
The colors here and throughout the story are fantastic (courtesy of famed colorist Marie Severin). Note the perfect contrast of the orange in panel three and the blue in panel four. Even the warm orange seems dark and unfriendly here.
The first panel finally shows the narrator from the front, but he is lying down and covering most of his face in a gesture that does not seem unusual. The downward angled light at the left of the panel creates a off-kilter rectangle of a sort seen often later in the character's dreams, a coincidence or a bit of foreshadowing? That angled shape and the small darker triangle in the upper right corner contrast nicely with the straight geometry of the bed, light, and picture on the wall.
This geometry is repeated in the perspective of the bed and ground in panel 2, but is mostly overpowered by the bifurcating branches of the silhouetted tree and the ethereal shape of the figure at the panel's center. He holds two suitcases and his legs end not in feet but in root like lines. He is both burdened and rooted in place by this "dread dream". The change in the figure is just enough to be a little creepy and the silhouetted tree is a classic trope of horror visuals. I'm not clear on the significance of the gray field that covers the top two-thirds of this panel, but it adds a strange look that is vaguely reminiscent of fog, possibly because the grey echoes that found in the first two panels on the page. This is also the first panel where the narration appears within the panel border rather than outside it. Many of the dream panels have the narration enclosed in this way, though I can't find any consistency to this changing use of the narration caption.
With the second panel here, is the first use of an altered panel border for the dream events. The classic trope for this would be a wavy line, but Krigstein uses a slightly harsher jagged line that is just slightly off from the straight lines of the non-dream panels. This hints at the closeness of the dream and reality in the story, as it requires a little more attention to notice the difference between the two panel border styles.
The pink sky in panel 3 adds another level on unreality to the dream images. Compositionally the man towers over the cottage and the whole panel has a downward tilt, perhaps a downward spiral into the horror. This panel appears at the end of a page and, in my copy, at the point where the reader would turn the page. This placement creates a small moment of suspense as we expect to turn the page and see something related to the cottage and screams. This is deferred when we reach the second page, and not for the only time.
The story continues on page two with the narrator's dream ending in a striking image of the narrator leaning forward (his back leg thrown towards the viewer with extreme foreshortening) towards a series of overlapping floating doors that stretch of the panel. This imagery will be repeated later. The door acts almost as a dream symbol holding back the truth from the reader and the narrator. He wakes and thinks back to the day Cathy and "Howard" first found a cottage in the country. They meet Claude, the caretaker, and decide to buy the property with Claude staying on as caretaker so Cathy won't be alone when Howard goes to London on business. It is at this point that the read takes on the assumption that the narrator, so concerned for Cathy, is her husband Howard. The narrator is in London, which is noted on page 1. Claude is also easily stereotyped by his hunched stance and the grim look in his eyes as the cause of some kind of trouble, an assumption it is easy to make with any kind of familiarity with the genre.
Of the three panels in this page's flashback that feature all three characters, it is interesting to note that in two of them Cathy appears between Claude and Howard in the composition, a visual evocation of the ambiguity of the narrator's identity and her place as the prize between them. This compositional symbol is repeated in two more panels on page 3.
The sixth panel on page two is a good example of the narration and image working together to create and subvert the ambiguity of the narrator, perhaps the first clue that the reader should be questioning the narrator's identity. The narration in that panel reads: "I remember his eyes boring into mine as we discussed price [of the cottage]." While the first time reader assumes the narrator is Howard, it is his eyes that we see clearly and prominently in the image. Claude is in profile and his single visible eye is but a dot, while Howard's are both rendered and directed at Claude. Howard's haughty posture also adds to the sense of Howard as the antagonist of the narration.
The panels of the flashback on this page feature the most representational of all the panels in this story, which contrast greatly with most of what will follow. These panels show the ordered and concrete world that pre-dates the horror and the dreams that will follow.
This page returns first to the narrator in his bed then to the flashback. In bed, the narrator thinks back to "those first days with Cathy in the cottage" (with lots of bolded words in that comics style where so many things are stressed), yet both of the flashback panels we see concern Howard heading off to London. This adds to the idea that Howard is the narrator (the narrator is in London), but also hints that Claude is (he is with Cathy at the cottage, Howard is away).
The second of these panels offers an additional clue. The narration reads: "Cathy looked so beautiful, so happy, as she waved goodbye from the garden. I felt I loved her more and more with each passing day…" The panel shows Howard in the background headed towards a car. He is in shadow, waving, but we can't see whether he is actually looking back at Cathy who sits in the foreground waving at Howard. Her face too is obscured. The only face we see is Claude's in the midground at the right side of the panel. His gaze is directed right at Cathy. The figures are grouped close together in the panel, yet Howard and Cathy do not overlap at all, while Claude's leg is overlapped by Cathy's arm.
This is followed by three dream panels of the narrator, in suit and trenchcoat, floating on an abstracted background, trying to reach the screaming Cathy, blocked again by a host of overlapping skewed doors. The character is shown from odd viewpoints, his face hidden completely in the first two panels. The last of these dream panels on page 3 shows the narrator after he has knocked down the many doors. The imagery in the panel is simple and expressive. The figure is distorted through an exaggerated perspective (which is used in a few of the dream panels), giving him a misshapen form closer to the hunched and bulky Claude than the slim Howard (another clue). The scribbled black cloud in the background adds to the sense of manic energy. The red field at the left of the panel is almost like a screen covering something at which the figure's gaze is directed (at least his head is turned slightly that way). Seeing red, perhaps? Blood?
This panel is also the last before a turn of the page, and again builds suspense and the expectation of a reveal. Again, this is deferred.
This page begins with a three panel tier in black and blue showing the narrative waking from his dream. He almost turns on his light (surely exposing his true identity if he did) to go and rescue Cathy, but instead slumps back into bed and into the dream. A small detail that is striking in the second and third panels is a dark hatched and scribbled cloud that sits inside the light blue rectangular area of his room and seems to loom over the narrator's head. In images that are other wise mostly outlines and flat colors, these two areas stand out.
The next five panels show another dream sequence which again disguises the narrator's identity. Though, in a bit of trickery, the dream is unambiguously told from Howard's point of view, which violates the carefully deceptive viewpoint in the previous scenes. The narrator, in his dream, gets past the door that was blocking his way and we see Howard confronting an ax-wielding Claude who stands over a screaming Cathy.
Howard's point of view is used visually to add to the confusion. In the second panel above, we see Howard flung to the ground by Claude. This transitions, in the third panel, to a worm's eye view of Claude with ax raised. This shifts the viewer into Howard's position and adds to the idea of him as narrator. The use of red in this sequence is also striking. It shifts use from the rectangular overlay in the first panel to coloring Howard in the second panel and then as wavy lines in the background of page three. In such a limited palette, the color becomes more important and meaningful.
Krigstein's actions scenes are very dynamic and the figures are posed with an eye towards motion and composition.
I love the way the background in the first two panels are outlined forms of some kind (furniture? doorways?) which are not colored in by the yellow and gray fields that cross the panel. It adds to the unreality, everything is just out of place, in a similar way to the out-of-placeness of the narrator and his point-of-view.
Again there is a moment of suspense for the end of the page.
This page continues the dream sequence from the previous page in two panels which show first Claude then Cathy in a series of repeated actions within the same panel. This type of panel is most often seen in superhero comics to show some kind of complicated movement by tracing out the figures various locations and positions. Here, the actions are simple: Claude bringing down his ax, Cathy's ever increasing scream. The effect ends up slowing down the action, almost like a slow motion sequence in a film. Krigstein's art is impressive here, from the varied and dynamic expressions/poses of the figures to the way they are composed in the panel (both traveling in the same direction as we tend to read, up to down, left to right). Hands (and the ax) accent the movement in this panels. The Claude panel's red background carries over from the previous page, though intensified here with by the increased red and the scribbled lines. The Cathy panel's background shows the previously prominent doorway pushed into the extreme distance with a harsh linear perspective. The doorway appears as some distant monolith or monument looming over the events and hinting at something hidden.
The narrator awakes again in his bed. As the dream and the story reach the violent action, the identity of the narrator starts to break down, first for the narrator. He questions the events that occurred, and we are still unsure is it dream or reality. The story jumps back into the dream with two panels that repeat the narrative of Howard pushes through the door and Claude attacking him with an ax. These panels also repeat the same repeated figure technique that was used at the top of page. In a sense this encompasses a triple set of repetitions (action within the narrative, use of a stylistic technique, images of a figure), which works well with the sense of the dream as an ongoing and repeated event. Once again Krigstein's composition are impressive and serve to slow the action down (as often dreams tend to slow).
The page ends with two panels in black, white, grey, and yellow. The panel borders disappear here, which allow the white areas of the panels to appear as cut out sections of the image. The first image shows Cathy screaming. The angle of her figure with her head at the upper left corner of the panel and her body tilted towards the bottom right and then back towards the left gives the appearance of her falling down. The pared down color palette helps to freeze the scream in motion, in an unreality.
The final panel is a striking image of Cathy on her knees crying next to a coffin (on a stand of some kind) with the narrator standing over, looking into the coffin. This is only a small portion at the right of a panel that is otherwise an unvariegated gray field. A section of white, like a spotlight, breaks through the grey from the top of the panel to illuminate the figures. This spotlighting effect, once again, builds the suspense at a point where the reader is turning the page. And once again, the reveal will be deferred, if only for a couple panels.
The first panel tells us that the narrator has woken and jumped into his car to drive back to the cottage. The panel in the same gray, black, white, and yellow as the previous two panels shows a car emerging from the gray, it's white headlights creating a yellow field of light. The car faces to the left of the panel, traveling in an opposite direction from our normal reading, adding to the sense of a returning, a going back. Above the car in the grey is a large dense black scribble that looms over the car like the similar amorphous clouds seen in previous panels of the story.
Back at the cottage, the narrator is seen from behind, walks in on Cathy sitting next to a coffin, "sobbing." The subsequent panel offers the "shocking" reveal of Howard in the coffin. The narrator's hand can be seen in the corner of the panel and the point of view indicates a view from above the coffin as if we are now in a subjective view of the narrator. In this light the panel that follows appears as some kind of mistake. It shows the narrator's legs and feet approaching a frightened Cathy. This image looks like it should go previous to the previous "reveal" panel, and the obscuring of the narrator is, at this point, superfluous, since there is only one other character in the story.
I note that on this page Cathy is shown in a loosely tied dress/robe, more revealing than the outfits in the flashback scenes (which covered even her neck). This sexualizes the final scene in a way that is not unexpected from the genre, though Krigstein keeps it subtle.
The final panel, accompanied by a large block of text shows Claude in the trenchcoat, graspig a screaming Cathy by the hair with his ax raised to kill her. His face is distorted into a monstrous visage. The End.
In the end, the story does not survive any close scrutiny as a narrative, a trifling bit of shock/horror that shows little in the way of novelty. That I care about these six pages at all is testament to the inventive and attractive way Krigstein illustrates the text. I say illustrates because there is such an excess of narration that one can actually read the comic without the images at all. You can ignore almost all the speech balloons too. This would tend to indicate that the story was written as text and then passed off to Krigstein to break it down and create the imagery. One imagines he was forced to use all the narration. This isn't great art, but Krigstein's work here is worthy of appreciation and worth learning from.
(All images copyright William M Gaines, Agent, Inc. Used under fair use for critical purposes.)
[Originally published at http://comixtalk.com/panels_pictures_close_reading_krigstein]