Writing about Margins

I recently finished rereading Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics, now available in an English translation by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen from University of Mississippi Press. If you are a comics creator or reader, you should read this book. It's filled with thoughtful and inspiring insight into the way comics work. Groensteen's got me thinking about margins.

In the Oxford American dictionary on my iMac, "margin" is defined as "the blank border on each side of the print on a page." For comics we could say: "the blank border that surrounds the panels on a page" and not be far off. The "blank" part of that definition is what I'd like to think about (and in thinking, write) because the margin isn't always blank, and sometimes the margin is more blank than others.

If I flip through the comics on my shelves, most have the familiar blank margins, unprinted paper measuring about half an inch around the outer edge of the group of panels (what Groensteen calls the "hyperframe"). This area is the boundary that separates the story from the world, enclosing the images and words in just enough space to keep us focused on them without straying out beyond the page, beyond the book. The margin also keeps the panels enclosed, even if the panels themselves are border-less or large. This type of margin is the conventional margin, that of most books, comics, graphic novels, etc. It goes unnoticed.

Slight variations on this conventional margin include the colored margin, of which Groensteen makes note. He gives us the example of a page with black margins. The black margins act not only to evoke mood, but also, by making black the color of the negative space, to activate white as a color and a presence. This is opposed to the conventional margin which, in its "blank" whiteness, leaves the white in the panel as the absence of color. Other colored margins could also emphasize certain color combinations in the panels or act as an emotional expresser. Lynda Barry uses a different colored margin for each story section of her book One Hundred Demons, which not only gives each story a collective identity, but also interacts with the color scheme of each. In CHRZ, Stefan J.H. Van Dinther uses a margin that is partially white and partially black, to help visually divide the page into two separate sets of panels occurring from different perspectives.

Playing with the size of the margins is another fairly common variation. Most often, we see the absence of a margin, what in printing terms is called the bleed. The panel or panels are unenclosed by a border on the edge of the page and the ink "bleeds" off the page. The bleed creates a sense of openness and space. The open end of the panel seems to continue out of sight (off the page). The bleed also erases the border between the image and world; that is, the image abuts the reality beyond the page. How does this affect our reading of the page? McCloud in Understanding Comics states that the bleed causes the panel to "escape into timeless space" (103). I can see this sense of timelessness occurring in certain instances. In other instances the bleed signals not necessarily timelessness, but expansion, explosion, breaking out, escape. This works best as a variation from an otherwise enclosed, margined set of panels. For instance, a series of framed panels showing interiors that lead to a bleed panel showing the outdoors, or a set of enclosed panels showing characters in conversation that leads to a bleed panel where one character attacks the other. A contrast to the sense of openness often found with bleeds can be found in section two of Recidivist, where Zak Sally uses bleeds on all the panels in conjunction with very narrow gutters to create a claustrophobic page that is dense with blacks.

In a similar way, I wonder if the bleed provides any real breaking down of the fiction/reality divide. As the reader's eye crosses the page, it is hard not to slip off the page and back into reality. In Promethea, Moore and Williams use bleeds for pretty much every page, which can be read as another iteration of the series' theme of the blurring of boundaries between imagination and reality. Or take the case of Carla Speed McNeil's Finder: Dream Sequence. She shifts between the conventional margin and the bleed, often in a way that highlights the protagonist's shifting consciousness between reality and the virtual world he inhabits, which is a primary theme of the book. In a way this relates back to something Groensteen wrote about margins and the page: "In autonomizing the work, in the isolation of the exterior reality, it [the margin] accomplishes its closure and constitutes it [the page] as an object of contemplation; in the case of comics, an object of reading." (32, note Groensteen does not mean "closure" in the same sense of McCloud; he means it more in the sense of enclosure).

Bleeds are extremely prevalent in certain types of manga. On my shelves, titles like Nana, Saikano, or Aria use bleeds rather frequently, while the more conventionally laid out pages by Tezuka or Taniguchi seem to use none at all. In Nana, Yazawa uses bleeds so frequently they seem less about expression or contrast and more about the design of the page, the ever-shifting layouts that seem to erase any sense of a hyperframe that exists within the page.

On an opposing variation from the bleed is the use of enlarged margins. Like the bleed, these large margins can have an effect on time, expression, and the reading experience. I recall first noticing this in Chester Brown's I Never Liked You and The Playboy. In both books, the panels float within the page surrounded by large black margins. The expansive margins isolate the pages from each other and from the world. Brown's books are looking back into his past and, in their enclosed panels, isolated from the page edge, they evoke a sense of distance. The larger the margins, the more each page seems to read as an isolated unit, slowing down the reading process as the reader focuses in on the panels, which look more like individual paintings hung on a wall than the usual tight blocks of panels in a conventional page. Similarly, Anders Nilsen's "The Event" (from Mome) uses large white margins to isolate each image/text combination as a distinct focus for interpretation. By slowing down the reading process in this way, Nilsen increases the opportunity for readers to draw out the abstract differences from one page to next.

Another variation on the margin is a frame that surrounds the hyperframe and is in turn surrounded by a conventional margin. This frame can be a double margin of sorts, where a second, flat-colored space exists around the panels. Frederic Coche's The Hero's Life and Death Triumphant has such a margin where the panels are actually part of an etching that is then framed on the page. The etching has a textured grey color that contrasts with the white of the margin around it. We see a similar framing in Prado's Streak of Chalk where each page has an outer black margin and a colored inner margin, which not only frames the panels but also leaks into the gutters.

One occasionally sees a type of frame within the margin that is more than just a color or outline but includes imagery and/or text. Carol Tyler uses a light decorative frame of organic shapes in her short comic "Gone" that remind me of a floral pattern on a place mat (aided no doubt by the light natural colors). A more consistent example is found in Gary Panter's Jimbo in Purgatory, where each page is framed in a thick decorative border. These types of marginal framing devices tend to increase the view of a page as an individuated entity of combined panels. If, in reading most comics, we slip easily from page to page, in a work such as Panter's each page is much more a stopping point. Like an individual panel, the margin-frame provides an extra element of focus for our attention. The Jimbo pages are often designed with this sense of parts and the whole, such as the frequent pages where the foreground of each panel is different, part of a sequence, but the background is a continuous pattern or image.

Moving away from comics in book form, the idea of a margin tends to shift, such as in the case of webcomics. Most webcomics appear on a webpage surrounded by all sorts of marginal material: banners, ads, links, comments, commentary, and more. Does this marginalia have an effect on the reading experience? I read pretty much all my favorite webcomics through an RSS reader (Google Reader), so I tend to see the pages/strips in a fairly minimal page setting. In this setting, my attention is focused and there are almost no other images or colors competing with the strip/page. As I turn to the actual websites of some of my regular reads, I find varying examples of marginalia. Scary Go Round has a very tight, crowded page layout with images and colors which, by echoing those in the strip, make it less individual. Dicebox, on the other hand, is presented on a plain grey background that leaves the comic as the focus of reading, but the panels are arranged in a long vertical strip that one scrolls through. In both cases the sense of a page is lost inside the WEBpage. In my own webcomic I've struggled with ideas of the margins and the inability to replicate some of the effects that can be done in a book. It is only in reading What Birds Know that I see a more page-like interface, where the page is its own browser window, shorn of any marginalia. Still, there is always the browser window which acts like the edge of a page, a focus for our attention, but not effective for the use of bleeds. I wonder how many webcomics creators spend time thinking about their webpages as margins for their comics or the way those webpages interact with their comics pages. In creating a comic there are so many elements to consider and, for webcomics, the marginalia and page setting is something to add to the list (and worth further consideration).

[Originally published at: http://comixtalk.com/panels_pictures_margin]