Close Reading of Comics

Posted by on January 31st, 2011 at 8:07 PM

January 25’s newspaper published two comic strips that made me pause and think about. Here they are:

For a second or two, I wondered why Hilary Price in her Rhymes with Orange had a gap in the line-up. Then I realized that the gap was there to make room for the speech balloon. Shows you just how dim I am.

There are other ways of doing this strip, of course. The speech balloon could have been superimposed over another member of the line-up, who would appear, if we use his neighbors for scale, only from the neck down.

But that would be a little distracting. This way, it’s cleaner, easier to read. Even if there’s a gap in the line-up that makes you wonder.

For a second or two.

In Frazz on the same day last week, Jef Mallett provides a vivid demonstration of the medium’s capacity for timing—as well as a deft display of comic strip timing as a way of complicating and then explaining a strip’s gag as well as springing it.

In the first panel, a kid at Frazz’s school asks him a seemingly innocent question. The next panel reveals that, perhaps, the question wasn’t so innocent: apparently the kid found a hairy bug with a million legs and put it somewhere that Mrs. Olsen would encounter it. She’s a little scared of hairy million-legged bugs it looks like.

But that’s not the joke. Not all of the joke anyhow. The second panel just explains the first panel—and then only after we’ve read and contemplated the third and last panel.

In it, the kid says he asked the question for “no reason,” but it seems, putting the pieces all together, that my explanation for what’s going on in the second panel is accurate.

At that point, we might laugh at the joke, but the joke isn’t quite over. Frazz’s remark confirms our analysis of the kid’s function in creating the fright of Mrs. Olsen, but only elliptically, not directly.

But the joke isn’t, really, about the kid putting a hairy million-legged bug in Mrs. Olsen’s desk drawer (or wherever). The joke arises from the complexity of Mallett’s way of constructing the joke. And it’s not a belly laugh kind of joke. It’s a smiler. And we smile because we figured it out not because it’s terribly funny in itself.

As a formal matter, the comic strip’s capacity for timing is the mechanism by which Mallett has made us laugh this day.

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