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Boiling Spacetime: How Time Works In The Graphic Novel

I’m friends with a futurist named Jamais Cascio, and he had occasion early in 2010 to meet a very eminent scientist and author. As these people do, they got to talking about The Future, and a scenario was described wherein Type III civilisations would have the technology to “boil spacetime,” creating or accessing a new universe for itself or even returning to the beginning of the universe in order to have all of time over again to live in.

Me and all our friends were running around yelling BOILING SPACETIME for several months.

Grant Morrison once described for me – and this is back around 1989 – his experience of discovering, while in the grip of severe entheogenic refreshment, that a comic is an entire spacetime continuum, capable of replay, non-linear access and chronological isolation.

Comics boil spacetime.

This is metatextual gibberish intended to prime your brain for what is next.

Time in comics is completely elastic.

Dialogue can slow down the experiencing of a page. (Frank Miller once said, possibly in EISNER/MILLER, that when he wants to slow the reader down he just starts the characters talking.) But your control of time begins with panelling and space.

Japanese comics read very fast because they have very few panels a page and those panels generally contain little visual information. Occidental comics are often too dense for the Japanese to enjoy. (I was told the same thing by my handlers when I was writing outlines for Japanese animated series.) There’s a thing I love in manga, though: every now and then, you’ll find a panel knocked out to bleed at (say) top, left and right. Leaving the framework of gutter and margins. And it creates a complete stillness, a frozen moment that you live in for a little longer.

There’s a scene in Bryan Talbot’s LUTHER ARKWRIGHT where the protagonist slows down the time perception of a group of men in order to kill them more efficiently. He breaks each page down into a couple of dozen panels, showing movement in staccato increments. The sequence is entirely silent, but because there are so many panels, with actual information in each, you experience the sequence almost as slowly as do the targetted men in the story.

I’ve seen comics that have run two different timestreams on the same page. Recursive comics. Pages containing flashbacks to three different timeframes as well as moving forward in the present while making complete sense. Chris Ware did a famous short comic in RAW that featured several different historical periods in the same room in the same page while maintaining a linear story flow. Kevin Huizenga will turn a suburban stroll into a multi-linear history tour and then tie all the lines back together without losing you for a moment.

The point being: you’re not locked to one minute per page, like a screenplay. You can make time run so fast that the reader thinks that your comic has been injected into their eyeball, or so slow and heavy that the reader feels like you’ve boiled a doorstop novel into some condensed informational substrate.

Published in comics talk


  1. […] start up movements and ideas that give inspiration to others. This morning there was a post about Boiling Spacetime and if that doesn’t get the old mental machinery firing up then there has to be something […]

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