12 January 2011

Tropes: Decompressed Comics

Tropes are storytelling devices. This series of articles on how to use or not use them in comics was first published in my Comics & Cartoons Weekly on deviantART.

Decompressed comics

This trend that began, in the West, in the late 90s/early 00s thanks to Warren Ellis's The Authority, is now so taken for granted that it feels necessary to point out to young authors that they don't actually have to follow it.

Decompression is a cinematic practice, introducing numerous silent shots to slow down the pace of a comic, build up tension or introduce a mood.
It is also used as a more creative way of establishing a shot, or transiting from one scene to the next, than the old text labels ("Next morning", "In the meanwhile, on the other side of town..."). Decompressed scenes very much give the feeling of real-time experience (as close as possible), such as when, in a movie, the camera travels into a scene, sometimes even from the character's own point of view.

Like every tool however, it can be used poorly. For one thing, just because it's available, doesn't mean it has to be used. It's not a mark of coolness to go cinematic where there's no reason to. For another, using decompression to pad out thin plots is just sad. Big publishers are sometimes guilty of that, but in their case, that implies forcing readers to buy 10 volumes for an amount of "story-meat" that would have filled no more than two – not very nice at all. Marvels' Secret Invasion was criticized for that, stretching out a few hours of comic-book time over a year. It made business-sense for them, of course, but when it comes to independent comics it's more likely to translate into boring and losing your readers. Just because your art can redeem your poorly done pace, doesn't mean you should be content with subpar writing.

So here's a quick, but not definitive, check list of when decompression works and when it doesn't.

Good decompression:
- Establishing a scene, as it pulls the reader into the place and the mood of it, gives them to "look around" and be where the characters are.
- Suspense, as there is no shortcut for buildups, they have to be... built up. It is well-worth, even indispensable to invest a whole page or two, or more, into a decompressed sequence when the suspense is a keypoint in your plot. Naturally, you can't have this more than once in a single story, at least not in a similar way.
- Transition as mentioned above. Obvious examples: Rather than stating "The next morning", a few panels showing the sun rise over the location; Rather than stating there's been a change of location, fade out of one and back into the other by drifting out away from the scene, or zooming out, or on the contrary zooming in very close and then out again to a different scene, etc... Movies are rife with such ideas. Text labels are not necessarily a disgrace, however. When a more clipped pace is required they fill their role beautifully with minor "customization" to fit the context.
- Some storylines are made to be entirely decompressed, and that's how this device came into existence in Manga in the first place. Stories that are not so much about action as they are about characters, introspection, or about places; stories that do not follow the problem-resolution-conclusion model but instead aim to pull the reader into an experience, have everything to gain from this format and would be poorly served by a more condensed treatment.
- Providing exposition instead of doing so through much text or talk. A story set in an unusual location, for instance, whether a little-known place or a fantasy setting, can tell us much about that place by making us wander through it a while before the plot steps in. People may react negatively to a wall of text, but will most probably be interested and stimulated by the visual discovery of something new.
- Slowing down the pace after a very intense scene. When making a comic we have to remember we are not perceiving it the way a reader will: their perception includes the speed of narrative, and one does get mentally out of breath if the pace is frantic without breaks. The reverse is also true. Contrast!

Bad decompression:
- Slowing down the pace where it should be quick, such as during action scenes.
- Making the story much longer than it needs to be in the hopes of making it look like a fully developed one.
- Abuse of splash pages and spreads. They really lose their impact very quickly when overused, or when used for moments that were not worth it.
- Visually uninteresting panels. Unless you're specifically trying to convey that a place is very dreary and dull, this is missing the point. I don't mean to say that the panels should be busy and filled with details, but the eye should not be invited to skip them by lack of something there to keep it. That would defeat the purpose of slowing down the reader and letting them absorb the mood.
- Using it without knowing why, just because you see others do it. You are not a sheep. Do things because you have a reason to do them.