The Problem of Comics Temporality, Part One: Jim Starlin

Perhaps there is no more complicated theoretical rabbit hole for understanding comics than the problem of temporality.  Specifically, how are we to understand the temporal relationship between subsequent panels / segments / sequences, how do we measure time elapsed within discrete images, and what are we to make of the disjunction between the narrative time presented in comics and the sensation of real, lived time?  Of course, these questions are not unique to comics but resonate over all types of artistic experiences and texts; however, the aesthetic techniques that makers bring to these problems and the reading strategies used by consumers to decode them do demonstrate what is unique about comics’ representational systems.

In mainstream comics the gutter, that literal or hypothetical line between discrete images, has largely been conventionalized as a grammatical ‘then’ used to move narrative progressively forward.  This is not a rule, and certainly many comics stridently oppose and complicate this standard, but in the case of mainstream comics it is a typical expectation.

Likewise, the hypothetical time elapsed within a single panel is informed by a series of informal rules.  Panel time often is roughly equivalent with the average speed taken to read the verbal language presented, but can be complicated with use of panel size and graphic layout.  Simply put, the smaller the panel the less time it takes up and vice versa.

These typical understandings of both gutter-time (across images) and panel-time (within images) are amended with extratextual knowledge brought to bear by both makers and readers of comics.  Knowledge of author, genre and tone deeply affect how one builds and understands time through both mechanisms.  Crudely put, we understand that time lingers both within and across the lugubrious, relationship dramas of Chris Ware, where as time moves swiftly, promptly in the slick DC superhero stories of Dick Giordano or Curt Swan.

Also mainstream comic frequently use action to build a sensation of time.  See, for example, this typical sequence of panels from Mike Grell’s Superboy  (no. 208, April 1975).


In these four images we see Superboy and Mon El in a series of wrestling holds that, with accordance to temporal perception, suggest that gutter-time is just long enough to move from one hold to the next.  Of course, there is no reason to suppose the impossibility of a series of holds and counter-holds between panel two and three, but the clear use of dramatic posing and the visual tendency to seek out simplicity makes the prior explanation the most logical.

However, even in this clearly rendered sequence, the problem of aligning gutter-time and panel-time emerges — it would take longer for Pa and Ma Kent to talk than for Superman to sock Mon El as in panel three.  The verbal elements take longer than the action elements, resulting in a panel that paradoxically combines two temporalities.  This is absolutely typical of classic superhero art — think of Spider-man’s constant string of insults hurled as he pummels, or is pummeled by Dikto and Lee’s barrage of super-villains.

I suggest that paradoxes such as these do not matter to comic makers and readers because time, as an aesthetic element, is only constructed after the fact, retrospectively.  Time does not accumulate, but is created when we move backward from panel three to two, or from two to one, and mentally calculate the approximate gutter-time through character movement.  Likewise, the disjunction of verbal and pictorial elements are smoothed over by this retrospective temporality that assembles narratives progressively both through reading and through constantly reading backwards.  This, of course, is enabled through the unique form of comics which combines a series of images on discrete pages.

I suspect that early comic book makers, particularly superhero artists, used visual clarity and figural pose to eliminate the essential ambiguity of gutter-time.  However, latter superhero artists have foregrounded provocatively this inescapable problem of temporality.

Take, for example, The Adventures of Superman Annual #1 (1987), written by Jim Starlin with art by Dan Jurgens and Steve Montano.  This is, in many ways an atypical Superman comic, which displays many of Starlin’s own pet themes and graphic predilections.  Starlin’s books are often haunted by the specter of mass death; the essential dichotomy of the body and the mind; and the inevitable corruption of institutions — specifically religion.  As such, this story deals with Superman’s investigation of an alien invader who has removed the brains of an entire small town in middle America, an act that is considered virtuous in the eyes of the alien’s intergalactic religious cult.  The tone is dark and the ending is unsettlingly downbeat — Superman defeats the invader only to unwittingly euthanize the town’s entire population, which are depicted as brains in jars — and is unmistakably Starlin.  The same could be argued with respect to the comic’s the visual style, which while drawn by other collaborators, displays Starlin’s typical use of repeated framings and symmetrical compositions as well as dense sequences of “rapid,” small panels.  Also among Starlin’s traits are a problematization of the codes of temporality.

In this book, Starlin and his artists build time through action.  Below time elapsed is constructed through the implied successive movements of the figure.


And below time is built through the consistency of the depicted space.  We can “time” Superman’s movement through watching the water tower from frame one to two and the fire engine from two to three.


In both cases we can use action, pose and space to retrospectively build an logical time frame for each sequence.

However, Starlin and company complicates these typical understandings of time by introducing sequences like the following.


We can see clearly enough the action and Superman’s movement, but the timing is ambiguous because of the strangeness of the pose (it does not depict the typical dynamic posing of superhero books) and tone (it depicts a delicate action atypical of superhero books)  Although the sequences is formally similar to the sequence above depicting Superman turning in agony, its timing is oddly unclear, a fact only underscored by extratextual knowledge of the overriding sadness and morbidity of Starlin’s body of work.  Using the same technique to suggest two vastly different temporalities opens pandora’s box and renders a reader unable to evaluate time properly.

Likewise, Starlin inverts the visual priority in retrospective timing to make a reader latch onto text as the only marker of timing.  For example, in this sequence,  there is no way to properly judge passage of time in the top tier: neither figure moves, the frame only moves around them.


This is similar to the technique used in Starlin’s better remembered Warlock series (#11, February 1976).

Starlin’s work, then, is complicated with regards to temporality, demonstrating the typical measures of action and space usually associated with retrospective temporality, but then complicating them by rendering these elements, at parts, inconclusive with respect to tone, or subordinate with respect to text.  In exactly this stylistic iconoclasm, Starlin’s work illustrates a historical tendency of third-generation superhero artists (Chaykin, Kaluta, Miller, etc.) to both celebrate and willfully break with convention, as well as a growing adult readership’s willingness to play along with these artists’ aesthetic experiments.

This only makes talking about comics temporality all the more difficult: it is entirely fungible, subject to the whims and styles of stylistic schools and tendencies.


5 responses to “The Problem of Comics Temporality, Part One: Jim Starlin

  1. Reblogged this on Soliloquies and commented:
    This very cool post from the blog Comics, Cartoons and Criticism (by mijoclarke) fits in perfectly with my thematic mini-series on Literary Time Consciousness. It’s a great read, and will leave you pondering the mysteries of “gutter time”.

  2. This is fantastic – I wasn’t a fan of comic books growing up (I found I just preferred reading words, but I might be a fan now. I never really thought about how the segmenting affects the narrative flow and forces you slow down. It really allows the author/illustrator to take control of the pace and flow, giving him/her a lot of freedom.

  3. Without evening having read part two yet, I know why you pick Beto as your subject for it. Poison River alone is enough to induce time-confusion-induced migraines. I love it in part because of the resistance to closure that emerges from the required compression of the original publishing format. I think this is why a lot Beto’s later work isn’t as good – he does not have to edit himself so mercilessly anymore. Heh. Maybe I should have saved this comment for part two. . .

    Anyway, this post reminded me of something I write on sound and comics for a Sound Studies blog:

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