The process of page layout design and its composition became important in the study of comics narrative following the publication of Fresnault-Deruelle’s “Du linéaire au tabulaire” (1976). With the consolidation of the structural perspective in this field – and the influences of semiotics / semiology – in 70s and 80s, the panel has been considered for its contribution to the emotional dimension of the sequence. Later, panels were pointed out by Thierry Groensteen as key-moments (1999), minimum elements of composition, filled with details that cannot be separated in the understanding of what is represented.
Thus the relationship between the images and their position on pages would be a major mechanism in the production of narrative sense – relationships investigated by authors such as Groensteen (and his arthrology concept), Scott McCloud (and his six transitions, part of the concept of closure) and Benoît Peeters (with the investigation of the tensions between narrative and page).
Such perspective is considered in two pages of “Branca de Neve” (“Snow White”), created by the Brazilian cartoonist Rafael Coutinho and found in Irmãos Grimm em quadrinhos (2007). Different from many interpretations of the girl hated by her stepmother, sentenced to death and sheltered in the forest story, Coutinho explores panels and their tensions by bringing a refreshing rhythm to the fable, closer to the rawness of Grimms‘ work.
In the 11 pages that compose the narrative, Coutinho shows the same page layout, using 12 panels (into three columns and four rows), imposing strength and impact on his narrative despite homogenization of the frames. Instead of building a tabular structure, he explores narrative from the articulation between panels, by using passages and ellipsis.
Taking account of the influence of tensions between the panels on the reading experience, some authors have pointed out the use of “pregnant instants” (Aumont, 2004, Lessing cited in Wolk, 2007). If narrative is produced from images, the choice of some moments of action is essential to represent the decomposed event. The pregnant moment encompasses a variety of events or actions seemingly happening at the same time. It allows the reader to see a set of moments (a complex action) in only one panel. This single moment in time suggests the climax of the story (or the sequence) and makes it more comprehensible in its complexity. The most significant moments are those “pregnant instants” with a clearer ability to suggest the action.
Returning to Gotthold Lessing, Douglas Wolk points out that “a single image in static visual art is most dramatic when it’s the moment from which time radiates in both directions, suggesting what’s happened before it and what’s about to happen after it” (2007, p. 131). And it seems to be on the pregnant property that Coutinho develops his fable, dynamizing it.
As it can be seen, the reader finds only the essential in each frame. There is almost always only one motif in each moment. The reader finds only frontal frames, as apparent (and conventional) shots/countershots, but working as large narrative ellipses. Tensioned side by side, the panels’ focus on different characters would be considered like a dialogue, as the characters face each other – which does not happen in this work. Somehow, Coutinho’s proposition behaves as an action/reaction chain, not a discursive chain.
In the first panel line there are three leaps from the stepmother’s decision (“no-one”) to the suffering of the (still) Queen to the loss felt by her daughter. No matter which plan, its execution or its commotion – except for the baby’s pain, which sums up the grieving, even if it only lasts a just single panel. Each panel focuses on the characters’ expressions (queen, stepmother, princess or dog) or on a singular object (tombstone, mirror). The story is linked by the jumps in the main narrative. Five panels are enough for the stepmother to become queen.
In that shots/countershots chain of actions each sequence seems to be summed up in only one pregnant moment, excluding all the others. Coutinho constructs sequences by combining pictures that represents different (and whole) sequences. He seems to articulate and interpose moments filled with a lot of other moments as if each panel was an avatar of a distinct sequence. Therefore it is irrelevant with whom the characters dialogue or the situations belong, as much as the environments where they are.
No matter the plan, it works, as, four panels are enough to narrate the death of the Queen. The decision and the plan of the (future) stepmother are abridged in her dry expression and the single “no-one” word, while for its execution, the Queen’s painful expression is enough. The before or after moments are ignored and the pregnant moments are sufficient for the readers to understand.
From small flashes of each character, the sequence works to assume a galloping pace in which every detail becomes excess. Similarly, Coutinho avoids romanticizing the sequences and dramatic moments. In the queen’s death, the child’s pain and crying expression is sufficient. The tombstone acts as an endpoint for the first queen, which lies beneath the earth and the rain, alone, with no more cries or complaints. The story is sequenced in dry and objective moments by calling for a game of expressions between characters, and sometimes, the use of colour, exploring the tensions between the light and dark background of some panels.
There is also a laconic use of written text. The textual information is present in a synthetic kind – as “pregnant texts”, like the pictures. The balloons and captions range from keywords, interjections and onomatopoeia, to the dry, objective and straightforward. In the example below (p. 3, beginning of Chapter 2), textual information is focused on “death” (panel 2), “princess bedroom” (panel 7) and “let’s go to the forest” (panel 8) and in the others (panels 6, 9 and 10), only on interjections.
This text is as pregnant as the pictures. Among small flashes that make up the narrative, the conduct of the story line is done by large cuts. However, despite the similar use, the narrative construction reveals itself anchored in the visual discourse. The author gives to the verbal structure an adjuvant function, so the interpretation is possible even without knowledge of the textual information.
In a sense, Coutinho recreates the work returning its status to the Grimms’, to the allegorical narrative that rejects even the “once was”, dry, non-romanticised treatment.
Aumont, J. (2004). O olho interminável (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify)
Coutinho, R. (2007). “Branca de Neve”. In Irmãos Grimm em quadrinhos (Rio de Janeiro: Desiderata)
Fresnault-Deruelle, P. (1976). “Du linéaire au tabulaire”. In Communications 24: 7-23
Groensteen, T. (1999). Systéme de la bande dessinée (Paris: Presses universitaires de France)
McCloud, S. (1995). Desvendando os quadrinhos (São Paulo: M. Books)
Peeters, B. (2003). Lire la bande dessinée (Paris: Flammarion)
Wolk, D. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press)