Panel Transitions in Trauma Comics

Harriet Earle


Comics are the new kids on the block in the world of literary academia. It is only in recent years that they have been accepted at a valid narrative form, worthy of scholarly attention. More than just giving attention to the types of narratives to which comics is able to give voice, the form itself is a major area of investigation. Indeed, the form of comics is crucial to the construction of the narrative in a way that is unique to this medium.

Though to many ‘comics’ are firmly intertwined with superheroes – and this genre remains the most visible of the comics form – this is no longer solely what comics is. The formation of Fantagraphics Books in 1976 helped many young artists become recognised, as this was a publishing house willing to print works that were previously of little interest to the mainstream publishers. However the biggest year in the forward momentum of comics was 1986. This was the year of publication of three major works of the form, all of which remain both popular and influential today: Art Speigelman’s Maus, an intense retelling of his family’s Holocaust experiences and the only comic (to date) to win a Pulitzer Prize; Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in which the familiar, but now much older, superhero contemplates the threat of dystopian future; and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a work of dense political criticism. Interestingly, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were published by DC Comics, more famously known as one of the two main companies of the mainstream.


Graphic Novels

Comics such as Art Spiegelman's Maus, Alan Moore's Watchmen, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns have contributed to the rise of the graphic novel as a prestigious comic form [Images used under fair dealings provisions]


Since the late 1980s, the form has exploded with a wealth of material, with texts ranging from Chris Ware’s heart-breaking Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth to Charles Burns’ disturbing adolescent narrative Black Hole. Comics are taking on big topics and big stories and, for the most part, doing so very well. Many mainstream artists turned from superheroes to writing and drawing their own work. Weiner writes: In the 21st century the graphic novel is finally making its way into the mainstream consciousness, on the back of prestigious literary awards and film adaptations of everything from Sin City to Persepolis (Wiener 73).

Comics theorist Scott McCloud discusses the importance of the ‘gutter’ – the space between each panel of a particular comic. He argues that what goes on between the individual panels – called ‘closure’ – is essential to effective comics writing and reading: ‘comics panels fracture both time and space […] but closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality’ (McCloud 74). Closure, he claims, is the grammar of the form and the entirety of the form hinges on the arrangement of elements, a point that Thierry Groensteen readily agrees with in his concept of arthrology: ‘the true magic of comics operates between the images, the tension that binds them’ (Groensteen 41).

Scott McCloud - Gutters

Scott McCloud - Closure

The grammar of form: Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics contiues to define comics scholarship [Images used under fair dealings provisions]


The process of closure is one that most readers adapt to without thinking – I am sure the majority of us would have no issue constructing a coherent narrative from a comic and, furthermore, would do so without thinking about the reading process involved. The amount of mental movement required to jump across the gutter depends on which transition is employed. McCloud asserts that there are six types of transitions, each requiring a different level and type of reader engagement. Each type of transition will alter the way the text is read and the way the reader reacts to the text. This is all fairly standard comics theory; nothing I’ve said here is unusual. However, how does all this change when we shift the variables slightly and introduce a dimension that by its very nature disrupts and resists representation – trauma. Traumatic narratives are not typically constructed around a linear chronology and they do not make comfortable reading. When boiled down to the very basic level, this is the aim of a traumatic text: to create in us some part of the psychological disturbance that undoubtedly plagues the traumatised within the text. The aim of the traumatic comics creator is that of his text-based cousin, though there is a different tool kit required to create the effect. In comics of trauma, the symptoms of traumatic experience are mimicked in the formal techniques of the comic. However, the comics creator has a range of devices open to him that the traditional writer does not and, as I previously suggested, the most important and visible of these is to be found in the gutter.

In February 2002, DC Comics published an anthology of short comics by a wide range of creators to raise money for 9/11 Charities, titled 9/11: The World's Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember. Each comic deals with 9/11 and the majority centre on first responders and their families. The first two comics of the anthology, which set the tone for the entire book, are two-page comics presented recto-verso, meaning that the page must be turned half way through reading in order to complete the narrative. In ‘Unreal’ (story by Steven T. Seagle, art by Duncan Rouleau and Aaron Sowd) (shown below), the first page shows Superman using his powers to stop a space shuttle from crashing into a satellite. However, on the second page, according to Smith and Goodrum, ‘we see that the first page is metadiagetic; it is a Superman comic held by a child being carried from the burning WTC by a fireman’ (Smith and Goodrum 495). The comic is presented in a typical mainstream artistic style, using bold colours and clear lines, as one would expect from a Superman comic. Page one shows us only a superhero comic; this page on its own in unremarkable. Page two zooms out from the pages of the boy’s comic, making the panel transitions jarring and uncomfortable. The final panel breaks down the barriers between comics universe and real universe as the page-bound Superman salutes the fireman, as he runs back into the breach with an American flag.


Uncomfortable panel transitions in Steven T. Seagle's "Unreal" [Images used under fair dealings provisions]


In ‘The Real Thing’ (shown below) comics maven Will Eisner presents a film production company board room discussing the next big blockbuster, while through a window we can see a tiny plane moving towards the towers. The top dog states ‘what people want is the real thing’. The two panels on page two show the assembled company watching the towers collapsing in stunned silence. The artwork in this comic is Eisner’s own unique style, created in watercolour and intensely reminiscent of The Spirit comics of the 1940s.

Both comics are presented in such a way as to necessitate the reader to turn the page in order to complete the narrative. It is in this movement from page to page that the biggest and most difficult leap of closure occurs. Put crudely, in this context the page turn creates the ‘punch line’. While transitions exist between all contiguous panels in comics, as well as between pages, the necessity of the page turn – and the fact that the next part of the narrative is hidden until this point – intensifies the transition between pages. The punch line of the second page (Superman as only in a comic, the striking of the towers outside the window) destabilises our reading – however we thought the narrative was going to go it probably wasn’t that way.


The Real Thing

Will Eisner's "The Real Thing": watching the Twin Towers collapse through traumatising, disruptive artwork [Images used under fair dealings provisions]



Both comics undergo a shift in transition type on the second page. Page one uses what McCloud labels action-to-action transitions (the type which is most widely used in Western mainstream comics), following a single subject (Superman or the committee members) in distinct progression of action. However, the second pages do not follow this. Both use moment-to-moment transitions which, while requiring less closure, are not typically used in Western comics and so will not be as easy to read. ‘Unreal’ zooms out slowly from the comic page to the crying little boy then to the fireman and finally to the image of the flag and the burning building. This takes six panels and moves with agonising slowness compared to the usually fast pace of mainstream comics art. ‘The Real Thing’ likewise moves slowly, showing the impact of the plane with the towers and then its slow collapse. Not only does this shift in transitions type serve to disquiet the reader, it also slows the reading considerably and insist that we linger on the page longer than we would perhaps usually do. We are compelled to undergo the same slap of traumatic shock that would face the committee watching through the windows. This traumatising, disruptive artwork is neatly contained in uniform panels. Even Eisner, who does not typically use a defined grid structure, encases the final two panels of his comic in neat frames. The chaos of the subject matter and action within the panel is contradicted by its neat framing. Though it may look neat, we must look again to understand that this is neither neat, nor pleasant, nor comfortable reading. In this instance, their name is something of a misnomer because there is nothing comic to be found here.

However, despite this boom in comics’ popularity and breadth of subject matter, it remains a form that is under-valued in scholarly circles. This is, to my mind, a two-part issue. Firstly, the form is condemned by its origins. Comics began life as cheap and amusing stories printed on poor quality paper. They told stories of supermen and gory horror. The early comics were not engaged in deep philosophical questioning and did not pretend to be. The form has grown massively in all manner of ways since this humble beginning but this does not mean that these connotations are gone. Secondly (and more controversially) there is a tremendous amount of snobbishness that exists in academia. It is this same snobbishness that peers over its glasses at the study of film or television. There is no way to overcome this low opinion other than for comics creators to continue to produce high-quality and award-winning work that can tackle an issue, such as the traumatic legacy of 9/11, with both depth and dignity.


CITATION: Harriet Earle, "Panel Transitions in Trauma Comics," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2013): n. pag. Web. 11 January 2013,


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info] Harriet Earle is a first year PhD student at Keele University, under the supervision of Dr James Peacock and Dr Tim Lustig. Her research focuses on traumatic representation and conflict in American comics published since the end of the Vietnam War. [/author_info] [/author]


Works Cited:

9-11: The World's Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember (New York: DC Comics, 2002).

Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007).

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994).

Smith, Philip, and Michael Goodrum. ‘“We Have Experienced a Tragedy Which Words Cannot Properly Describe”: Representations of Trauma in Post-9/11 Superhero Comics’. Literature Compass 8.8 (2011),

Weiner, Stephen. Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel (New York: NBM, 2003).



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4 Replies to “Panel Transitions in Trauma Comics”

  1. Great article. I love that you focus on the most uncomfortable transition that occurs when the reader has to turn the page in order to complete a scene. There is one such transition in Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo's <i>Batman: Joker</i> in which a rape scene takes place while the page is being turned. In the last panel before that, after the Joker orders the narrator, Jonny Frost, to "get his lady", we see the woman from a predator's perspective, standing in darkness between monkey cages, with nothing but lines of dead bodies between us and her, and simian hands reaching out to her from between the bars on both sides. The first panel on the next page shows the Joker (clearly recognizable, even though his face is cut off by the frame) getting out of a car while pulling up his trousers. The image focusses on Shelly (even though – or especially *because* he does not), crouched on the back seat, dishevelled and hiding her face. This is without doubt the most painful panel transition I have ever encountered. I believe that traumatic experiences cannot be adequately represented in any medium – here, any attempt at representation must necessarily fail. Azzarello and Bermejo seem to comment on this, creating a lacuna that has to be filled in by the reader's imagination (which hurts, buckles, falters). It almost feels as if the reader, in turning the page, is facilitating rape. But in order to complete the story, we're forced to comply. This too opens up a whole new meta-context for the reader to engage in.

    1. Excellent example. I'm not familiar with this comic but I'm going to dig it out of my local shop next time I'm there. I'm completely in agreement with Groensteen, Damisch and McCloud that transitions and the gutter make comics. Thank you for your kind words and insight. 

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