Form Meets Function in Comic Books

Will Eisner's "The Spirit"

Will Eisner’s “The Origin of the Spirit” Page 2

An analytical paper I wrote on the comic page above:

The interplay between form and function is at the heart of every art form and comics are no exception. Will Eisner on page two of his “Origin of the Spirit” demonstrates perfectly how the form of a comic book can give us the experience of the narrative before we read a word and expand the way storytelling functions. As our eye skims the page, we are subconsciously prepped to process the story. This page depicts the story of the universal struggle between good and evil at the dramatic moment in which it seems as if evil may be winning. Eisner uses the entry points to the page, the art style, and the panel format to highlight this struggle in a way that transcends language. These formal elements communicate the meaning of the page-fear for the hero, before a single word is read.

The first of these formal issues is the problem of the entry point. As a master of the comic book form, Eisner understood that the reader does not necessarily enter the page at the top left as they do in a novel. They enter it at the moment which draws their eye first, then they re-orient themselves to begin reading. In this page there are three entry points. On the right of the top tier we have the heroic entry of Denny Colt, standing tall with the blue of his suit contrasted against a drab background. Then on the left of the second tier we have Dr. Cobra’s angry face hovering over the panels. Finally, on the right of the bottom tier we have a panel that is literally circled, showing its importance. No matter which order the reader’s eye zig-zags through these focal points, he gets a summary of the action. A hero appears, a villain reacts, and something violent, and not in the hero’s favor, happens. Eisner has created entry points that strategically embrace the viewer’s jumping ahead rather than fighting it. He arranges these focal points in a way that draws the reader’s eye through the page and back to the beginning and instills them with the sense that something bad is about to happen to the hero.

Another formal issue in comics is the color palate. This issue is often determined by the artist’s unique style as well as the limitations in printing, but Eisner uses it in full service of his story. Eisner uses the limited color palate to create a visual atmosphere weighted in the villain’s favor. The use of red, yellow, and green without any variation of shade overwhelms us with the sickly, violent clash of these primary and secondary colors. Indeed, before we even start reading, the overall tone created by these colors is that of evil or violence which subliminally puts the power in the villain’s favor. Eisner overwhelms us with a visual mood favoring evil which makes us fear for our hero and wonder, even if only at a subconscious level, whether or not he can win this time.

The central formal issue of the comic book is the grid and Eisner uses it control the pacing of the story, our experience of the story, and the other formal issues. His use of the grid ties all the other elements together, creating a cohesive visual experience. As the reader’s eye flits from focal point to focal point, he is also taking in the contrast between the panels and gutters which creates the grid. As the reader discerns the grid, he is essentially seeing the structure of the story before he reads it. It is as if he is having the beat played for him before he hears the whole symphony. The beat of this page is full of strategic breaks from the conventional grid. The first break occurs as Colt slides into the claustrophobic space of Cobra’s lab in a diagonally shaped panel. Then the face of Cobra ignores all the gutters and panels and leaps out at us. Cobra’s goon leaps in a surprise attack, the slashing of his knife mirrored in the diagonal shape of the panel. Then we have a moment of hope as Colt’s reactionary punch knock the goon out of the panel. However something terrible happens after that. It is a moment encircled by the final two panels. An accident unleashes a vile green liquid and possibly destroys Colt. While all the other breaks in the grid carry us through the story this final circle keeps us lingering in this terrible moment. There are no imaginary lines of movement to carry us forward, only the circle keeping us in this moment of suspense. Again, Eisner has used a formal issue unique to comic books, the paneled grid, to tell the story through the form before detailing the specifics with words.

This page is a symphony of visual elements that prepare the reader’s mind to fully experience the story. All the formal issues of the page cause the reader to fear for Denny Colt before he knows any of the verbal details. In comics there is little space for setting the scene with elaborate descriptions or establishing ideas with thoughtful dialogue. However, Eisner has overcome that by using the visual strength of comics. He uses all the formal conventions of this mode of storytelling to more quickly create atmosphere and suggestive power. He gives us the experience of this struggle between good and evil and makes us wonder if evil has finally won this time. We are left anxiously waiting for what the turning of the page will bring.

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Filed under Art, Graphic Novels & Comics, Jacob Rowan Studios

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