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Mar
13
2017

Comics: Parallel Stories on Separate Horizontal Tiers

That’s the most awkward blog post title I’ve probably ever come up with, but I don’t really know what else to call it. Scott McCloud or Neil Cohn may have some term for it, but what I’m referring to is basically this–which I encountered most recently in the Valerian and Laureline volume, Heroes of the Equinox:

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What’s going on here is we’re following four different characters’ story-lines and the artist, Jean-Claude Mézières, is showing us each of their stories on an isolated horizontal tier that we follow for a while until the converge back together later in the story. (And note the great Moebius Arzach reference via the winged creature on the third row.)

The thing that stood out to me here was how much this technique is “of the medium.” Comics is often presented as a “nested system” in which each panel is read in a specific, isolated, sequential order without regard to the page as a whole. This sort of arrangement, though, makes use of the readers’ apprehension of the page as a whole. We see the parallel tracks and understand the formal conceit before reading the content of the panels themselves.

I wondered, though, how often this technique was used in comics. I had a few thoughts myself, but also got some good suggestions via twitter. Here’s a French comic, L’Espace D’un Soir, which is an entire BD that has four stories of characters in a building, each on a different tier, all happening concurrently. I really like how each story arc (I’m struggling for terminology here again) seems also to be color-coded with a unique palette.

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Another instance that turned up via Twitter was this Multiple Man page by Jason Loo. As far as I can tell, this is a sample page rather than something actually published by Marvel–which is unfortunate, because it’s such a great concept. It’s not exactly an instance of parallel stories/tiers, but it’s similar in nature, combining that basic idea with a maze-like Chris Ware-esque layout you navigate via little “tabs” reminiscent of Jason Shiga’s “choose your own adventure” comic, Meanwhile.

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Speaking of Chris Ware… if there’s some formal comics hijinks going on, you can be pretty sure that Chris Ware is on the case. I don’t recall any instance of him using a straight parallel stories/tiers setup, but he often cordons off individual stories layout-wise, sometimes tying them into physical relationships/locations with balloon-tail-like connectors.

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The most well-known instance of the parallel stories/tiers setup is Fantastic Four #277, in which John Byrne shows us a Thing/Johnny Storm/She-Hulk story on the top row and a Reed/Sue/Dr.Strange story on the bottom. The two rows are separated not just with a traditional gutter, but also with a horizontal black line, a device that encourages you to read the top row all the way across the spread then jump back to the bottom of left-facing page to start the bottom row.

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Tezuka’s epic, Pheonix, apparently uses this technique. (Phoenix has been on my to-read list forever.) Here’s a page in which we see characters in individual escape pods, each shown in distinct horizontal sequences. This is from a sequence in the third volume, but the fourth volume, Universe, is supposedly done entirely using parallel stories/tiers. (I’ll update this post if/when I get around to reading Phoenix.)

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If you’re thinking that the potential side-scrolling nature of webcomics yields fertile ground for this kind of layout, you’re correct. Here’s one example of what I assume are many: Decrypting Rita by Margaret Trauth. It’s another instance where there’s a distinct color palette setting off each of the parallel stories.

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An impressive use of this side-scrolling technique in a physical book is Tymothi Godeck’s 35-foot-long leporello comic, !. While it doesn’t adhere strictly to a parallel stories/tiers layout, it for sure incorporates elements of it in places throughout. Here’s my After-School Comics Club kids holding the unfolded comic aloft:

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And here’s a bit of parallel stories/tiers going on:

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I saved the most impressive use of parallel stories/tiers, though, for last. Rebecca Dart’s Rabbit Head is a work that shows off what this type of storytelling can do if you really dig into its formal possibilities. It’s difficult to describe how Rabbit Head works without just reading the thing, but basically it starts with a single story/tier in the center of the page. Then, elements from an individual panels “fork off” into their own tiers, above or below the previous. As the story progresses, more and more of these narrative tiers branch off, until there are seven stories/tiers going concurrently. Then, at about mid-point, exactly the reverse begins happening: elements from the outer tiers get re-incorporated into the inner tiers, until finally we’re back down to the one initial tier/character. It’s stunning.

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I just started really contemplating this layout technique a few days ago when I read that Valerian story, but I’ve apparently been at least unconsciously interested in it for a while. It only occurred to me while writing this post, that I’ve used this technique myself–albeit in just one instance–in my 2008 book Midnight Sun. In this sequence I have the stranded airship crew’s narrative going on in the upper 2/3 of the page, while the lower 1/3 follows the main character as he simultaneously travels to investigate the story of the crashed airship.

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Do you have other examples of comics that use the parallel stories/tiers layout (or a less awkward term for this layout)? If so, feel free to comment or email them to me!

 


 

Update (3/15/17):

In addition to the comments to this post, I’ve gotten some good feedback via twitter, so I thought it’d be good to add them here. First, some terminology stuff from Neil Cohn:

 

And here’re a few suggestions of additional instances of the parallel stories/tiers technique:

Additionally, Pat McKeown did a great parallel stories/tiers piece in Weasel #1. The published version is NSFW, but here’s a blocked-out version:

mceownlayoutclean2Right/control click on that image, open it in a new tab, and zoom in in order to read it. You can find a great analysis of it here.

5 comments

  1. Margaret Trauth says:

    > I really like how each story arc (I’m struggling for terminology here again)

    FWIW I tended to refer to each parallel story as a “thread” when drawing Rita. Or as a “world” since they were explicitly set up in the narrative as being parallel realities.

    > (or a less awkward term for this layout)

    I occasionally used musical analogies when thinking about constructing Rita (“time for a ‘chord’ where multiple threads line up”, “this thread is in the lead, the others are harmonizing with it”), and that makes me want to explore musical terms. “Polyphonic comics”? “Multi-stave comics”?I dunno. I mostly just pitch it as “parallel narratives”.

    Looking back on four years of working this way, I feel the big disadvantage of this approach is that it’s very hard to put a complete thought on any single page – you’re lucky if you get 4 panels per thread in an entire spread. Dedicating eight or ten panels to a complex conversational exchange or a detailed examination of a physical action is really asking a lot of the reader’s attention span when it’s spread out over 2-3 separate spreads by this trick.

    I am not ruling out doing this again in the future but I sure as hell am not doing it for the span of another graphic novel. It is exhausting.

  2. Bryan Boles says:

    Great post!
    Alan Moore’s Greyshirt in Tomorrow Stories fits this I think.

  3. Ben says:

    “FWIW I tended to refer to each parallel story as a ‘thread’ when drawing Rita.”

    I really like “thread,” especially since it implies–as is the case with Rabbit Head–that they can be woven back together.

  4. Ben says:

    Yeah, I think I know the one you’re talking about–the one that’s four horizontal tiers and each tier is the same character but in a different time period? I had those issues when they came out, but didn’t hold on to them.

  5. Bryan Boles says:

    That’s the one. I keep thinking I’ve seen other examples, I thought maybe Kindt or Lemire but I couldn’t find an example. I think I was thinking of just inventive storytelling with timelines alternating.

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