Back From the Old School: Showing Motion via Repeated figures in a Single Panel

Lately, I’ve been noting a lot of panels like this in the comics I read and it’s made me wonder about what exactly this technique is, how how it works, and where it came from:

What it is:

This is from Cyril Pedrosa’s recent (and amazing) book L’age d’or, which is now out in English as The Golden Age. What’s going on here formally (and the dialog isn’t really important to it, so you don’t need to be able to read it) is that each set of horses and riders in this image is are the same horses and riders; they’re just progressing through time over a static background. It’s not a technique you see a ton in comics, but once you’re aware of it you’ll find it cropping up more often than you’d suspect in your reading. 

So, what are we actually seeing here formally? Repeated images (usually characters) in comics, moving through time and space over a single background, without the use of gutters/panels to create sequence or explicitly dictate reading order.  

It’s worth noting that Paul Gravett has a great post on a lot of the same general subject matter here–although he doesn’t draw fine distinctions between what could be seen as a few different varieties of repeated image techniques. In Gravett’s article–which appears to be written in 2008–he’s springboarding his discussion off of Gianni De Luca’s (he’ll be mentioned below) extensive use of this technique in his adaptation of Hamlet. Toward the end of the article Gravett has this to say:

While it would be possible to catalogue still more cases of this effect, no doubt in Chris Ware’s output or in manga, from what I have found so far they amount to little more than certain special panels or pages – fascinating efforts, experiments or oddities – but mostly they bear no comparison for me to De Luca’s huge skill and sustained use, not only in Hamlet but also Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.

This statement may still be true. I wonder, though, if the extensive use of this technique in L’age d’or wouldn’t put it at least in the same ballpark as Ge Luca’s work far as cartoonists really digging in and exploring how this technique can be applied? It’s used pretty extensively throughout L’age d’or and its sustained and repeated use by Pedrosa there is certainly unlike any recent comic that I’m aware of. It’s part of the meat of the story and how it functions–certainly not one-off oddities. 

What it isn’t:

There are several formal devices in comics that look a lot like this technique on the surface. Some function similarly in a formal sense, and some just resemble it superficially but function differently. Here are three formal devices that bear some resemblance to what’s going on in the above image, but aren’t exactly the same thing:

1) Repeated image to represent speed – This is probably the most common sort of repeated image you see in comics. In this Carmine Infantino Flash panel, for example, we understand that there are not actually five identical people here; it’s an image of a single person moving very quickly. And, much like that L’age d’or panel, that character is moving through space and there’re no panel borders breaking up this motion. 

So, why don’t I think this is the same thing? Scott McCloud gets to the root of it in his discussion of this device in Understanding Comics:


“Photographic.” “Film.” This is a device that’s mimicking the effect of a camera. It’s primarily optical rather than diagrammatic.

I think this idea is supported by the (as far as I can tell) total absence of this sort of device in any kind of visual art until after the invention of the camera. (I’d love to be proved wrong, though. If you can find one, let me know on the comments!)

Further, I think supporting the idea that this is different from what we see in that L’age d’or panel is looking at how it’s used. This type of repeated image–the type that emulates a “motion blur” is pretty much always used as a visual indicator of speed. It’s not a coincidence that you see this employed a ton in comics like, well, The Flash. In contrast, I think it’s pretty clear that that L’age d’or panel is not supposed to indicate that the characters are moving quickly; if anything, it evokes a languid  conversation that’s happening over an extended time as the characters meander through their environment. 

Linguist Neal Cohn refers to comics effects where images are repeated to indicate speed or motion as “partial reduplication” (“partial” because only the moving parts of the objects are duplicated visually),  as seen here in this slide he shared with me via Twitter:

My gut feeling here is that, of those images above, the left two are somewhat different formally than the right two. The right ones are pretty clearly mimicking a photographic effect; the left two seem to me to be maybe an extension of this photpgraphy-based language that’s mixed in more with comics’s native diagrammatic abilities. But, that’s a bit of hair-splitting for some other time, perhaps! 

2) The polyptych – I’ve seen several different terms for this particular device, but “polyptych” is what McCloud calls them and that’s what seems to have stuck. The polyptych is kind of a catch-all comics term for any time a single background/location is subdivided into multiple panels. Sometimes a polyptych is simply this–a setting divided into panels–as in this panel from Master of Kung-Fu. There’s nothing moving here, no repeated figures:

Other times, there’s a repeated figure included, which brings it very, very close to our original L’age d’or example, as here in this Gasoline Alley strip:

Unlike the L’age d’or panel, though, we have the added element of division by panels/gutters. The figure is repeated once in each panel. You read it left to right, top to bottom, with the grid dictating your reading movement. 

You can find a great decade-by-decade index of these things online here.

3) Transformation – This, again, has some superficial resemblance to our original panel, but to my mind is pretty different functionally. The classic image of this is a character transforming from one state to another, like The Hulk, as we see here in this slide from Neil Cohn:

We’ve for sure got a repeated character in this kind of thing, but not the sense of a lot of time passing, as we get with the L’age d’or panel. The backgrounds (such as they are) are singular, but there’s no sense of motion being communicated here–the character is not moving through the background space. 

Where did it come from?

So, one thing that interests me about this thing that we see in that L’age d’or panel is how it’s simultaneously comics-y and not comics-y.

It’s very comics-y in that it’s using two-dimensional art to show the passage of time and it’s doing so in a way that’s diagrammatic rather than completely mimetic. It’s not comics-y, though, in that it’s more primitive(?) in a way, since it doesn’t utilize one of comics’s main formal tools: panels. Despite how esoteric discussion of this device may seem at first glance, there’s a common almost-version of this technique that I’m betting even non-comics people know pretty well: the famous “map” comics of The Family Circus.

In this case, though, we don’t get the repeated character as he moves throughout the background–just an indication of where he’s been on his journey.

And <shocker… it may not even be a map at all, according to Bill Keane. Mind blown!

So, back to the origin of this thing… here’s another example of it, from Vincent Vanoli:

I don’t think it’s just coincidence that both the Pedrosa image and this one are from comics that take place in a Medieval-type setting. In both cases, I’d bet the artists were lifting this particular technique from what is, as far as I can tell, its true origin: Renaissance and Medieval art.

Here’s The Tribute Money, from the 1420’s by the painter Masaccio:

Note that this is not just a crowd of people; it’s a story with the same characters repeated as they move both physically through the background/space and through time.  First, at the center of the painting, a tax collector is demanding money; then, off to the left where Peter and Jesus are pointing, we see Peter getting some money out of a fish (The Bible is weird, y’all!); then, finally on the far right of the painting, Peter pays the tax collector.

Similar deal here in The Journey and Meeting of Saint Anthony with Saint Paul the Hermit by the Master of the Osservanza from the early 1400’s:

Some more of these things:

As mentioned, once you’ve seen a few of these, you start to keep an eye out for them. Here’re a few that I’ve noted over the past few months: 

This is from Javier Pulido’s great run on She-Hulk a while back. One neat thing about this one is how you’re moved through the scene in a back-and-forth way that takes you all the way to the rightmost side of the two-page spread, then back to the left-facing page to continue reading.

This is an example from Gianni De Luca, who–as noted by Gravett–uses this technique a ton.

Here’s a beautiful spread from Hicotea: A Nightlights Story by Lorena Alvarez. The reading order of this one threw me for a bit initially because you have to start at the bottom. You then go up the stairs, then “fall” down to the floor on the right.

Yeah, it’s yet another one from L’age d’or, but I had to throw this one in since it’s an example where each individual long panel is a self-contained example of this technique, with them all functioning as a sequence showing the character moving through three different environments. 

I’m throwing this spread from Kyoko Ariyoshi’s manga, Swan, into the mix here as an interesting example that I think kinda-is and kinda-isn’t what I’m talking about. It satisfies the base requirements: repeated figure, moving through a single static background, no panel borders, not a visual shortcut to connote speed. But, it seems to be so overly photography based–and the background so non-essential to how it works–that I’d probably not fully characterize it as being exactly the same thing as the examples above. Like most attempts to put formal comics techniques into strict categories, there’s always a fair amount of wiggle room. Some of De Luca’s work, particularly in Hamlet, seems to skate this fine line as well. 

This is very definitely not the same thing as what’s under discussion, but I wanted to point it out because it’s such an interesting (and early for comics) example of the Flash-style “ghost image to connote speed” thing. The three figures here seem to be used much like the Infantino Flash image above, but the two trailing images here are actually other boxers who have previously trained at this same location–and run on this same stretch of road presumably. 

What the heck do we call these things? 

You may have noticed that amidst all the discussion of this thing, I’ve been conspicuously avoiding actually referring to it by name. That’s mainly because it doesn’t seem to have a fully settled-upon name–and the ones that are used are kind of awkward. But there is some writing on this type of comics device and obviously, in those writings it has to be referred to by some name.

Neil Cohn uses the term “reduplication” to generally refer to any of these devices that involves repeated drawing of the same thing. I like this term, partly because it’s fairly simple and straightforward, but also because of what it means. As Neil explains, “[reduplication] in language is repeating a form to create added meaning. ‘I’ll have the salad-salad, not the potato salad.'” In the case of these comics, this makes a lot of sense: that second (and third, and fourth, etc.) drawing of the figures in, say, that She-Hulk panel create added meaning. He refers to the kind of thing I’m discussing here specifically as “polymorphic reduplication,” although he also seems to use this term for instances in which reduplication is used to show motion. So, this seems to include both the thing I’m discussing, but also more broadly includes something like that Flash panel.

In that Paul Gravett article I mentioned way back at the beginning of this, he goes through and catalogs a few different terms people have used for this technique. Among the labels he turns up is “continuous narrative,” which comes from a book not specifically about comics, but about Renaissance art: Story and Space in Renaissance Art: The Rebirth of Continuous Narrative by Lew Andrews. (A book I’m now going to investigate for sure.)

Charles Hatfield used the terms “undivided polyptych” and “synchronistic” in his book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature for these sorts of panels. “Undivided polyptych” has a straight-ahead appeal, since “polyptych” is already a term in comics that people know. “Polyptych,” though is a bit problematic in itself since it’s been appropriated from the world of non-comics art where it’s used to refer to artworks that consist of several individual physical frames/panels stuck together–which may or may not have any narrative content, may or may not even have a continuous image, and don’t seem to ever be used to connote motion:

Whatever these things are called, I’ve become (obviously) fascinated with them. Part of their appeal to me is for sure just my attraction to any sort of  formal experimentation that pushes comics’ conventional “toolkit” of techniques. Beyond that, though, I think the reason I’m drawn to this very specific type of use of repeated image (rather than the “motion blur”/photography-derived technique, or even the slightly more comics-y Gasoline Alley-type polyptych) is that it so clearly shows that two of the main things that we comics people are specifically very concerned with–visual narrative and using two-dimensional space to show the passage of time–are things that, in fact, have been concerning artists in general for centuries.  




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    • Arp on 7/28/2020 at 12:01 pm

    This was a really good read. I have a lot of these ideas internalized from comic reading over the years but not clearly defined (I felt similarly reading Rivkah’s cinematic vs theatrical post). I need to get a copy of The Golden Age, it looks gorgeous – frankly, I should have a whole shelf devoted to Pedrosa.

    Andrew Maclean has a nice take on it here, I just love his action overall.

    • Ben on 7/28/2020 at 8:53 pm

    Hey, glad you enjoyed the post! What’s the “Rivkah’s cinematic vs theatrical post” you mention?

    • Arp on 8/12/2020 at 12:49 pm

    I had an intuitive understanding of a lot of what she writes but she spells it out well.

    • Ben on 8/13/2020 at 10:32 am

    Hey, thanks! That was an interesting read. I largely agree with most of what she’s talking about there… although, I’d call a lot of what she’s describing as “theatrical” as just being how one naturally draws things–it’s the natural and intuitive way that people have largely set up visual information on a 2-D surface since pretty much forever and was pretty much the “default” until cartoonists started (consciously or otherwise) aping film.

    This is for sure a pet peeve of mine. I wrote about it extensively (maybe too extensively?) here:

    • Jordan on 11/28/2020 at 1:04 pm

    I finally started reading this book, and remembered your post here. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video where Pedrosa talks about the book, but he pins the inspiration for these scenes on the Dutch Renaissance painter and printmaker Pieter Bruegel.

    • Ben on 11/30/2020 at 10:39 am

    @Jordan – Yeah, I’ve seen that… and I’m still trying to puzzle through is coloring process that you can kinda see him doing. I think he also mentioned just generally that the look of the book was inspired by medieval tapestries.

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