things appearing at the back of the panel in comic book artwork

this article concerns panels where an event of significance for the story is occuring in the foreground while some non narrative thing at the back of the shot is also observed signifying something different, at a tangent from, or possibly parallel to, whatever is happening at the front.  the reader can get by without noticing this as it isn’t necessary for his or her understanding of the story

for anyone who has found this site before this concept is not exactly the same as the egs of comic art appearing elsewhere on it where foregrounds + backgrounds have been mentioned – the example image of the krypto strip in championing DC strips … [click the text of the title to open these] was used in part to make a point about establishing continuity between the panels; the last panel of the steve canyon strips in demonstrating the eagle was in an american tradition is an eg of deep focus (establishing space) – as both of these techniques have narrative significance

it is, however, similar to the dan dare hulton art gallery eg (lower down in demonstrating the eagle …) although in this instance the gallery is there to show the characters are flying across london in the future (establishing space again) + the building is perhaps of equal significance to the reader as the images of the characters in this panel (+ if the foreground + background have equal billing that’s not what this article is about either).  however: the sign ‘hulton art gallery’ doesn’t have anything to do with the story so the text on it counts as a valid example of a non narrative element the readers would understand as a reference to the actual publication they’re reading (published by hulton press), not the story they’re reading in it

this concept, implying as it may that the standard of the art in the comic is well appreciated in the future, or that the hulton press’s interest in fine artwork will result in them opening a gallery, runs parallel to the story in which dan + digby are involved + is expected to concur with something the reader is likely to have thought about the quality + importance of the comic in the past (otherwise they wouldn’t still be reading it), as he or she has kept up with the story from week to week.  these two separate threads have been going along simultaneously, one narrative, one non narrative

1    mad

anyway as it’s easier to explain this concept with plain examples of what it is as opposed to complex ones of what it mostly isn’t here are some scans from mad:

david berg signage - compressed(c) EC 1963

these are pretty self explanatory acts of layering a small joke (+ in both instances a funnier one) inside another longer joke – note neither sign progresses the story + although both are noticeable to the reader they go either unobserved or uncommented upon by the characters in the strip.  the last image is one of the cartoons which used to appear randomly in the gutter of another feature: not even tangentially related to anything else on the page never mind the story, functioning in much the same way as grafitti + identified by an asterisk instead of a page number on the contents page:

‘marginal thinking department

drawn-out dramas … *

* various obscure places around the magazine’

the egs of signs reproduced above are there to clarify the previous statements about dan dare – this article (in common with the rest of the website up until now) concerns longer form sequential art of which the panel below is an extract

phewgitive(c) EC 1963

note the figure in arab robes waving a scimitar.  lawrence of arabia was not what they were supposed to be satirising – that was the fugitive – but the film had just come out (by david lean, with peter o’toole) in 1963 + the presence of a train wreck in both proved too tempting for mort drucker

mad magazine turned putting a secondary meaning at the back of the panel into something like the principle it founded its strips on – producing dense multi layered pages which work on more than one level

2    the way the reader takes in the images they’re shown

at this point it might be a good idea to examine how comic books are read to work out the order readers take in the various picture elements they’re shown.  the artists have to bear this in mind when they’re sketching out the layout of the panels on the page (+ the content of each panel itself) so this is basically an exercise in deconstruction

according to will eisner in graphic storytelling + visual narrative:

‘in comics no one really knows for certain if the words are read before or after viewing the picture.  we have no real evidence that they are read simultaneously.  there is a different cognitive process between reading words + pictures.’

he appears to be talking generally here about which element is read first in all instances of reading any comic + telling us he doesn’t know.

the mechanics of perception + cognitive processes are not strong subjects for will eisner – someone else should take it from here …

(after deftly catching the ball):

when reading a comic the first thing the reader looks for is the continuation of a previously established sequence – the most fundamental process in sequential art – obviously that could be the words or the picture depending on which is more significant to the sequence.  for compositional reasons the image (or writing) performing this function is usually the largest, the most central or perhaps the brightest lit element in the frame.  usually it is but not always: the reader expects character + action to be continuous with the preceding part of the strip + will hunt for continuity first even if it’s a small off centre image under a shadow

as it’s quicker to look at a picture of a face + read an expression or emotion in one glance than it is to read a line of dialogue where the character spells out how he’s feeling verbally (entailing several eye movements) the following general assumption will be made:

the reader takes in the image first whether he or she is even aware of this – then they read the dialogue if there is any.  it may feel like they’re reading a comic by absorbing verbal information in a linear fashion the same way they do prose but measuring their eye movements might tell a different story

(if someone in a college that has that sort of equipment could pick up the metaphorical ball from here + devise an experiment that would be very helpful)

finally: the reader notices detail – objects smaller in the frame, placed peripherally

lastly note that in the western tradition readers read from left to right, top to bottom.  this affects the order in which speech balloons are read, but not necessarily picture elements: the artist could do almost anything to lead the reader’s eye about from where it lands initially, from the subtle use of solid black areas following a curve, to drawing a massive arrow pointing at something

this is an opportune moment to link to a cover gallery for a quick example

note with the cover of blackhawk 140 your eye goes straight to lady blackhawk on the right (a large, brightly lit element set against a dark area following a curve) + the speech balloon on the left is intended to be read before the one on the right

3    things with no narrative significance may be included for compositional reasons

a) visual artists in general (filmmakers, impressionist painters, anyone taking a photo of themselves, etc) tend to arrange sections of their pictures in groups of three: the eyes are usually about a third of the way down a portrait, the horizon might be a third of the way up a landscape + significant picture elements tend to get arranged in triangles

(go back to find a few triangles then read the next point)

b) if the same object appears from a different angle in the next panel it reinforces the idea that the action is taking place in a coherent space

thus, if the artist intends to put something in the back of the shot for either of these reasons anyway, he or she may as well make it more interesting than a bunch of flowers

as it’s high time a digital comic appeared on this site the following egs are from second empire:

secemp020panel 1 and 3
note there’s a framed picture in the background of a bunch of daleks in an iwo jima style flag raising pose

this appears twice sewing the geography of the room, fragmented by the panel borders, together.  in the tv show (dr who) the daleks would just be in some sort of featureless grey cube with doors that open triangularly – the artist of this strip has opted for a more interesting environment despite the fact that all these detailed digital objects need making + featureless grey would be infinitely easier

the picture in the background of this scene is also a visual representation of what xenol is thinking (victory, glory, conquest, etc) + performs the same function as (whilst being a lot less cliched than) a lightbulb going on over his head, thus perhaps it may be viewed as significant for the story (ie not non narrative).  the line this article is going to take is that the story is progressed by the dialogue here + the picture works as an ingenious way for the artist to get around the fact that daleks are not very expressive (they’re difficult to pose because they don’t bend anywhere + they have no eyebrows etc to register eg surprise)

elsewhere he (or potentially she, although ‘mechmaster’ doesn’t sound like a girl’s name) has used his or her artistic license + given them arms with a joint in the middle so they can wave them about in a variety of gestures – the dalek with the glow sticks directing traffic in the image below is fantastic

somehow the artist manages to make the daleks actually look cute – it’s difficult to say if that is a good thing but it is quite clever.  there is also a great example of background detail here – the blue danger triangle with a dalek falling out of the saucer or off something:
secemp077detail inc detail detail
completely superfluous to the story but bursting with meaning for the strip as a whole, articulating its design agenda, its sense of humour, the way the reader is intended to empathise with the daleks, + the way the author mashes real world technical trivia (primary activation switch on p198, hammer on p389) with high concept SF equipment, all in one sign

for a closer look at any of these images click on the page numbers cited above or follow the links below.  note the whole strip is free to read as it’s an unofficial use of someone else’s copyright material

the finest non narrative image in the strip is in the second of the following panels

secemp245editfeaturing as it does a gloriously impossible piece of 3d modelling – the triangle on yttral’s work surface – which must be a 2d object composited into the image or a 3d one with the moebius geometry on the texture.  either way if anyone has seen a classier computer generated image in any comic post a response

4    afterword

the whole of the above text was written without reference to the term ‘easter egg’ – read on to see why

probable history of easter eggs

this term came into use to describe clues as to what was going to happen in the full  film which had been hidden in trailers for SF + superhero movies (or even in the actual movie as to what might happen in the sequel).  it may have been in use in other media or other genres prior to this but in the case of movies which have a connection with comic books from memory it was first used of the star wars films (trailers for ep 2 + 3?) + it definitely has been since the marvel superhero movies – iron man 1 (2008) for sure – since when it has been a regular topic discussed online

from memory again, back in the days of comics buyer’s guide the term easter egg was not being used at all regarding comic books

but it could easily have been used above to describe roughly what the article was straining to define, which, in the light of that fact, now looks unnecessarily academic in its attempt to spell out in tedious detail something already understood by a simple two word phrase


it depends on your definition of easter egg

thus this article may be useful to sort the easter eggs (if defined as clues to past or future events within the continuity of the comic strip) from references to external issues

otherwise if everything not obvious at first glance to the casual reader counts as an easter egg there would be an overwhelming number of them, even if you just take into account mad magazine – think of all the jokes that were topical at the time: political references, popular culture references, even 1960s science, that are there in the artwork but obscure to many of us now – and the term easter egg implies something scarce, not completely ubiquitous

[hint – it would be an enormously useful resource if someone were to start a website about references in mad which are now obscure]

none of the examples in the article above are clues to events within the continuity of the strip + thus do not count as easter eggs by this definition.  this is annoying because now they don’t have a title (‘things appearing at the back of the panel’?) – could they be some sort of other easter thing – bunnies?  bonnets?

alternatively, if you define an easter egg more broadly as anything well hidden in the artwork:

the signs referred to above don’t (+ can’t) count as hidden messages – they’re in plain sight + their meaning is obvious

the guy in the arab robes constitutes an easter egg because the reader has to hunt for him while observing detail in what is a very busy panel

the dalek objects (framed picture, warning sign, impossible lab equipment) are basically just part of the set, but the dimensionally transcendental nature of yttral’s triangle is there to be found on close inspection + this aspect of it could be argued to be an easter egg as well

in summary: two easter eggs or no easter eggs, the aspects of the images cited in the article above are all valid examples of non narrative devices appearing in comic book artwork


addendum dec 2016

1    re making daleks appear cute:

could these daleks from the mid 60s (in their second annual – the dalek world) also be described as cute

(c) souvenir press 1965

richard jennings (who may or may not be the artist here) did not represent them in the same way ron turner went on to do when he took over the strip.  the article above presupposed ms/mr mcmaster would have preferred turner to jennings, etc – perhaps this was not the case

2    recurring characters appearing at the back of the panel in mad

from memory the cast of charles schulz’s peanuts strip used show up fairly frequently in mad for no story related reason: eg schroeder + snoopy are in the band in ‘son of mighty joe kong’ (mad UK edition 43) – maybe these would have been better examples

3    images of star hawkins’s robot secretary

at the risk of this site completely looping around on itself the following sequence is from the same strip as the golfing scene in next month’s post, featuring characters used as examples in the use of two different styles of artwork in the same strip.  it appears here as evidence of gil kane utilising the device of a framed picture in the background to show hawkins’s thought process as he worries about where ilda might have got to

str-adv-173-picture-frame(c) DC 1965

+ as something to compare with xenol + his wall art.  it also provides an excuse to reproduce the following warning sign that flashes elsewhere in the same strip when ilda is divulging confidential information (+ which is worth the price of strange adventures 173 on its own)

str-adv-173-gossip-alarm(c) DC 1965

this seems to say something about the way female robots are expected to go wrong which is both sexist and charming at the same time

vive la silver age

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