continued next week – the art of the cliff hanger

any comic book scriptwriter knows how to organise suspense by leaving a story at a point when the hero falls off a cliff at the end of episode one + picking it up again when he lands safely on a ledge at the start of episode two. the key to doing this effectively is to time the way the story unfolds so a significant event gets cut off unresolved at the bottom of the last page

this suggests the best way for the artist to create suspense across the gap between the episodes visually is to time the way he or she depicts the story unfolding so there is a cut in the middle of an action: the last frame of episode one is resolved by the first frame of episode two

in comic strip art much as in film making the action is fragmented into panels which the reader connects together + interprets as a continuous sequence as they read it. cutting on action at the end of an episode suspends this process of connection + interpretation suddenly + noticeably, + thus utilises one of the fundamental attributes of the comic book medium itself to strongly encourage the reader to buy the next issue

the spark for this post was the experience of reading the following extremely effective example (from the trigan empire strip in look & learn 379 + 380)

the story so far: there is a hidden kingdom ruled over by an immortal + legendarily beautiful queen. only her attendants are allowed to look directly at her face: everyone else must avert their gaze or suffer immediate execution. trigo could not help noticing her beauty in his peripheral vision + was unable to resist glancing up at her. it turns out she was wearing a mask

(c) IPC 1969

there must be other reasons the suspended sequence initiated above functions as effectively as it does, apart from the way it is edited: a few points about this follow

lawrence looks to have decided written narration on this part of the story ought to be superfluous + the way the event is shown visually should be primarily responsible for its impact on the reader. he has opted to hit us with the highest standard of art he can produce to facilitate that

the image of the mask coming off above is basically a simple light shape on a dark background, whereas the one below of the queen without her mask is extremely detailed + contains a lot more visual information. this causes the reader, while taking in the detail, to stop + look for longer at her real face than he or she did at the image of the mask. that slows the pace at a significant point in the strip + makes the audience while they’re reading it do what trigo himself does while he’s experiencing what’s happening in the story: gaze in awe

(c) IPC 1969

note the fact that the mask is shown as a generic or even iconic type with which the readers will be already be familiar (so they can read it at a glance), + the queen is specifically one particular very old woman they definitely haven’t seen before (which they have to look at to know), must assist the change of reading speed / mode of attention as well. imagine if the mask had been detailed (eg with a more complex expression, or make up, or made of rubber + deforming weirdly) + her real face was shown as in panel six

the shift in art style (which is what I’m claiming the juxtaposition of an icon with what looks like photo reference is) subliminally alerts the reader to the magnitude of the change

note also the location (a throne room with arches, a painted frieze + even a supporting character) established in the first two of the six panels is either framed out or just abandoned in favour of solid colour backdrops to the characters, so there are no extraneous distractions to the relationship being depicted (see the discussion of a sequence by auraleon at the end of a previous article for another example). this has an effect on the drama of the scene – shifting the focus from a wider societal issue down to an interpersonal level

for anyone who hasn’t read the rest of the strip: the idea underlying this scene is that the whole regime would collapse if anyone knew the queen was only human (or whatever they are on elekton), which they would if they looked at her closely, which explains both the instant death penalty + why the writing + art team put so much effort into one cliff hanger. in the context of the whole story you could argue it is the most significant event

afterword

cliff hangers occur a lot in the trigan empire but they usually follow a cause + effect pattern, perhaps by showing a reaction to something off screen or by introducing some sort of monster, with each new plot development resolved next week. they are not normally a straight cut during a pivotal action

the example below (the last three panels from L&L 468) is not a cliff hanger as such but is reproduced here because it features another good looking dark haired female in a blue dress who is not what she seems

(c) IPC 1971

in this case she is in fact a water breathing alien. trigo is apparently a magnet for this type of girl

non-iconic masks

to illustrate masks an audience would gaze at the detail of as opposed to the simple mask shapes referred to above the following scans are from masks of the world by oto bihalji-merin

(c) mladinska knjiga 1970

there’s something about masks. there ought to be a website explaining what

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