Blood in the Gutter
I’ve just been to see Cloverfield, the monster movie from the creators of Lost (or so it’s billed). The gasps, screams (and on one occasion, sobs) from across the cinema started me thinking about what really makes a scary movie/comic book/novel.
As human beings, we’ re conditioned to respond in a certain way to particular stimuli; that’s why a flickering TV image will continually catch your eye (and also why those animated Flash/gif ad banners on some websites are so darn annoying) – our eye is drawn to anything that’s moving in an otherwise static environment. It’s a survival instinct, one that helped us hunt prey in the past and serves us well today by letting us know there’s a bus headed straight for us as we step blithely into traffic. It’s this same basic survival instinct that makes films such as Cloverfield so effective.
You see, at a very base level, humans are afraid of the unknown. This explains why some people can only sleep with the light on – it’s a holdover from the days when we lived in caves and only ventured out after dark if we wanted to be messily devoured by the myriad creatures waiting for us to get just that one step closer to their pointy bits. It’s why things that go bump in the night seem so petrifying. It’s our minds trying to tell us that something’s not right, to get somewhere where we can turn on all the lights and lock the damn door. It’s this fear that the makers of Cloverfield and Lost (to mention just a couple of examples) have exploited so well. What we don’t see is so much better at getting under our skin than what our eyeballs wrench from the screen… or page.
Why is that?
It’s because our minds are given free reign to fill in the blanks. Now, I didn’t stand there and do a vox pop after the screening, but I reckon I could have gotten at least five or six different (and conflicting) descriptions of the big bad monster from Cloverfield from the first ten people I asked. It’s not shown explicitly on screen for very long, and most of the time it’s at center stage there’s a lot of other stuff going on so you never get a good look at it (the intentionally dodgy camerawork doesn’t really help matters either – it’s essentially 90 minutes of Handycam footage). The same can be said for the thing in the jungle in Lost. It’s what we don’t see that freaks us out, because the source of peril instantly takes on the characteristics
of our worst fears.
So what does all this have to do with comics, then?
Each panel on a comic page is separated from its neighbours with a strip of dead space – or ‘gutter’. This allows a canny artist to control the pacing at which the story is told – a masterful example of this can be found in Watchmen, where Dave Gibbons uses the same basic 9-panel layout for every page, but merges panels on some pages to linger on certain scenes. This ‘dead space’ is a mask, a shroud that hides transitions of angle, space and time. Comics are a visual medium, there’s no arguing that, but the gutter allows the reader to imagine the exact circumstances between each panel; by not being explicit about what’s shown to the reader, the writer and artist can let their audience’s imaginations run wild, and each member of that audience could image something different.
I think that’s part of the reason that artists like Frank Miller (300, Sin City) and Mike Mignola (Hellboy) are so popular – their work makes heavy use of the contrast between light and shade, whilst remaining light on detail – something that allows the reader to ‘fill in the blanks’ themselves, in turn creating a more engaging experience.
It’s the artists and writers that produce work like this that keep me interested in comics. It’s the screenwriters and directors that produce films like Cloverfield that keep me going back to the cinema (even if the film itself wasn’t that great in my opinion). It’s the countermovement to the dumbing-down of modern society – showing a little faith in your audience, allowing them to have a bit of mental free reign, and using their natural instincts to enhance their enjoyment and understanding of the piece.
It really does make a difference. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be hiding behind the sofa with my eyes closed and my fingers in my ears.
The title for this article is taken from Scott McCloud, who explains the effective use of the gutter in comics far better than I ever could. Check out his book Understanding Comics to see what I’m on about. Top image taken from Gears of War ‘Mad World’ trailer – ¬© Epic/Microsoft. Watchmen ¬© Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons/DC Comics.