Lefevre’s work in regard to space in comics discusses the ways in which space is both viewed and experience within comics. Specifically talking about diegetic space versus extradiegetic space, “visualized versus non-visualized space” [Lefevre.2009:157]. When it comes to diegetic space, he’s specifically talking about semiotic reconstructions of the space, as well as two-dimensional and three-dimensional spatial relativity.
When first discussing diegetic space, Lefevre focuses on the setting in which action is taking place within a comic, discussing that many artists lean heavily on stereotypical design in order to make settings easier for the reader to recognise on site. The examples he uses are specifically the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Pyramids of Egypt [Lefevre.2009:157]. However, when looking at comics of the DC Universe, these landmarks could also be fictional. An example would include the Daily Planet building, Arkham Asylum or the Fortress of Solitude. While the general imagery of a city could be used as a visual signifying for a place such as Gotham City or Metropolis, both cities do have a different aesthetic despite being based off of New York City. As writer and editor Dennis O’Neil states, “Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3am., November 28th in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year” [Pearson & Uricchio.1991:009]. If we were to see Superman in a bright vibrant city, it would be natural to assume that his surroundings are that of Metropolis, while if we were to find him in an equally large city but with a darker, more gothic aesthetic, than the likely conclusion is that he is in Gotham City.
Lefevre also discusses how “space can also suggest other meanings; the way a person has decorated or organized [their] room can suggest something about [their] personality (orderly or messy, classic or modern, etc.). Furthermore, space can express a certain mood or be a symbol for an underlying concept or a scene or even a complete story” [Lefevre.2009:157]. A page and panel in particular that comes to mind is from The Killing Joke. On the books second page, Batman and Commissioner Gordon pass a receptionist’s desk in Arkham Asylum. While the desk is relatively sparse, the desk does contain a single note stating “You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps” [Moore & Bolland.1988:02]. The inclusion of the note on her desk does not add anything to the books plot in any way, but it gives a sense of the overall atmosphere of working at Arkham Asylum. Given the very sick and cruel nature of the story, and the overall emphasis on just one bad day driving you to insanity, to does speak to the tone of the work as a whole.
Minor details such as this note may not appear on the previous panel when the camera was focused in the opposite direction, however, it is simply an ‘unseen’ element within the space. It gives the reader a sense of physical, three-dimensional space through these two-dimensional images. This process of building three-dimensional space through two-dimensional images is also built upon through the use of illusionary depth [Lefevre.2009:158]. Lefevre specifically calls out that no matter how the image has been created, “every flat image has to deal with it’s fundamental two-dimensional aspect; the picture can try to deny the flatness” [Lefevre.2009:158] but it will always be presented as a flat, two-dimensional image within the real world and to the reader. A prime example of this would be 1990’s Batman: Digital Justice [Moreno.1990]. The first comic created entirely using computer generated, three-dimensional software, something that is printed on the books front cover, but is still published as a two-dimensional, physical comic book.
Another manner in which an image within a panel can denote space or area is through spatial relationships, either through size or shading. “Objects that appear on a flat surface can never show the complete reality of such three-dimensional objects. The flat and unmoving image can only use monocular cues to suggest depth; interposition or overlapping, convergence, relative size, density gradient” [Lefeve.2009:159]. A core example of this done in a single panel would come from The Dark Knight Returns [Miller.1986]. The image is one often referenced of an armour-clad Batman standing in the streets, while Superman floats high above him [Miller.1986:190].The sense of space largely comes from the pairs relative positioning to one another, the size of both characters, and the use of lighting. Batman is firmly positioned on the ground underneath a streetlamp. Batman appears fully lit with defined detail within his design, while Superman appears above, drawn exclusively as a silhouette, denoting that he is far enough away for the light produced to not affect him. The surroundings show a row of buildings on either side, with the vanishing point extending to the horizon. A sense of space is given. We are aware that the pair are in a somewhat narrow street, with minimal lighting. We have a sense of roughly how high Superman is based on the lack of light reaching him, but also the relative size of his body. He is close to Batman on the x axis, but relatively high on the y axis.
Batman’s positioning within the image does block off part of the row of buildings, this would be overlapping of a character with environment. However, the visual information available provides the reader with enough information to still gain a grasp of the represented three-dimensional space. The decision to make the panel vertical also plays into giving the reader a sense of space. “Furthermore, the visualized space appears within dimensions, and locations on a page. All these aspects can be important for the construction of space” [Lefevre.2009:159]. The choice to present the panel vertically allows the reader to have that sense of scale in regard to Batman and Superman’s positioning. Had the panel been presented horizontally, the idea of Superman above Batman wouldn’t have been presented as clearly, though the background environment would have more of a presence.
Overlaps within a panel, are something Lefevre draws attention to, and as stated previously, exists within the Dark Knight Returns panel. Specifically, in the case of Batman and the background buildings. However, this is especially important when it comes to action scenes. In the centre panel next to the vertical panel, we see Superman going to punch Batman. Due to Superman’s positioning, we can’t fully see Batman’s left leg, or left shoulder. Nor can we completely see the lamppost behind Batman. However, this in itself gives us a sense of three-dimensional space. If the panel borders are the framing of a camera, then we know that Superman is closer to the camera than Batman, who is closer to the camera than the lamppost. In addition to this, thought panels are also blocking part of Superman, which would not appear in reality. The reader is still able to fill in the details of what they are blocking, while still constructing a realistic three-dimensional space.
When it comes to disrupting or perverting this sense of three-dimensional space, an artist can manipulate these effects. Lefevre discusses how “some contradictions of the diegetic space remain unnoticed; usually the suggestion that the various fragments belong together is sufficient for the reader. Scores of comics suggest a coherent diegetic space without giving sufficient proof. Seldom in a sequence are all the corners of one room shown or is a global view of the space presented. The reader’s expectation of a consistent diegetic space is often wrong” [Lefevre.2009:160]. Given that a lot of the work is done subconsciously by the reader, due to implied work done by the artists, artists can take certain liberties when it comes to giving all the information in a room. However, this could be used to great effect when it comes to defying expectations or pervert the sense of space. Using shadows or, omitting some details, only to subvert expectations. With a story that distorts time and space, this would be heavily effective. An example of space being used to create an uncomfortable atmosphere would be in the Crisis Event Dark Nights Metal [Snyder & Capullo.2018]. Typically, when the city of Metropolis is shown, the buildings are tall skyscrapers. The Daily Planet building is shown to be an important part of the Metropolis skyline.
Establishing shots for Metropolis draws particular attention to this fact. Always including the Daily Planet within the skyline. Emphasising its size. However, in Dark Nights Metal, this consistency is flipped on its head for the benefit of creating an uneasy atmosphere and showing the corruption of the city. In Dark Nights Metal, a dark construct is erected in various cities. When we see the one erected in Metropolis, the art makes full use of established norms, and portrays the Daily Planet and the rest of the city in a much smaller, far more distant setting [Snyder & Capullo.2018:065]. The image clearly shows the dark construct above the city, dwarfing this vibrant city, and coating it in darkness through its shadow.
This view of Metropolis from above also plays into Lefevre’s discussion points on detail and décor. “One has to make a distinction between changes that do not affect the illusion of a consistent diegetic space and those changes that weaken this illusion or belief. Readers accept that not in each panel every detail of the décor is repeated: the décor might appear temporally from the reader’s view to accentuate the actions of the characters” [Lefevre.2009:160]. If we use the Daily Planet building as an example, we can recognise by its shape that it is indeed the Daily Planet, however, we cannot make out the writing on the side of the globe. The effect of the image is not corrupted by the omission of this detail. The focus of the panel is specifically meant to be on Superman, Wonder Woman and the dark construct. The setting of Metropolis below is simply there to give the reader a sense of grounding within this universe. The provided information is enough for the reader.
Lefevre’s final point is on the use of Extradiegetic space within a comic. “the extradiegetic space is the material space that surrounds the individual panels: not only the whites between the panels, but also the real space in which the reader is located” [Lefevre.2009:160]. Panel’s make use of the knowledge that they are on a page, complete with other panels, in most cases. Some pages can consist of a single panel; however, a physical comic will still appear on a page. The page itself will be part of a book, either a single issue, trade paperback, hardcover or oversized, and will be held in the readers hands, or laid flat on a desk. A comic that plays with this idea particularly well is Batman: The Court of Owls. When Batman begins to hallucinate due to being held captive, being drugged and starved, the panels, and indeed the pages orientation begins to morph. Instead of reading the comic left to right, the page needs to be physically turned to give the reader the same feeling of spatial disorientation that Batman feels. Lefevre ends his piece with the statement “During [the] reading process the reader tries to cope with these various aspects of space and to make meaning of it all” [Lefevre.2009:161].
- Lefevre, P. (2009) The Construction of Space in Comics. A Comic Studies Reader. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson.
- Miller, F. (1986) The Dark Knight Returns. DC Comics: Burbank.
- Moore, A. & Bolland, B. (1988) Batman: The Killing Joke. DC Comics: Burbank.
- Moreno, P. (1990) Batman: Digital Justice. DC Comics: Burbank.
- Pearson, R & Uricchio, W. (1991) The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media. BFI Publishing, London: UK.
- Snyder, S. & Capullo, G. (2018) Dark Nights Metal. DC Comics: Burbank.
- Yang, G. & Gurihiru. (2019) Superman Smashes the Klan #1. DC Comics: Burbank.