Scott Pilgrim VS The World: Panel Composition and Transitions
The second volume of the Scott Pilgrim series is a strange beast. The first volume set up this fantastical world and delivered an exciting fight to close the volume. One could reasonably expect the second volume to follow a similar formula, but for the most part it focuses on the mundane details of Scott and Ramona’s lives and the Evil Ex fight towards the middle of the volume is an anti-climax. Knives and Ramona’s fight in the library serves as the action set piece of the volume, but the clincher is actually the rising action leading into the third volume. I found this skewed direction very refreshing personally, especially on my first read. What helps make the mundane details interesting, in addition to the increasingly better dialogue and humor, is the way O’Malley handles time and motion in his use of panel composition, as well as the use of negative space to depict emotional distress.
My understanding of how sequential art panels operate comes both from intuition, western convention and Scott McCloud’s detailed exploration of comics as a medium, Understanding Comics. Most of this essay will be a summary of notable examples of how O’Malley uses panel composition in a creative fashion. To borrow from McCloud, panels are the most essential icons for comics. They represent time and space being divided. Sometimes, panel composition can give us certain sensations, while others can represent abstract ideas.
One of the most noticeable and creative panel compositions comes early in the book in Chapter 7. Scott and Wallace have an argument on a bus about Scott’s two timing, and when Wallace gets off of the bus, he tells Scott not to come back to their shared abode that night. Scott promptly insults Wallace as the bus drives onward. The increasing physical gap between Wallace and Scott, as Scott keeps yelling at him, is represented by increasingly smaller panels of the bus driving off with increasingly smaller text in the bubbles. This represents both time progression, distance and even a gradual increase in the pettiness of Scott’s retorts by associating them with perspective and relative size. It’s a memorable joke that gets recycled in a future volume.
This general concept is seen again when Scott breaks up with Knives. Negative space is also used quite well on these much larger panels to indicate the crushing weight of emotional angst and awkward silence. Unlike the scene on the bus exterior, the panel space is divided by either 1/3rd of the page or ¼th of the page for each one. The characters themselves are pushed further and further away. What does this distinction communicate to us? Once again, it indicates a growing rift of distance between the characters, but this time, it isn’t taking place in physical space. Instead, it is a figurative rift. Knives is being separated from her fantasies and Scott is addressing his guilt, but is also resolving it, even if he hasn’t made peace with it yet. The fact that the characters are surrounded by negative space instead of their natural surroundings also helps communicate this figurative language, as I don’t think it would have delivered otherwise.
Scott gets on a bus again, and here we get another two page bit where Scott comes to terms about his guilt over dumping Knives, basically by finding something happy to think about in Ramona. He hasn’t quite learned to accept that it’s mostly due to his failings that this happened to begin with, but he’s making progress. The first page features Scott getting on the bus and fidgeting around. A disappointed Knives appears in the center surrounded in darkness. The second page features Scott slowly smiling, relaxing and getting off the bus. Ramona’s in the center of this one too, uncharacteristically serene. I thought that this scene was done rather badly on film, where these panels progressed along a straight line in panels in front of the static viewing screen.
To demonstrate how this scene in the novel is rather clever, I’ll refer to Scott McCloud once again. He covers panel to panel transitions in order to explain closure, or what our mind fills in between the panels. Most of the panel transitions in Scott Pilgrim are subject to subject (focus on one active agent doing something to another active agent doing something) or action to action (a single active agent performing an action in successive steps from panel to panel). This particular scene features non-sequitur panel transitions to characters that aren’t physically present.
If these depictions of Knives and Ramona were presented in their own panel in the context of a scene with background imagery and everything, we could easily think they were just somewhere outside the bus at the same time in a different location, but due to certain visual signs, we don’t. For one, the negative space removes them from the context of the real world. Also, notice how the black space around them isn’t really its own panel. One is implied, but really, the only panels are the ones that depict Scott on the bus. The images of Knives and Ramona exist outside of these demarcations for space and time, thus they can become abstract concepts. These can be taken as the thoughts of Scott, or anything else really, due to this composition.
To bring up panel transitions again, there’s one that stuck out to me where Scott goes to band practice for a small little scene that foreshadows events in volume 3. This little sequence features scene to scene transitions. Scott goes from a bad training session with Wallace, to walking down the street, to practicing with Sex Bob-omb, to relaxing at Still’s place after practice. This mostly stood out to me because I didn’t see it much in the story’s primary narrative (it happens a few times in the flashback) and I could mention it while bringing back up Scott McCloud’s terminology. The other types of transitions are moment to moment and aspect to aspect, there are some examples in this book but they aren’t hugely relevant.
Another neat example of composition comes up when; you guessed it, the characters are on a bus. Scott and Ramona are talking in a few uniform panels, but above them is a panel of trees with an expanse of sky in between them, much like the view anyone would get while looking upward while on a standard road way. This sequence has nothing to do with anything and bridges the gap between the foreshadowing post-band practice scene and a scene where Wallace deals with an obsessive Knives at the Wells/Pilgrim apartment. Plot wise I suppose it explains why Scott isn’t at home, but the fact that most of the page space is taken up by an unrelated shot kind of drives home how trivial the scene really is, but it builds some character. Most of the volume is like this, as I’ve said before.
Lucas Lee’s anti-climactic fight scene concludes with a bunch of action to action shots showing his own self-inflicted demise, and then Knives and Ramona get their extended action scene fighting each other. In the action climax of the novel, both Scott and Knives get two page spreads of negative space to show off their utter shock. Knives gets this when she realizes Scott was cheating on her, and Scott gets it when Envy calls him up. Both times, the negative space is white while the characters get greyed out a bit for contrast. What does the composition tell us? I’ll leave this one up to the audience, because it’s far more open to interpretation. Why do you think the color of these panels and the placement of the words, speech bubbles and characters are significant?
Perhaps due to the anti-climactic boss fight, the second volume doesn’t have a falling action arc (denouement), instead there’s a rising action leading towards the third volume and the introduction of the third evil ex, Todd, the only one outside of Gideon who is genuinely presented as a threat. The kick-off to this rising arc is the content of Envy’s phone call to Scott, and how it’s presented.
After the initial shock pages, six pages of taut panels with a wild mix of transitions follow as Scott and Envy have a disjointed conversation. The constant element of these pages is that they are each divided into nine panels, with plenty of extra gutter space at the bottom to make things extra tight. Everything about the panel transitions is wildly inconsistent, and this adds to the controlled frenzy of the scene. The first page has moment to moment and aspect to aspect shots of Scott looking around confused, a panel of dark space, and a non-sequitur transition to an old photo of Scott and Envy as a couple. None of the panels reveal the full subject.
The second page fills in the blanks further with a full shot of Scott divided by panels, with two panels depicting other partial photos of the old couple. The third page’s panels cut up Scott further with the divisions, sometimes they’re congruent and sometimes they aren’t. More of the same follows until the phone goes “Click”. The tension breaks with long shots of Wallace returning home and finding Scott devastated. He responds with some levity but then calls attention to how dire the situation is for Scott. It’s a well done set up for the extra objective of the novel. The novel ends on more aspect to aspect shots as both Envy and Todd are revealed as the villains for the next novel, indicating that the lackadaisical tone of this volume won’t be continued in the next one.
I hope that this break down has served educational for fans of comic books that may have understood these things on an intuitive level, but didn’t know how to verbalize it. My subjects for the following volumes will focus more on how narrative elements are handled, but this breakdown of the craft of comics is one of my favorite things to do upon subsequent readings and helps me come up with creative ideas for my own projects. Now that you have your toe dipped in the water of this language of comics, reading McCloud’s Understanding Comics can cultivate that and you can explore further for yourself.
Buy the Books on Amazon!