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Between Movement and Reading: Reconceptualizing the Dynamic Picture Plane in Modernist Comics and Painting

By Paul Atkinson

Movement is not an inherent property of painting and comics and is largely constructed through compositional features, such as linearity, balance and visual weight, or through representational codes, including the position of a subject, gesture and narrative. Comics can be distinguished by the use of panel divisions, which draw attention away from the single image to the temporal spacing between panels, as well as the change in focalization, character position, and point of view. Of course, there are many types of painting that also divide the picture plane into a series of visual moments, from Chinese silk scrolls and renaissance predellas to Francis Bacon’s triptychs, as well as comics that do not have panel borders or use single page spreads. However, to compare media it is important to not overly focus on exceptions, or restrict analysis to the most obvious structural differences. A medium is more than a set of conventions, for it also involves particular practices of production and reception. There are no formulas or strictures that fully proscribe action, rather there are limits of expression that are negotiated by the artists. These limits extend beyond the material object to the affordances of the medium in terms of what can be expected of the viewer/reader in addressing the work. A person standing before a series of paintings on a gallery wall has a different mode of engagement than a person sitting down with a collection of the same images spread out as panels on a page. Each requires a different time of viewing or movement of reading, and this is to some degree incorporated into the composition. Accepting this as a guiding principle, the challenge is to posit a relevant framework for comparison. It would be absurd to propose a set of intractable features that must apply to all comics and painting, for there is too much variety and the argument would be hampered by the many exceptions. Instead, this paper will investigate what can be loosely called the orientation of comics and painting, that is, how the artists seek to engage the audience or reader in line with the affordances of the medium. To further restrict the scope, this orientation is examined in terms of dynamism and movement within the still image. It is as much about what happens in a single image as it is about the relationship between panels in a sequential narrative. To provide a common ground for analysis, the main focus is on the Modernist period in which European painting was radically experimenting with the depiction of the dynamism of movement. This period is also important because, during this time, the comic medium was beginning to develop the form that is familiar to us today, and, as with avant-garde painting, writers and artists had to grapple with fundamental questions as to how to depict movement. It is argued that, despite the fact that artists in both media were working on a common problem of creating the dynamic still image, the results were very different. The comic artists during this period developed a style that encouraged a transversal reading of foregrounded figures, whereas the painters created a dynamic image through the division of figure, color, and line. In the article, this distinction is explained through the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic space, which is starkly revealed in Modernism but nevertheless extends beyond this period as a means of understanding some of the formal conventions of the comic image.

Artistic Modernism roughly describes a collection of artistic practices that began in the nineteenth century and continued to flourish up until the middle of the twentieth century. However, it is not easily defined because it crosses a range of disciplines, from literature and music through to the visual arts, each of which has undergone different periods of development. There is no single timeline that can be used to group them together, nor is there a discrete set of principles that applies equally across the disciplines. Furthermore, in many respects Modernism is not an approach, where the practices and ideas are clearly delineated, but rather a response to many aspects of bourgeois culture including naturalism and the autonomy of art. In this sense it is both a political and artistic movement. In the visual arts, it is often discussed in terms of the avant-garde, a term that has greater specificity than Modernism. One of the guiding principles was a strong political and aesthetic engagement with changes in social life brought about by technological development in the nineteenth century, which was part of the broader rise of industrialism. This was articulated as a celebration of technological progress, most notably in Italian Futurism and Vorticism, but later there was also a critique of technology following the large scale loss of life in the First World War, particularly in Dadaism and German expressionism (Huyssen 10). There was also a strong interest in popular art forms, from magazines and advertising to cinema and the comic book, all of which are underpinned by mass production. One of the key aspects of avant-garde art was the emphasis on experimentation in artistic practice and the search for new ways of understanding the sensible world (Walz 9). This extended from engagement with the perceptual possibilities of new media, in particular cinema and photography, to a much more extensive exploration of the variability of the human sensorium. This led to a focus on the plasticity of the work and how it intersects with human experience and perception, for example in the mixing of media and the greater emphasis on visual form and abstraction.

Those comics that arose during this period cannot be truly described as Modernist because they did not operate, for the most part, under the auspices of the avant-garde in its rejection of nineteenth century bourgeois culture. However, periodization provides a useful means of evaluating the relationship between media, for regardless of the diversity in artistic practice, there is a shared social milieu. It is not a question of seeing all texts during this period as Modernist, but rather in assessing how each medium responds to the social context. The same cultural changes that led to the aesthetic upheavals of the avant-garde should also have an effect on the visual style of comics, and this should reveal some of the differences between the two media. One of the most discussed aspects of the social milieu of Modernism was the interest in time, movement, and speed. The increase in the speed of communication and transport altered social life in the large European and American cities, to create what some critics have referred to as a “culture of speed” (Tomlinson 2-3). At the fin-de-siècle, artists were looking to respond in their work to the rapidity of social life in a number of ways, from the foregrounding of mechanical movement to the celebration of advertising and popular culture.

The avant-garde painters were interested in mass produced printed materials, including comics, as a way of rethinking the very structure of the picture plane. This was evinced in the use of collage by the surrealists and Cubists and the attentiveness to poster art among movements as diverse as suprematism and art nouveau. Although, it is true, as Thierry Groensteen argues, that comics have occupied a sub-literary, artistically insignificant marginal position in the arts, and are often tainted by association with “inferior” strands of art such as caricature, they were accepted to some degree by the avant-garde artists in Modernism (7). There was also interest in the comic in terms of its visual capacity to depict movement and speed. The most important of the Futurist painters, Umberto Boccioni, argued in 1914 that popular printed culture, such as “advertisements, newspapers, sketches and caricatures,” were more progressive in their portrayal of the speed of objects than traditional painting (“Absolute Motion” 153). He also makes explicit mention of the importance of the “comic paper” in experimenting with dynamic movement: “You may more easily find the dynamic approach in a comic paper, in the form of a thief escaping with a hen, than in the painting of a battle scene by an artist who is considered a credit to the nation” (153). Although this is a direct criticism of nineteenth century salon and academy art, what is important is that Boccioni saw in the comic a dynamism that was not sufficiently adopted in painting. This dynamism is integral to the individual image rather than the sequential structure of the comic, which raises the question, is the dynamism of painting and the comic strip of the same variety?

The fact that both comics and painting are largely organized around the static picture plane suggests that both media, within the constraints of Modernism, could have adopted similar approaches to dynamism. Of course, the comic is a composite medium that often deploys words in the form of captions and speech balloons, but if the focus of the analysis is restricted to visual style and form, it should be possible to compare Modernist painting with either the comic image or comic book page. There must be something in the construction of the single image that gives the viewer the impression of movement. One of the distinguishing features of painting with respect to time—and one could extrapolate mutatis mutandis to the comic panel and to a lesser degree to the comic page—is that the image is viewed as a whole. The viewer may visually navigate the image, or linger on specific aspects, but there is a sense of a visual whole that is present before the inspection of individual visual features. Any discussion of the time of a painting must make reference to the fact that this visual whole serves as a foundation for any understanding of implied movement.

This recognition of the importance of a pre-existing whole does not mean that painting should be characterized as a static, immutable and rigid picture plane, for it is still organized around the particular present of viewing. Rosalind Krauss argues that the history of painting can in part be understood in terms of how viewers in each era engage with this presentness of the work. For example, in Renaissance painting all the objects depicted in the image are united, in the “blink” of an eye, in a single perspectival vision and appear as “pure simultaneity” (213). When looking into the depth of the painting, all the parts are structured rationally in terms of the perspectival lines and the impression of movement is limited to the gestures of the characters within the context of the represented narrative. However, she argues that in Modernist painting, the time of the image is disengaged from the depiction of actions and reference to an external narrative (Krauss 213). What this means is that there is a contraction of the painting’s present in the now of seeing, as the viewer attends to plastic rather than narrative aspects:

Modernism was to absolutize this “now,” to insist that Painting exist within the indivisible present of the extremest possible perceptual intensity: the rush of pure color; the shock of light-on-dark as ground pulls level with figure; the reduction of the world to pattern. […], it was to be the very picture of the instantaneity of vision-in-consciousness. (Krauss 213-14)

By the turn of the twentieth century, painting was investigating how the present moment could be brought to life and imbued with dynamism through the organization of its visual parts rather than through the actions of a represented object. The Impressionists experimented with the separation of complementary colors to increase the vibrancy of a work. In the viewer’s momentary gaze the colors combine optically to create an impression on the retina that mimics the play of light. Even material objects were reinvigorated in the visual experiments of the Puteaux Cubists, principally Metzinger and Gleizes, who regarded the division of the object into perspectival planes as the basis for the later unification of the object in the perceptual movement of the spectator (Antliff, Bergson 39). In Modernism, there was a general interest in the transitory, rhythmic and dynamic properties of movement. Henri Matisse explored the sinuous vitality of primitive dance, as did Pablo Picasso, André Derain and Emile Nolde, while the Fauvists experimented with the rhythm and musicality of color (Antliff, “Matisse” 187-88). Inspiration was also drawn from the new scientific theories that revealed how light and energy infused all matter. Paul Klee argued that it is the role of the artist to make visible the movements of waveforms that operate below the threshold of visibility (51). In short, avant-garde painting began to examine the dynamic movements that operated within the relatively short durations of our perception and which were rendered visible on the surface of the work. It was concerned with the plasticity of the work and how time is constructed in the picture plane rather than in the implied movement of represented objects.

The most direct and strident statement on the relationship between perceptual presentness of an artwork and the dynamism of movement came from the Futurists, who sought to translate the dynamism they attributed to modern culture into their artworks and reveled in the new landscape and vocabulary of the city and its “atmosphere” of light and speed (Boccioni 236-37). These artists believed that youth, technology and vigor could join forces in the overcoming of tradition by embracing “eternal, omnipresent speed” (Marinetti 21-23). This is demonstrated in Umberto Boccioni’s early Futurist work, The City Rises (1910), in which the city is depicted in terms of its capacity for movement. The central figure of the horse serves as a pivot for the perspectival lines but also creates a series of dynamic lines in which a living mass of people and animals are drawn together in a single movement. But what is most important, is that the articulation of movement extends well beyond the represented action to a series of contrasting colors, planes and brushstrokes. The depth of representation has begun to cede to a form of dynamic abstraction that is manifest in the surface of the work (fig. 1). In their “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto,” the key painters of this movement argued that painting should seek to represent the “universal dynamism” of contemporary life which is grounded perceptually in “dynamic sensation” (27):

Indeed, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing. A profile is never motionless before our eyes, but it constantly appears and disappears. On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves; their form changes like rapid vibrations, in their mad career. Thus a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular. (Boccioni et al., “Technical” 27-28)

This idea of the multiplication of vision was largely driven by a broad aesthetic of speed but was also informed by theories in psychology and philosophy that focused on the short duration of perception—most notably William James’ theorization of the “specious present” in which the past, present, and future are integrated into a single moment (Kern 82). The Futurists were strongly attracted to the “frenetic” speed of city life and the “exciting new psychology of night-life” (Boccioni et al., “Manifesto” 25), but in order to represent this, they had to rethink the static frame of a painting, and this involved focusing, like James, on the short duration of movement within perception. In the rapid movement of a horse, the many aspects of its movement are disarticulated and reunited in the retina, which is central to the impression of dynamism.

Figure 1

For the Futurists, the spectator is the driving force of the artwork’s dynamism because they contract the simultaneity of the different aspects of movement into a single dynamic sensation. The painter dissembles the parts only for them to be reintegrated in vision. This raises the question, was the dynamism of the comic also related to this principle of simultaneity in the Modernist period? Eric Berlatsky argues that the various aspects of the comic image form a simultaneous whole before they are further integrated in the act of reading, and extends the argument by stating that arrangement of panels on the page presents time as simultaneity in a way that is analogous to the theorization of time as simultaneity in the paintings of the Cubists and Futurists. The individual panels may be read as a sequence but the organization of the page spatializes time such that past, present and future are co-present (262-63). According to Berlatksy, it was not coincidental that while the European avant-garde was rethinking the representation of time on canvas, the US comic strips in the Sunday supplements were experimenting with the organization of the page:

These Sunday supplements make most evident the aesthetic qualities that comics share with cubism, Futurism, chronophotography, et al. Like these contemporaries, comics’ most unique formal feature is the setting out of time as space. Like Cendrars’s “simultaneous books,” in fact, popular early Sunday strips like [Richard Felton Outcault’s] Hogan’s Alley and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland appeared upon one entire oversized newspaper page each week, allowing for a simultaneous view of a complete full-page design, even as viewers were also expected to devote themselves to the reading of each individual panel sequentially. (Berlatsky 262)

Berlatsky’s argument draws upon the structural similarity between single page comic strips and the canvas on which the avant-garde painters experimented with dynamism and simultaneity. There is sense in which the whole comic page appears within the short duration of seeing and as such can be compared to the “now” of Modernist painting. The argument that Modernist comics and painting pursued a similar aim of dividing the picture plane seems reasonable, but what he does not note is that the principles underlying the division of the page are quite different. The avant-garde artists were seeking to present the dynamism of a single moment and this is why figures, objects, light, and color are broken down into parts. Comic artists by contrast were not aiming to present the comic page as a simultaneity but instead were trying to work against the constraints of simultaneity in order to impose a narrative structure and encourage the viewer to read in sequence. Although it is common knowledge that comics are read in sequence, what is important is that this difference in creative intention has led to two distinct concepts of time in the still image, and this difference in the concept of time is integral to understanding differences in composition. Before exploring this theoretical distinction in more detail, it is worthwhile outlining some of the conventions of reading the comic and explaining how they were developed during Modernism.

Seeing the layout of the whole page and navigating the page are different approaches to viewing a comic that cannot operate simultaneously. Like Jastrow’s duck-rabbit, the comic reader cannot be attentive to both the page layout and what is happening in individual panels at the same time, which contrasts with most Modernist painting where the parts are integrated into a visual and temporal whole. This logic of temporal sequencing works against the impression of dynamism as simultaneity. The comic isolates aspects of movement such that the reader must attend to each part in turn and this is reflected in the very construction of the panel within the page. As Benoît Peeters argues, the bande dessinée (comic strip) panel is distinguished by the fact that it is essentially open. It is always connected to a series of other frames that are “à suivre” [to follow] and this distinguishes it from the closed form of painting in which there is a “condensation” of a series of actions that are summarized and suspended in a key moment or “pose” (16-18). This openness of the panel is related to the act of reading. A reader rarely pauses on a single word, or seeks to rethink each word as part of the formal properties of the whole page, because there is an ever-present movement and structure of expectation that directs them to the next word. The phrase or sentence is only completed by the words that are to follow.

The capacity of the audience to navigate the image correctly in the reading of the comic strip was obviously a concern to early comic artists. Joseph Witek argues that the development of the comic medium cannot be separated from the implicit modes of instruction on how to read the texts, and that a key aspect of defining comics is understanding “a historically contingent and evolving set of reading protocols that are applied to texts, that to be a comic text means to be read as a comic” (149-50). Panel numbers were commonly used in Sunday comics in the early part of the twentieth century to indicate the reading sequence, and considering that most readers were already familiar with reading strips from left to right, Witek concludes that this may have been a remnant from nineteenth-century strips before page layouts had been formalized (150-51). When Lyonel Feininger changed the layout of his tenth strip in the series Wee Willie Winkie’s World (1906) in The Chicago Sunday Tribune by removing the panel borders, he also added panel numbers to each of the captions to prevent aleatory reading. In the early issues of Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905), McCay utilized both panel numbers and captions to describe and place the action within a narrative sequence, something that we would today regard as largely superfluous because they repeat what is already stated in the dialogue or Nemo’s monologues. For example, in the second issue of the comic strip (October 1905), the structure of the story is presented in triplicate. In an image depicting Nemo looking over the edge of his bed, in addition to the image itself, there is a panel number, a speech balloon in which he tells himself, “There’s something the matter with this bed, it’s shaking,” as well as third person narration in the caption, “Little Nemo had just begun to snooze when he felt the bed tremble slightly which caused him to immediately investigate.” Kerry Roeder argues that captions and panel numbers were only included because McCay “was still experimenting with comics and unsure of their capacity to carry a narrative” (496). Captions and panel numbers allowed McCay to maintain a clear reading direction while presenting changes in panel size and consequent changes in page layout. These were later abandoned as McCay became more confident in the ability of his readership to follow the narrative sequence.

The breaking down of the image into a sequence of narrative events was particularly important in those Sunday comics in which the broad narrative arc of a story was presented in a single image. In many comics there was no clear division of the page into panels and artists were still working out the best way to combine text and image, which included changing the typesetting and arranging the blocks of texts (Couch 66). Providing written captions was not only a means of explaining the narrative; to a certain extent it also determined the temporal structure of the page. Over the period of its publication, Outcault’s The Yellow Kid incorporated a range of types of text including speech balloons and inscriptions on walls and other surfaces within the image (Couch 70). In this type of single page comic, there is a slowing down of the reader’s engagement with the image, because by following the text the reader must attend separately to each of the represented actions. The whole cannot be readily grasped in an immediate present. For example, The Yellow Kid cannot be read quickly due to the large amount of text, and was therefore considered better suited to the leisurely reading of the Sunday supplements (Couch 73). In general, the use of text and panel numbers reduced the likelihood that the images, or parts of a larger image, could be read out of sequence or simultaneously. The use of such devices demonstrates that comic strip artists within the Modernist period were not seeking to create a form of dynamism in which the viewer contracts the multiplicity of the visual field into the simultaneity of a dynamic moment. Instead there was a different type of dynamism based on a more structured and protracted viewing process.

This emphasis on sequence counters Berlatsky’s claims that comics operate on the level of simultaneity but also gives some context to Boccioni’s declaration that comics deploy a “dynamic approach” to movement and action. It is not so much a matter of questioning the veracity of the claims but rather acknowledging that speed and dynamism are relative terms that largely depend on the spectatorial and social conditions of each medium. There is no question that comics were dynamic, along with a range of other art forms, in seeking to engage with the speed of modern life but this dynamism relates, in part, to their capacity to be consumed quickly. At the turn of the twentieth century, the increasing pace of modern life underpinned a broad cultural demand for “new forms of leisure” including reading comic supplements in the newspapers (Roeder 494). The success of weekly comic books, such as the British Ally Sloper (1884), which follows the misfortunes of its eponymous hero as he slopes through the alleys avoiding his creditors, has been linked to the increasing mobility of working class culture and the facility with which comics could be read on train trips (Sabin, Comics 15). Kunzle echoes this argument when he claims that the comic strip reflected the acceleration of cultural activity due to the speed of reading:

The 19th century fin-de-siècle, like our own, was experienced as entering an acute technological and social speed-up mode. In painting, the impressionist revolution has been linked with the idea of social and economic acceleration: people moving, working and seeing faster. Caricature and comic strip were always in the vanguard of a kind of graphic speedup, of which Rodolphe Töpffer is the recognized pioneer. (“Voices” 4)

Kunzle argues that comics were able to increase the pace of their readability by the removal of captions of the kind that were popular throughout the nineteenth century (“Voices” 5). He refers to this approach as the “Töpfferian model” because Rodolphe Töpffer did not always use handwritten captions to describe a character’s actions under each panel. Without these cumbersome captions the reader could engage directly with the “clarity” and immediacy of the drawn images (“Voices” 5):

Previously, texts had often enough been redundant, lacking in wit; even when they offered a necessary clarification of the visual elements they put a brake on fast reading. Fast reading was at a premium in the railway age: the paper with the comic drawings was to be read and perhaps discarded before the next station. (Kunzle, “Voices” 5)

However, just because painting and comics were both speeding up does not mean that they were utilizing the same principles of composition or operating within the same temporal scale. The speed of reading is completely different to the speed of seeing and this is why reading involves both a speeding up and a slowing down of the time of reception. Reading is certainly slower than any notion of retinal contraction but may be considered fast when compared to reading a novel.

Even without the use of captions which would slow down the process of reading, comics generally used different stylistic devices to create the impression of movement and placed a different emphasis on figuration than Modernist painting. When avant-garde painting was exploring the dynamic visual properties of the picture plane, it did so in line with a general turn towards abstraction. Painting was not only responding to general cultural and technological changes, it was also reflecting on its own history in the rejection of what Krauss calls the “empirical” “order of the figure,” where the object can be directly apprehended and is “bounded by its contours” (217). The dynamic sensation in Futurist painting is not a movement that attaches itself to a vehicle or object but rather a vibratory movement that suffuses the whole of the picture plane (Boccioni, “Futurist Painting” 238-39). The Futurists may have painted horses, trains, cars, and the rapid movements of the body, but the emphasis was on the dynamic properties of vision which were present in every form, spatial figure, and brushstroke. Or as Krauss succinctly puts it, the Futurists, in line with the experimental program of avant-garde painting, were examining “the formal conditions of possibility for vision itself” (217). Early comics, by contrast, might have been interested in dynamic movement but it was always subordinated to the demands of figuration and readability.

For fin-de-siècle comic artists, understanding movement was linked to commonsense ideas about how objects moved in empty space. Central to this depiction of movement is the separation of a figure from a field of action or visual ground. Rudolf Arnheim argues that this particular approach is based on the notion of extrinsic space, that is, a neutral spatial field against which parts move relative to each other and where movement is understood in terms of direction and speed (82-83). Arnheim notes, however, that although extrinsic space is a popular way of understanding movement, it does not match entirely how we see the world, which can be better described by the principle of “intrinsic space,” where all the parts are “interwoven” into an “unbroken overall system” (84). Interestingly, this notion of intrinsic space is more relevant to the analysis of modern art works because of the tendency to integrate objects into the visual structure of the whole, including the background (Arnheim 84). With intrinsic space “[e]verything is foreground, and only with some perceptual effort, although not without reward, does one succeed in identifying subwholes and setting them against one another” (Arnheim 84-85). A number of avant-garde art movements brought the background forward, which was no longer considered a stage, or extrinsic space, in which figures moved but rather the carrier of the material properties of vision: light, vibration, and the intersection of planes. Comics, by contrast, sought to divide the visual space into intelligible units. The figure stood out from the background, which meant that movement could largely be understood in terms of the figure’s capacity to be displaced in extrinsic space.

Mapping Arnheim’s distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic space onto the difference between avant-garde dynamism in painting and the Modernist comic, could be regarded simply as another way of stating that there is a difference between abstraction and figuration. It also invites the objection that there are comics created by abstract artists who do not utilize human figures, and therefore this is not a valid analytical distinction. Andrei Molotiu’s collection, Abstract Comics: The Anthology: 1967-2009, states that there has been a tradition of abstract comics that place non-figurative forms in sequence, often without a coherent and unified narrative (i). He argues that this tradition can be traced back to late Modernist works, including El Lissitsky’s suprematist picture book About Two Squares (1922) and Kandinsky’s array of abstract images, Thirty (1937) (iii-iv). If the simple distinction between figuration and abstraction is put to one side, what distinguishes these works is the utilization of extrinsic space. In About Two Squares, the figures of the red and black squares are foregrounded against a neutral background. Irrespective of their narrative function, the visual surfaces of the squares draw the attention of the eye and in a figure-ground transformation create the negative space of the background. Even when the color red fills the side or what appears to be a building on the seventh page, the red stands out against its placement in depth (fig. 2), and this foregrounding serves as a guide for reading the image against extrinsic space. The same argument applies to Kandinsky’s Thirty (fig. 3). Even though each of the figures in the thirty black and white squares is an abstraction, there is a clear distinction between foreground and background (white against black, and black against white). If this is to be regarded as a comic or a proto-comic, it is not only a matter of the panel division but a particular type of visual orientation in which the eye skips across extrinsic space to the foregrounded figures. This use of extrinsic space is certainly not limited to comic books, but it sets an expressive limit by which the relationship between dynamism, movement, and the single image can be investigated. Yes there is a graphic speedup, but it is a speedup that depends on negative space. The importance should not be underestimated because it provides an alternative framework for understanding the visual structure of comics that is not restricted to framing devices such as the gutter and panel.

Figure 2
Figure 3

Outside of the Modernist experiments with time and movement, this conceptual difference is linked to the particular visual tradition of comics. The most direct antecedent of the Modernist comic was drawing and caricature and this provided the foundation for the presentation of movement and dynamism within extrinsic space (Varnedoe and Gopnik 153). The visual principles underpinning the depiction of time and movement in the development of comics were a means of widening the creative possibilities of caricature unlike the Futurists who were repudiating the influence of the Renaissance in nineteenth century art. If we follow this logic, the use of panels as a means of sequencing is actually secondary to the duplication of the figure in negative space. Rodolphe Töpffer was influenced by English caricaturists whose work was very popular in early nineteenth-century magazines and newspapers (Kunzle, Töpffer 162). His “histoires en estampes” (stories in print or picture stories), in line with his training in caricature, exaggerated figures to witty, comic or satiric effect, but by placing these images in sequence he was credited with having invented a new narrative caricature (Kunzle Töpffer, 53). One of the distinguishing features of Töpffer’s work was the speed with which he drew, and this was manifest in the brevity of his drawing style. There was a “simplification of contour, isolation of essentials, use of rhetorical (or ‘telegraphic’) poses, reduction of background and accessory, and no Hogarthian subplots” (Kunzle, Töpffer 159). This speed of production is integral to the establishment of comic narrative and stylistic form. Caricature provided the necessary training in a style of drawing in which a minimal number of lines could describe a figure as well as give the reader some understanding of character, movement and intention. Furthermore, in caricature, and this is central to understanding the difference between Modernist painting and comics, the primary object of visual expression is the living and moving figure and not the framed or bounded surface of the canvas. Although there is a strong emphasis on the division of the page into discrete units, it was the figure rather than the panel that served as the starting point for the production of nineteenth century comics. In beginning with the figure, caricature creates an empty field of extrinsic space, and filling the canvas or panel is only a secondary consideration. It is a matter of creating the appropriate visual conditions in which a figure can act or move. This is why so many comic strips and caricatures have blank backgrounds in contrast with the tradition of painting, where the compulsion is to cover the entire picture plane. This difference in approach meant that the style of drawing in comics during the Modernist period did not readily lend itself to the experiments with simultaneity, abstraction, and intrinsic space conducted by many avant-garde artistic movements.

This is evident in the work of Lyonel Feininger, one of the few comic strip artists to also succeed as a Modernist painter. Feininger began his career as a caricaturist, then drew comics before finally devoting himself to abstract painting. As he adapted to each medium and current stylistic expectations, he significantly modified how he drew and painted the figure, space, form, and movement. In the caricatures, there was always a central figure who acted as the pivot for action. This figure was isolated from the background by placing them at the closest edge of the image, as well as increasing their size and exaggerating their gestures to indicate a capacity for movement. These principles were carried over to his American comic strips. In the promotional image for his The Kin-der-Kids (1906) on the front page of The Chicago Sunday Tribune, the artist draws himself as a puppeteer who dangles the strip’s characters from wires against a white and slate grey background (fig. 4). The figures are drawn using what Philippe Marion refers to as the ligne-contour style, where an outline clearly distinguishes the boundaries of objects, as well as creating inside and outside spaces (93). The ligne-contour, of which the most famous example is the ligne claire style of Hergé in his Tintin comics, fully delineates the figures such that they operate like “figurines” in the “théâtre de la case” [theatre of the panel] (Marion 95). Bill Blackbeard suggests that Feininger’s comic figures have a “carven-toy quality” and it is interesting to note that, during the First World War, he actually carved a series of figures which he placed against backdrops and photographed in various scenarios (4). The focus on discrete figures lends itself to a theatrical conception of space in which movement is conducted across the stage against a static theatrical setting, which is different to lived perception where our perspective continually changes in the course of action and movement. In The Kin-der-Kids most of the action occurs across the horizontal plane of the panel with the background resembling that of a stage. Most importantly, the background retreats from the figures and lacks all the qualities of intrinsic space. It is merely there to frame and contain the possible movement of the figures.

Figure 4

This is more accentuated in the second of Feininger’s comic strips for the TribuneWee Willie Winkie’s World (1906), a story in which the protagonist imagines that inanimate objects (houses, clouds, the sun) are actually living entities. The eponymous hero has the typical features of caricature with an oversized head and idiosyncratic costume. He dresses in primary colors—a black hat with a red or blue band, yellow hair, white tights, and a blue smock—which differentiates him from the soft toned backgrounds awash with secondary colors (oranges, greens). He is usually placed in the foreground where he is immediately recognizable by the oversized black hat and action is based on gesturing to objects in the background. Wee Willie Winkie is not attributed the gestural freedom of the characters in The Kin-der-Kids and this lays bare one of the prominent devices for giving the impression of movement in the early comic strip, foregrounded gestural variation. The character does not truly operate within the depth of the image but is rather duplicated in multiple panels as a figure against a background. In most of the strips Wee Willie Winkie remains in the foreground, in order to remain the primary object of visual attention, but is moved to different positions across the horizontal line. If he is positioned on the left in one panel, he might be positioned on the right in the subsequent panel (fig. 5). To increase the dynamism and to accentuate his gestures, he also carries objects, such as an umbrella, stick, and paintbrush. In viewing the strip, it is the repetition of the figure that directs the eye from one panel to the next and gives the reader the sense of time passing. There is no articulation of movement within intrinsic space, nor the dynamic moment of perceptual contraction, but rather a series of gestural moments set against the typically neutral extrinsic space of neutral background. The greater the emphasis on the foreground figure, as with El Lissitsky’s red and black squares, the more the background functions as intrinsic space.

Figure 5

Although Feininger is sometimes described as a comic artist whose comic work was informed by his career as an abstract painter, in fact he did not begin to exhibit as a painter until after he had ceased drawing comics (see Sabin, “Quote” 11). Furthermore, as he increasingly focused on his painting, he gradually eschewed many of the techniques for drawing movement and space that he had used in both comics and caricature. He first experimented with abstraction by varying the form of his caricatures in his work for satirical magazines such as Le Témoin (Luckhardt 19). The figures were still separated from the backgrounds but began to fill the whole of the pictorial space, and movement became a quality derived from the dynamic properties of perspective rather than simply from the translation of position. Ulrich Luckhardt argues that in drawings such as Exactitude (1907), Feininger sought to create, like the Futurists, the impression of “speed” but, due to his training in caricature, chose to elongate bodies across the diagonal plane rather than deploying divisionist techniques or focusing on “simultaneity” (19). Because movement was always transmuted through the caricatured figure, Feininger could easily translate the concept of movement as simultaneity into his painting. After 1909, although he still isolated figures against a background (using at times orange outlines to ensure their differentiation), Feininger developed a new form of dynamism through the repetition of figures with elongated and distorted bodies, linked together in common movement. In paintings such as Newspaper Readers (1909), Fin de Séance (1910) (fig. 6) and Uprising (1910), groups of figures lean in similar directions and in doing so invoke a type of movement that transcends the body and actions of any one figure. Due to this formal repetition, movement acquires a rhythmic form that ripples through the work and, doing so, transforms the extrinsic space surrounding individual bodies into intrinsic space. In these works, Feininger is working towards a general dynamism that infuses the whole of the canvas but does so through combining principles he learned through drawing comics and caricature with some of the visual ideas favored by Modernist painters.

Figure 6

It was only after increased exposure to the techniques of the avant-garde, including the work of the Cubists during 1911-12, that Feininger was able to fashion a dynamism in his painting that infused the whole of the work. Feininger’s paintings became increasingly abstract until his figures lost all specificity and became instead effects of light and color. The represented objects gained a much more plastic quality while the structural features of the background made their way into the foreground (Luckhardt 29-30). In these later works, movement is no longer contingent upon the narratorial and vectorial actions of figures in space but is rather an effect of intrinsic space, where the interaction of visual planes and aspects creates an overall rhythmic tension. Feininger’s creative progression demonstrates that even for an artist who crossed the divide between avant-garde painting and comics, the narrative and formal expectations of each medium required the application of different compositional methods but also different concepts of space and movement. There is a visual dynamism in caricature and comic strips that is structurally different to abstract painting and this relates to the placement of the figure in space rather than the panel sequence. To increase the dynamism of his work, Feininger initially exaggerated bodily features and gestures and focused on the contrasting positions of figures in his painting, but as he followed avant-garde abstraction, this dynamism was progressively invested in the micro-movements associated with interlocking planes and fields of light.

The comic’s conceptualization of space and movement is based on the isolation of the figure derived from caricature but, importantly, this is also linked to the act of reading. Reading and figuration are complementary because both require the recognition of legible units and the use of extrinsic space as a means of separating these units. The repetition of the figure is a visual beat that conditions the way the eye scans a comic strip page in a manner that is comparable to following words in a sentence. In many respects, comics resemble writing because they are usually prepared or presented to be read within a horizontal frame of reference whereas painting is usually designed to be displayed vertically on a gallery wall. In the act of painting, it is the easel that provides a mostly vertical platform for the preparation of the work—it slopes enough to allow ease of access to all aspects of the painting—whereas with comics the compositional platform is the flat surface of a table or the slight lean of a drawing board. There are examples where painters work on a horizontal surface, including Jackson Pollock’s large abstract expressionist works, but even so the structure of the image is organized around its vertical presentation. In regard to Modernist painting, Yve-Alain Bois argues that “Painting’s vertical section and completely covered surface were always opposed to the horizontal and diagrammatic space of writing” where the eye looks down upon a flattened space (Bois and Krauss 27). There were Modernist works that projected the horizontal space of writing onto the verticality of the canvas—notably Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning where the surface of the café table merges with the canvas and recreates the horizontality of the “written page”—but in general the focus is on the self-contained vertical picture plane (28). Comics undermine the Modernist conception of the unified visual surface by incorporating the process of reading into spectatorship.

The process of reading, like writing, describes a unidirectional movement across the picture plane’s horizontal line—in Western culture from left to right—that requires the reader to attend to particular parts of the image. Conversely, the movements associated with viewing the vertical surface of painting are not predetermined to the same degree. There are certainly differences between the left and right of a work and the value attributed to the base of the work when compared to its top—phenomenological differences associated with human movement, the constraints of viewing, gravity, sky versus ground, etc.—but they do not usually direct the gaze across the canvas and outside of the frame. The eye can scan a painting in a way that may be delimited by the spatial boundaries of the work but this action is not constrained by a particular writing or reading pattern. Furthermore, without a consistent reading direction, the time of aesthetic contemplation is unbounded and can be prolonged to reveal elements that were not revealed in the spectator’s initial glance (Atkinson, Movement 67). What this means is that the whole of the picture plane is potentially active and the space is unified, a form of intrinsic space, through the spectator’s continued engagement with the work. There is no compulsion implicit in the construction of the image to turn away and follow the unidirectional line of reading. In contrast, the comic book artist organizes space in such a way that the eye can traverse the panel and move on to the next. Peeters claims that Töpffer was the first to recognize the importance of reading direction when prints are arranged as a sequence, and therefore to understand the primary function of the comic or bande dessinée as a means “à convertir un espace en successivité” [to convert space into succession] (Peeters 57). This conversion, however, should not be understood only at the level of the page and its division into panels—in Töpffer’s M. Cryptogame album, for example, many of the panels are divided by little more than a vertical line—but by the repetition of easily recognizable figures that can be read as a sequence. The repetition of the figure, like the repetition of words, in extrinsic space is the primary condition for movement; the panel borders are just a means of formalizing this repetition. Feininger’s Wee Willie Winkie is not only placed in the foreground due to the conventions of caricature but because this directs the reader to his dark hat and isolated figure, the foregrounding serves as a structure through which the rest of the image is read. The extrinsic space of the character’s movement within the panel is duplicated at the level of reading the page, where the eye skips across background detail and panel divisions in its movement from one figure to the next. This is fundamentally different to avant-garde painting which brought all aspects, including negative space, into the foreground but also different to Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting, where extrinsic space was tied to the depth of the image.

The dynamism of comics depends in many respects on the speed by which the reader can ascertain the meaning of each panel, its legibility, and this involves specifying what the reader should look at within the image. The reader is not encouraged to peruse the whole image as in aesthetic contemplation, because this would retard the forward reading movement. While avant-garde painters were experimenting with the conditions of visuality, even those comic strip artists associated with the avant-garde were looking to develop a visual language that rendered movement and time intelligible. For example, Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s wordless strips for the avant-garde journal Le Chat Noir are drawn in such a way that the reader’s gaze is always attracted first to the figures in the image, with the background little more than a stage upon which they perform. The characters are effectively read in terms of their possible interaction. In “Outrage à la morale” from the series Flagrants délits (fig. 7), most action occurs in the foreground and this is reinforced in the first panel by the positioning of two police officers on the left, inked in black. The white figure located in the background soon takes his place in the foreground in the second panel and swaps position with the two police officers. The third and fourth panels describe the coming together of the black and white figures. The act of reading the panels—focusing only on points of meaningful action rather than the fully articulated space of each frame—is emphasized by the fact that there are no other figures present in the images and the background has a neutral grey tone—in the shadows, the facade of the buildings, and the street with its light hatching and cobblestones. The white and black figures are not placed before the dark tone of the night sky or the black building at the end of the street because this would diminish the speed at which they can be distinguished from the background.

Figure 7

Similar principles were operative in the wordless strips of Adolphe Willette in Le Chat Noir. Willette deployed a grey negative space upon which the actions of the black and white figures can be distinguished. In addition he removed detail from his background as a means of “isolating the mechanics of movement and enhancing the value of the silhouette, its semiographic base” (Kunzle, “Voices” 6). This separation of the figure of the protagonist through color contrasts, foregrounding and the reduction of backgrounds was a feature of many comics during this period. Nemo in McCay’s Little Nemo typically occupies the foreground and is easily identified with his white pajamas against a colored ground. In McCay’s black and white Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, the protagonist often wears a jet black jacket to distinguish him from the undetailed, outlined, or white backgrounds. In George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, the thickly outlined characters are placed against a mostly white ground and when the action occurs at night in a barren landscape, the sky might be black but the characters remain in the white foreground. Many panels have no borders or ill-defined boundaries and all that is shown is a character linked with a single object to give narrative meaning to the scene—Krazy sitting beneath palm tree, Ignatz holding a brick. The principle of legibility is more important in the construction of movement in these comic strips than the pictorial properties of perspective and depth, with the latter properties becoming more prominent in comics following the increase in the popularity of cinema. Placing an object in the foreground surrounded by empty visual space gives the comic image clarity because the figure stands out against the page as a sign to be read. The viewing movement between principle figures in the foreground is linked directly to reading, where each word is distinguished against the negative space of the white background. The comics have a dynamism but only because the speed of reading suppresses background detail—neutral and undetailed backgrounds—rather than due to the dynamic properties of the entire visual field.

This emphasis on the movement of bodies in space and the horizontal movement of reading distinguishes the comic strip from those Modernist paintings that investigate movement as sensory and dynamic oscillation. The movement in such paintings may be bounded by the duration of a depicted action, but there is no specified time of viewing or emphasis on completed movements. For example, in Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), there is no spectatorial traversal of the image such that it can be said that the dog and woman have moved from one position to another, rather the figures remain in a continuous present (fig. 8). The limbs of the dog oscillate back and forward to simulate movement rather than describe a trajectory. In the often cited example of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) there is certainly a clear line of movement down the staircase, however, there is still the oscillation of time within a continuous present but over a longer and slower cycle, where the nude descends only to redescend in Sisyphean perpetuity. For an even slower cycle, one need only turn to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23). In contrast, comic strips construct movement in such a way that an action is completed as soon as attention moves away from one panel to the next, and the time of attention is partially determined by the time it takes the reader to recognize the character’s gesture, as in caricature. Reading the comic is a relatively swift movement that is based on principles of visual legibility and is similar to the reading of text, where the reader passes from one word to the next as each is recognized (Atkinson, Pause 276-77). It is unlikely that most readers while reading a comic will pause for an extended period of time to contemplate a panel, and imagine the action beginning over and over again. The structure of the narrative, the use of captions, the foregrounding of figures, and the sequencing of speech balloons all operate in concert to reduce the likelihood that this will happen. This irreversibility of reading direction also means that there is a reduction of the degree to which the eye scans back and forth across the page creating its own oscillatory movement. Without it, movement cannot operate in an intrinsic, unitary, and simultaneous space.

Figure 8

In comic art, the guiding principle for the depiction of movement is to traverse the image, both in the act of reading and in following character movement. To use Philip Rawson’s expression, there is a privileging of “transverse sequences” that draw the eye across visual features (68). It is not a seeing-into the image but a seeing-across the image. At the level of the panel or in the reading of speech balloons this is fairly obvious, but what has been argued so far, is that it is a mode of seeing that is integrated into the image itself. It is so implicit that it informs the construction of each panel and is often only detectable when the comic images have been repurposed. This is evinced in the debate about the postmodern painter Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation of a number of comic panels. In an interview for the journal Eye, David Gibbons complained that insufficient recognition is given to commercial comic art and that art critics inordinately praise copies made in the interest of high art: “Roy Lichtenstein’s copies of the work of Irv Novick and Russ Heath are flat, uncomprehending tracings of quite sophisticated images […] the original artists have translated reality into clear, effective compositions using economical and spirited linework” (qtd. in Hughes, par. 5). Gibbons notes a fundamental stylistic difference between Lichtenstein’s works and the comics but does not explain the actual visual change, and only broadly refers to “uncomprehending tracings” (qtd. in Hughes, par. 5). Adam Gopnik gives a slightly fuller explanation when he notes that Lichtenstein removed much of the detail in the settings, simplified and removed hatching and crosshatching from parts of the body, kept only those elements that heightened the purity of the comic book style and enhanced the visual clichés (Varnedoe and Gopnik 199). This removal of detail streamlines the comic book style—the expression of emotion or the representation of a blast are more succinct—but what is not discussed in the literature is that Lichtenstein’s reworkings suppress the transverse sequences and reading direction immanent to the images. In Tony Abbruzo and Bernard Sach’s “Give me an hour” in Girl’s Romances (1962), there is a thought balloon in the top left hand corner which is diagonally linked to the figure of the girl in the center of the image; her eyes turn downward toward the bottom of the image and the figure of an alarm clock. The image is read from the top left to the bottom right and at the point the viewer’s gaze reaches the alarm clock, all the important narrative elements have been read and there is a cue to turn to the next image. In contrast, in Lichtenstein’s copy, Blonde Waiting (1964), there is no speech balloon and the woman gazes straight back at the viewer and not at the alarm clock. She is also framed by the yellow of her hair and objects surrounding her, and in this symmetrical composition there is no longer a clear reading direction or transverse sequence. Movement is suspended in a perpetual now—she is not waiting for something but simply waiting. This same loss of direction and transversal movement is evident in a number of other Lichtenstein works. In Drowning Girl (1963), Lichtenstein has kept a speech balloon but has removed the figure of Brad in the transposition of the Abruzzo image. In the comic, Brad is placed in the top left hand corner and is linked to the protagonist by a diagonal line that approximates the transverse sequence of reading. In Wham! (1963), one of the images to which Gibbons was most likely referring, the diagonal line of the plane, and the lines describing the trajectory of the missile, have been flattened out such that they align with the frame of the painting. With the removal of the speech balloon and the bringing forward of the plane, which was located in depth in the original image, there is reduction of the left to right movement of reading through a centralization of the visual space. The aim is no longer for the reader to traverse the image by reading key points in the action, but rather to hold the viewer’s attention in the presentness of a perpetual explosion.1 Irrespective of the use of comic devices, such as the speech balloon, there is difference in compositional orientation, reading direction, movement, time, and space in the Lichtenstein repurposings. This change in orientation is an effect of painting as a medium, in which time and movement after Modernism are conceptualized in a continuous present rather than as a transversal sequence.

Although this paper focuses on Modernism in comics and painting, this is only a platform for discussing some of the orientational differences between the media. In the Modernist era, both were linked to the concept of speed, either in the dynamic sensation of painting or the graphic dynamism of character movement in comics, but despite the ostensible similarities each responded to this culture of speed in a different way. Modernist painting sought to unite background and foreground in the intrinsic space of the pictorial plane as a general condition of movement. In doing so, it focused on the short durations inherent in vision and did not rely on the gestural capacities of human figures or the displacement of objects to give the impression of movement. Comics also explored the dynamism of movement, but this acceleration was derived from caricature where figures are isolated and reduplicated in the foreground. The gaze of the comic strip reader was not enticed into the depth of the image or asked to contemplate the structure of the whole but instead was gently pushed sideways across the horizontal plane. As such movement was dependent on extrinsic space in a manner that is comparable to the division of language into a series of words. Legibility is the basis for an increase in speed rather than abstract and formal dynamism, which was as much a feature of abstract comics as narrative comics. Indeed, Feininger changed how he conceptualized character movement, as a function of the foregrounded figure, in order to accommodate the dynamism of the avant-garde. These visual principles are not restricted to Modernism but refer to importance of caricature, the gesture, and the legible figure in understanding the particular dynamism of comics. This indicates a deeper logic of time and movement that operates within the image but outside of the most discussed feature, the sequence of panels. What the comparison between comics and avant-garde painting shows us is that it is possible to trace a different history of comics as a coming to terms with the expressive limits of extrinsic space.


[1] Readers can view both images at the MomaLearning site,

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