Monday, February 11, 2013

Formal rhythm in comics: the case of the B&V limerick

My last theory/formal analysis post was very long, so I'll try to keep this one brief.  Here is a five-page story from Archie's Girls Betty and Veronica no. 118, October 1965, probably scripted by Tom Ruth (according to the GCD), definitely penciled by Dan DeCarlo (who, I'm guessing, had a lot to do with the breakdown and the layout), and inked by DeCarlo's brother, Vincent, who was DDC's regular inker at the time.

(I added the cover to fill out the 3 x 2 grid, and because it's cool.)

Note the way the first, second, and last pages end on a similar panel:  with Betty getting splashed with water, from a passing car or boat.  And while this is necessary for the strip's comic timing, notice also the visual similarities between the panels, which, echoing each other (the only partially-seen vehicles all coming in from the right, the water splashing diagonally up and to the left), make very clear visual rhymes.  (The visual rhymes, interestingly, continue in the first panels of pages 2 and 3.) The intermediary section, pages 3 and 4, while not so obviously "rhyming," is distinguished from the other two pages by the predominance of the green of Veronica's clothes (as opposed to the blue of water, predominant in 1, 2, and 5), and also provides a kind of rhyme-like echo as each page ends with a panel of Veronica alone.  (Also, notice how the framing section resumes with the return of Betty:  each of the two protagonists is basically associated with one of the rhyming sections, and form comes to echo--or is it, control and guide?--content.)

This five page story has a very clear formal rhythm:  with an aabba rhyme scheme, with a change of tenor between the framing sections and the middle section, it has the structure of a limerick--though a visual one.  You may know about the OuLiPo, the literary movement that explores writing based on pre-determined constraints (taking, for example, its cue from early poetic forms such as the rondeau or the sestina); and you may have heard of its comics equivalent, the OuBaPo.  If not, as it happens, in the new issue of Words Without Borders, Matt Madden provides an introduction and translates some examples from the French.  (Scroll down.)  What's fascinating is that, without the benefit of such theory, DeCarlo and his associates achieved a similar formal rigor--and produced, as far as I'm concerned, some of the most visually compelling work of this kind.  (The piece I would most closely compare it to is Madden's own visual sestina, "The Six Treasures of the Spiral," in his comic A Fine Mess 2, from 2004).  Maybe it's time for the OuBaPo to enlist him as an honorary plagiarist by anticipation, alongside Verbeek, Spiegelman and the rest?  (I would also nominate Kirby, but that's a post for another time...)


  1. That is absolutely wonderful. I've wondered about the transferal of rhythm in my own studies, mostly when I've looked at graphic adaptations of Shakespeare's work. Thanks for this. Fascinating.

  2. I'm glad you like it! When you say "transferral of rhythm," do you mean from poetry (or literature) to comics? There are also comics that, to me, function almost like music--I mean, that's a general truth, but some have more specific clear musical forms. I'll have to write one one of those some day. As long as we're drawing such comparisons, I realized a while ago that Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" is in pretty correct (first-movement) sonata form. I don't know if that's intentional, or just refers to a kind of logical way of arranging a formal narrative...


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